Drought: The last straw

Reporter Alex Cullen shares his experience reporting on an issue that sits very close to home, drought devastation affecting Australia farmers.

I’m standing in a paddock littered with thirty dead cows.

The smell, well, I’m used to it now.

There are dead cattle, dead sheep, dead kangaroos and dying communities.

There have been many drought stories, but this one is personal.

That is a good and a bad thing.

Good because I understand what these families are going through.

Bad because it affects me and upsets me. How could it not?

One can only see so many dead and dying kangaroos by the sides of roads, meet so many farmers who are forced to shoot their livestock, and see so many hurting and starving cattle – some with days to live – and not be affected by it.

I grew up on a wheat and sheep farm near Coonamble, 550 kilometres north-west of Sydney.

Country people have survived droughts before but as my father said, this one is different.

This one is deadly and it’s caught people by surprise.

For years I watched my father look out at the sky through the kitchen window.

He’d stand and stare at another cloudless sky, bow his head and walk back to the table.

That was in the days before the internet.

Even now when the weather comes on the TV, I’m completely silent.

That’s the result of years of Dad barking at us kids to keep quiet as Mike Bailey delivered the good or bad news on the ABC every night.

Mostly it was bad.

Now a farmer can go mad looking at weather forecasts that you’d give anything to be right.

But promises of rain are quickly broken, and so on it goes.

I’m told that in a good year, the plains of Central Western Queensland are like the verdant grasslands of Ireland.

Now, it’s more like the back cement.

We come across an old Brahman cow that’s fallen to the ground and can’t get up.

I grab two bottles of water, pour them into my hat and walk up to her.

She doesn’t move because she can’t.

The old girl is too hungry, too tired, and too weak.

Her calf trots around us screaming for a drink but Mum can’t feed herself let alone her calf.

It’s so hot and she’s covered in ticks.

She won’t drink from the hat and tries to ward me off with a shake of her head.

This is just one cow.

We’re surrounded by countless others just like her suffering in silence.

Brian Egan knows farmers are suffering in silence too.

But, he’s doing everything he can to change it.

There is a weight on Brian’s shoulders that’s almost visible.

His shoulders hunch slightly forward and his head is down more than it’s up.

He’s constantly thinking of ways to help those farmers who are in his words ‘just buggered’.

After serving in Vietnam, the demons came home with him.

Brian tried to commit suicide twice.

Then, he and his family were forced off their farm in the last drought.

A psychologist told him the only way he could help himself was by helping others and so, 11 years ago, Aussie Helpers was born.

Brian tells me he’s never seen a worse drought, never seen so many farmers walking off the land and taking their own lives.

That’s the reality out here.

Farmers are getting in so deep there are no decisions, no options left anymore.

Some are taking an option that should never be considered and leaving others to deal with those same problems that can only be washed away by rain and lots of it.

Katrina Hodgkinson is the Member for Burrinjuck and New South Wales Minister for Primary Industries.

She has a quiet strength and her carefully measured demeanor is a rare thing in a politician shaped by a life on the land.

She knows the pain these farmers are suffering because her father went through the same thing.

David Hodgkinson was an adored father of three girls and a respected and admired woolgrower at Yass.

After several dry years at the turn of the century, Katrina started to notice some differences in her father.

He would soon be diagnosed with depression.

Killing sheep every day can do that to you.

Sheep you’ve bought and raised and cared for and can’t afford to feed anymore.

Family business pressures were mounting and the sky kept refusing to open.

Katrina found him in the woolshed.

His face was cold.

Katrina tells me everything went cold.

She sat in that woolshed and stared at his lifeless body.

That picture came back every time she closed her eyes for many months afterwards.

Now, when she meets drought-bitten farmers, she knows the signs and knows what to say.

She also misses her father, every day, all times of the day.

I have a fortnightly income.

Every second Wednesday my pay comes through and I have an email that tells me so.

I look in my bank account and there it is and then I spend it or put it towards my mortgage.

Now, imagine you work an 80 hour week, every day to the point of exhaustion.

You don’t have weekends off, or overtime or short lunches or long lunches.

You don’t stop work because it’s too hot or too cold and you often work alone without colleagues to help you through a tough day.

All this considered, now imagine you don’t get paid for any of it.

You don’t have an income and you haven’t for two years.

You’re borrowing money to feed your family and you could be for a third year.

Is it all worth it? Farmers aren’t so sure.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott visited drought affected areas two weeks ago at Bourke, Longreach and Broken Hill.

He happened to visit Bourke during a sudden downpour of rain.

And so ran the pictures of Tony Abbott jumping puddles and scrambling for shelter.

We saw our Prime Minister soaked to the bone, squelching through mud and dashing to the car.

TV newsrooms deemed them ‘good pictures’ and it looked like good rain.

The drought was over! What were these farmers whingeing about?!

We could not be more wrong.

Visit that area now and you’d hardly know it rained.

It was a cruel taunt and a sick joke.

A sudden 10 minute downpour doesn’t wipe away two years of drought.

Ten days of solid rain would suffice but it’s soaking rain that may never come.

Farmers don’t want sympathy.

I know my father doesn’t.

This is simply about recognition.

Farmers want you to know what’s happening west of the divide.

They want you to look at that piece of steak sitting on your plate and think about where it has come from and what’s gone into that medium-rare scotch fillet with pepper sauce.

The ‘whingeing farmer’ is no longer.

As one farmer told me: “We’re sick of the red tape and we’re tired of asking the Government for help. We’re like a Chihuahua nipping at a bull’s back”.

Now, it’s about survival.

The history of government drought relief is a long and sordid one.

No one’s been able to get it right.

The recent announcement of a $324 million drought assistance package is good and welcome news.

It’s short term relief for what is a long term problem.

Last year was Australia’s hottest year on record.

We can expect more droughts, more often and that will mean more help.

We just have to ask ourselves how much we care.

I’d like to think a lot.


Reporter: Alex Cullen

Producer: Alex Hodgkinson