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Postie's candid photos taken years apart reveal town ravaged by drought

·News and Video Producer
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On her daily postie run Jenny Hillman has seen first-hand how the biggest dry spell since 1873 has affected her community

Her striking images capture before and after scenes of paddocks failing and waterholes drying up in Stanthorpe, 200km southwest of Brisbane.

A photo taken in 2017 shows a dam full of water, a photo taken in 2019 shows a dry dam
Photos of the same Stanthorpe dam taken in January 2017 and July 2019. Source: Jenny Hillman

“I haven’t experienced anything like this before,” she told Yahoo News Australia.

Stopping for a chat over the fence, Ms Hillman revealed she has witnessed the heartbreak of farmers seeing their dreams turn to dust.

With water reserves predicted to run dry by Christmas, the Queensland community is hanging on tight to the one thing they have – hope.

The Severn River is full of water and then empty.
The once mighty Severn River in 2017 and then again in 2019. Source: Jenny Hillman
Contrasting photos taken in 2017 and 2019 show the impact of the drought in Stanthorpe. Source: Jenny Hillman
Contrasting photos taken in 2017 and 2019 show the impact of the drought in Stanthorpe. Source: Jenny Hillman

‘Nowhere else for them to go’

As Ms Hillman travels the area, locals such as Ballandean cattleman Warren Thomas share their stories with her.

“He just couldn’t get water for his cattle and most of them were in calf,” she said.

“So he was going to have to send them to market and he didn’t like that at all. He was really upset.”

 A cattle dog stands in the back of a ute, while cattle stand in a bare paddock.
There is nothing left in the paddocks for cattle to eat. Source: Warren Thomas

Mr Thomas told Yahoo News Australia he had to sell his cows off at half their value, but with his dams running dry keeping them wasn’t an option.

“There’s nowhere else for them to go. Everyone is in the same situation as we are,” he said.

At home, his family are reliant on tank water, so his kids are restricted to short showers and there is little water left to wash clothing.

“Last year, we’d take washing to my mother in Stanthorpe, but now the town is on water restrictions too.

Before and after photos of a paddock show rich grass and then a dry, dirty field.
Photos taken in 2017 and 2019 of the same paddock show the extent of the drought. Source: Jenny Hillman

While the situation is dire, Mr Thomas isn’t one to wallow in self pity, instead he feels for the dairy farmers who are doing it tougher than him.

“They milked their cows in the morning, and sent them off to sale the next day for the meat works, because they couldn’t afford to keep them,” he said.

Older farmers consider their future

While generations of the region’s farmers have been through extreme weather situations, this drought is the worst in living memory.

Bernie Brosnan, the coordinator at Warwick Saleyards, told Yahoo News Australia conditions have forced some ageing farmers to sell off their whole herds.

“The average age of farmers is quite high, so something like this at this end of your life takes a high toll,” he said.

An empty, bare, dusty paddock.
Paddocks that once fed cattle are bare due to drought. Source: Warren Thomas

Mr Brosnan has seen a fifty per cent jump in cattle being auctioned, with drought-affected cattle fetching well below $250 a kilogram that healthy cattle sell for.

“Anything that’s in poor condition or drought condition, if they’re making 40 or 50 cents a kilo they’re probably doing very well,” he said.

A trail of dust blows behind a tractor in a dry field.
A farmer ploughs a field of dust. Source: Jenny Hillman

Driest period since 1867

Blair Trewin, Senior Climatologist at the Bureau of Meteorology, told Yahoo News Australia Stanthorpe hadn’t experienced significant rain since December last year.

“There’s been 119mm of rain for the first six months of the year, which is only about one third of the long-term average,” he said.

The Stanthorpe region has experienced drought for two years. Source: Bureau of Meteorology
The Stanthorpe region has experienced drought for two years. Source: Bureau of Meteorology

While there were no “clear cut causes” for the dry spell, Mr Trewin said climate change was responsible for more rain in summer and less in winter across eastern Australia.

“Summer rainfall is generally not as effective as winter rainfall,” he said.

Farmers struggle through a stressful period

Vegetable farmer Chris Haynes is troubled that he cannot give his five permanent workers the job security they need to stay in town.

Even more pressing for the wider business community, would be if there were no fruit or vegetables to pick for the thousands of seasonal workers that migrate through the town during in summer.

Workers in a shed pack boxes of capsicums.
Vegetable farmer Chris Haynes employs up to 150 workers during peak season. Source: Jenny Hillman

Speaking to Yahoo News Australia, he expressed concerns about the mental toll the drought is having on his community.

“The frame of mind or the stress it puts on families would be massive,” he said.

“Farmers will put on a brave face and they’ll have a chat about it, but not go into the details about how much financial strain and personal pressure they’re under.”

A young boy stands in a large dry river.
Chris Hayne's son, Charlie Haynes stands in the bone dry Severn River. Source: Chris Haynes.

He believes the key factor driving stress is not being able to plan for the future.

“Until those clouds open there’s too much uncertainty,” he said.

“We all like waking up and knowing we’re getting to a job.

“Want to do productive work, doing jobs that need doing but at the end of the day a lot of growers are in limbo.”

A young boy stands on a rock that forms part of a riverbed.
Charlie Haynes hopes for rain. Source: Chris Haynes

Hope remains despite the record-breaking drought

Despite the uncertainty, both Chris Haynes and Warren Thomas share in the optimism that the Stanthorpe region will pull through.

Mr Haynes, like other farmers in the area, has experienced his fair share of extreme weather.

“You can have a belter of a hailstorm and lose everything overnight so we are resilient to it,” he said.

Mr Thomas agrees, “Droughts have always broken before”.

Farm workers wearing orange jackets pick fruit in lush fields.
Backpackers working in lush fields before the drought. Source: Jenny Hillman

Mr Haynes believes farmers in the Stanthorpe region have a particular resilience.

“Growers have had to rebuild overnight, so that probably puts the growers in a confident position to say we’ve done this before,” he said.

Solution has community “up in arms”

Many farmers are spooked by rumours that the local council is planning to spend $1 million on hauling in water to prop up the town’s water supply and pass a levy onto the community.

Ms Hillman said the proposal has got “ratepayers up in arms”.

A spokesperson for Southern Downs Regional Council assured Yahoo News Australia that they would only take this step as an “absolute last resort”.

Stanthorpe mail contractor and her dog Barry. Source: Jenny Hillman
Stanthorpe mail contractor Jenny Hillman and her dog Barry. Source: Jenny Hillman

A number of Stanthorpe residents see the long-term solution as being a large dam at Emu Swamp.

Some farmers have offered money to get the project off the ground, but by Mr Haynes’ reckoning, there has been talk about the dam for 20 to 25 years and ground has yet to be broken.

“You want to say to people when it rains we’ll be back on track. But, you can only keep that face on for so long,” he said.

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