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Australia - Farmers in distress as devastating drought enters its sixth year

Almost five years after drought was last officially declared in Queensland, two-thirds of the state, or 120 million hectares, is in the grip of a dry so long and grinding that many who can afford to have forgotten it even exists.

At the end of last year, 35 council areas in the state remained wholly drought declared — some since April in 2013 — affecting thousands of beef and sheep ­stations, farms and other agricultural businesses.

Take Audrey Stone, a beef ­cattle property in Queensland’s central-west. It would be easy, owner Brett Wehl says, to sit back and believe it is the driest place on the continent.

The Wehl family homestead, about 40km northwest of Barcaldine, sits among a flat moonscape filled only with choking acacia bushes and tumbleweeds. The 6070ha property has run about 1000 head of cattle in the past but there are just 20 on it now.

Others have it worse, some have it better, but playing that game will drive a person mad, Mr Wehl says.

At the end of last year, precisely two-thirds of Queensland remained drought-declared with much of this officially in drought for four years and counting.

The state government has handed out $140m in drought assistance in that time. The proportion of the state affected has fallen from 87 per cent at the beginning of last year but thousands of farmers and graziers are still in its grip.

The public has largely moved on, however, and families have been left behind to eke out an existence in the regions.

“The conditions aren’t tough, they’re dire,” Meat and Livestock Australia managing director Richard Norton told The Australian.

“Droughts in Australia, it is rare that they go on for more than four years but a lot of these people are in their fifth and sixth year.

“Beef prices have recovered and are quite high, which must be devastating for those who are still in drought.”

The Bureau of Meteorology, too, in its 2017 climate snapshot heralded a return to above-­average rainfall across the nation. The Wehl family has another property at Hughenden about 40,500ha of which is where cattle are raised before being fattened at Audrey Stone. But the chain has broken now in the harsh conditions.

“You can get really depressed with the drought out here; I just have dirt on some parts of this place,” Mr Wehl, 48, told The ­Australian.

“The further you go down this road, the drier it gets.

‘‘Back up the other way, they get more rain than we do. But you just can’t mope around and feel sorry for yourself.” The weather out here displays, to graziers, a ­degree of capriciousness.

Where one property can be soaked in a good storm the very next door neighbour can go without.

Around Winton, 287km northeast of Barcaldine, locals complain about a sort of atmospheric quirk which cleaves storms in two and guides them around the town.

Audrey Stone had a total of 104mm of rain last year, most of it in October. Its average rainfall is 407mm.

“We are only coping because we have the off-farm income. I don’t know how we’d survive without it,” Naomi Wehl, 39, said. That income, a bore-drilling business which Mr Wehl runs, takes him away from the property and the couple’s three children for weeks at a time.

“I’m never here, I’m always on the drilling rig,” Mr Wehl said.

Perversely, when drought bites the family farm business picks up a little on the drilling rig. But ­pockets, like bores, only go so deep.

“For those who inherited a property with little debt, they don’t need much to live on,” he said.

“But if you do have a debt you have to run pretty hard just to stay in front of the bank manager.”

The drought hit in 2013, which gave the Wehls three good years of running cattle after they ­purchased Audrey Stone in 2010.

“A lot of people went broke after the (2011) live export cattle ban, they couldn’t give their cattle away at that point,” Mr Wehl said.

While families on the land do it tough, so do the regional towns that anchor the properties in the west.

“The numbers at the school in Barcaldine have dropped, businesses in Longreach have closed,” Mrs Wehl said.

“I went to the Sunshine Coast for a few weeks and people were complaining about the rain. That really made me mad. I went to a Pet Barn and a charity person asked if I could spare $2 ‘to help our farmers in the drought’.

“I said ‘I am one.’ It’s nice to see that, but the majority of people have no idea how bad it is and I find that kind of sad.”

The Queensland Farmers’ Federation has called on the new state government to axe the stamp duty on agricultural insurance, ­including crop insurance, after Victoria and NSW recently did the same thing.

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