'New hope': Incredible photos show NSW bouncing back from drought

Doug Johnston has lived in Inverell in northern NSW his whole life and he had never seen it as dry as it was back in 2019.

In 1978, he bought a farm just north of the town, and he and his wife Ruth have lived there since they married in 1981.

It's hard to fathom that just over two years ago, communities in NSW were relying on bottled water and veteran farmers were forced to close properties which had been in their families for generations.

Like many in NSW, Mr and Ms Johnston were afflicted by drought in 2019, the water dried up in the creek and the land on their farm was barren, no longer green, the two were forced to ration their supplies.

Pictured is Ruth and Doug Johnson's farm at the start of 2020 on the left and in October 2021 on the right
Ruth and Doug Johnston's farm in northern NSW saw a drastic transformation from 2019 (left) to 2021 this year (right) after the rain came. Source: Supplied/Fiona Margery

Two years on, side-by-side images of the farm back in January 2020 and October this year, show just how bad the drought was for the Johnston's.

"It was depressing to see it getting drier and drier, day after day," Ms Johnston told Yahoo News Australia.

"The air was full of dust and smoke. We had dust storms from out west, and local dust as the hot winds blew away the bare paddocks."

Pictured is children on the barren farm in 2020.
The farm just north of Inverell was left dry when the rain stopped. Source: Supplies/Fiona Margery
Pictured is the same area of the farm, with green grass growing abundantly in 2021.
In 2021, the Johnston's farm has recovered following the drought. Source: Supplied/Fiona Margery

She said catastrophic bushfires were all around them, though, "thankfully" none reached their property line.

Trees the couple had planted, both old and young, died, as the creek dried up and the river stopped flowing, they were left with a series of waterholes.

"To me the biggest issue wasn’t about emotions but the daily grind of rationing out our stored grain and hay to feed the sheep," Mr Johnston recalled.

He said the sun was so intense, it burned and cooked the power leads and water hoses, and almost melted them.

Pictured is the dry farm with dirt where the grass should be in 2020
Ruth Johnston said watching the farm get "drier" by the day made her depressed. Source: Supplied/Fiona Margery
Pictured is the same area in 2020, with grass stretching across the property.
Ruth Johnston said it was a "relief" when the rain came at the start of 2020. Source: Supplied/Fiona Margery

"I had to replace electrical wires in the shearing shed because the insulation was cooked by the heat and fell off, leaving bare wires," he said.

"Not good! I also had two near misses with a tractor and a truck with melted wires. Fortunately smoke but no flames."

Mr Johnston said the droughts in 1965 and 1994 were bad, but 2019 was the worst.

"When you go from a yearly average of about 760mm down to 259mm nothing is able to survive," he said.

"Even 150-plus-year-old box trees that are designed to withstand anything because they have a big lignotuber could not survive."

Pictured in this photo from 2020 is the sheep on the farm, standing in the dry paddock.
Doug Johnston had to ration grain and hay to feed the sheep during the drought. Source: Supplied/Fiona Margery
Pictured is the full creek and greenery in October 2021.
Now, the farm is flourishing. Source: Supplied/Fiona Margery

Back in 2019, Yahoo News Australia interviewed Elizabeth McArthur, Mr and Ms Johnston's daughter, who said at the time, her then-four-year-old son could not remember the sound of rain.

Ms McArthur's dam on her family's property, also near Inverell, was completely dry.

"As well as financial suffering, there is a feeling of helplessness," Ms McArthur previously said.

"Looking out the window and seeing nothing but dead grass, dry paddocks and scorched earth makes a hard situation so much worse.”

"New hope" as rain came

The comparison images were shared by Fiona Margery, Mr and Ms Johnston's daughter, to Facebook and they left her parents shocked.

"It was a shock to see the photos side by side. Even though we had lived through the drought it’s hard now to remember just how dry it was," Ms Johnston said.

Mr Johnston said he had forgotten how "bare, barren, sparse and dry" their farm was during the drought.

It was a "wonderful relief" when the rain finally came, Ms Johnston said.

"New life and hope come with the rain," she said.

"It affects the mood of the whole town — you can feel the optimism coming back. We look around now and feel thankful for the abundant green, the growing crops and the thriving livestock."

Pictured on the left is children playing in the dirt amid the drought in 2019 and the same area in 2020, with water flowing in the creek and grass all around.
The comparison photos taken by Ruth and Doug's daughter Fiona show how the farm has regenerated with the rain. Source: Supplied/Fiona Margery

The couple said they have had one of their best seasons ever — with the sheep thriving and lambs growing up, fed with abundant amounts of feed and the crops are "looking good".

"This year, 2021, we have had 849mm and will likely get close to 1000 by the end of the year," Mr Johnston said.

"Our rainfall just for March this year was 258mm – almost the same as the total for 2019!"

Ms Margery said she and her husband met in 2006, and he had never seen permanent water in the creek, as it would usually dry up quickly after the rain.

Now, a picture from 2021 shows the creek is abundant with water.

Pictured is the full creek in 2021.
The creek on Ruth and Doug's farm is now full with permanent water. Source: Supplied/Fiona Margery

Rain brings erosion, then dreaded mouse plague

Ms Johnston added when the rain started in early 2020, the memories of the drought began to fade away, though with the rain, came erosion, at first due to the lack of grass cover.

The bigger problem was the soil had become hydrophobic, Mr Johnston said, explaining it repelled water and was told "soil microbes coat the soil particles with a water repellent layer".

"We had soil going downhill fast during the first big rain," he said.

Pictured is the dried up paddock on Ruth and Doug's farm back in 2020.
The drought completely dried up all the grass on Ruth and Doug's farm. Source: Supplied/Fiona Margery

"After about two weeks the coating layers broke down and then the water soaked in, the grass sprouted and covered the ground and the Big Dry was over and gone."

At the start of 2020, a global pandemic was declared, though Ms Johnston admitted the farm is an "ideal" place to live amid an outbreak and for lockdown, as work goes on as normal.

However the mouse plague earlier this year was "terrible" and the rodents were "everywhere".

"Baiting them is expensive, and then there is the inescapable stench of thousands of dead mice," she said.

Pictured is the green and rejuvenated paddock on Ruth and Doug's farm in 2021.
The rain did lead to some erosion initially, though after a while the ground recovered. Source: Supplied/Fiona Margery

Farmers lose crops in floods

Surviving drought and then bushfires, now some farmers have been hit by floods from this week's heavy rain.

Farmers in NSW's central west are fearing mass crop losses after flooding rains hit the region, with thousands of acres of crops underwater.

In Cowra, Ed Fagan says 600 acres of his property, Mulyan Farm, which runs along the Lachlan River, is now flooded.

"We've got a lot of country that was inundated and a lot of crop that was ready to harvest that are now a write off," Mr Fagan told AAP.

"We've got crops that have been good as we've grown for 10 years or more that have been submerged and turned into a lake."

He says water levels on his farm are already half a metre higher than the major flood of 2016.

The flood five years ago is estimated to have cost the area more than $200 million in lost agricultural output.

How to support farmers through drought

Mr Johnston said combined state and federal water infrastructure grants were most helpful throughout the drought, while Ms Johnston said it was encouraging to see support from the city.

"A church in Sydney sent money to be distributed among needy farmers in our church," she said.

"Less helpful were comments from people saying farmers are always looking for handouts, or should prepare better for droughts."

The Johnson's were touched by the support farmers received from people in  major cities. Source: Supplied/Fiona Margery
The Johnston's were touched by the support farmers received from people in major cities. Source: Supplied/Fiona Margery
Supporting famers through a drought is important, there are several organisations which give supplies directly to those who need them. Source: Supplied/Fiona Margery
Supporting famers through a drought is important, there are several organisations which give supplies directly to those who need them. Source: Supplied/Fiona Margery

She said there were several organisations who helped farming communities, like Rapid Relief Team, Blaze Aid and CWA, adding rural counsellors and mental health support is also important.

She said there were also many organisations who donated and transported hay to farmers in need and Buy from the Bush was helpful at supporting small country businesses.

Mr Johnston said combined state and federal water infrastructure grants were most helpful throughout the drought.

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