FEATURE - Australian Farms Gleam as Rain Washes Away Drought
Author: Michael Byrnes
"Look at this. Every possible plant has come up," says Donges, his boot sweeping green growth from the sodden earth. "We're getting rain every three days. It is just amazing. Famine to feast."
After the worst drought in a century, rains have arrived in Australia's prime eastern wheat districts just in time for planting.
Dustbowl paddocks are now soaking and tinged green as crops, frantically sown in the last few weeks, begin to emerge.
As front after front of low black clouds roll in from the west, bringing mists and dense rain, farmers say Australia's weather cycle looks to have moved out of drought for the first time since 2001.
"My farmer's gut feel is that we're seeing a significant change in the weather pattern and coming out of the drought cycle," says Donges, a leading wheat grower in the Cowra region, 300 km (185 miles) west of Sydney.
Australia is the driest inhabited country in the world at the best of times, but in recent years it has been hit with an intense drought which began in 2001, appeared to break in 2003, but then returned to threaten winter crop planting in the east.
The drought forced Australia to ration its world-class wheat exports in 2002/03, triggered a mass slaughter of cattle and sheep, forced thousands of farmers off the land and pushed many others to the brink of ruin.
A dried-out major dam near Cowra, population 10,000, is a symbol of the tenacity of this drought. But, finally, farmers have a crop in the ground and some cause for hope.
"There's such a different pattern to the rain this year than in the last couple of years. Let's hope it's a sign that it has turned around," farmer Chris Groves says.
Like most farmers in the district, Donges has received 18 cm (7 inches) of rain since the first significant falls on June 11, after months without a drop through the planting season.
"From virtually no rain to at least 12 rain events in a month," says Donges.
More rain is needed to ensure a crop, but Australia seems set to produce enough wheat in the growing year to next March 31 to remain the second-biggest wheat exporter in the world, in stiff competition with the world leader, the United States.
Until it rained on June 11, the crop was shrinking towards the low-level 10 million tonnes produced in the 2002/03 drought year but estimates now are for a crop of around 23 million tonnes, not far off record tonnages.
Groves says it is the best start to a season since 1998.
After waiting for months to plant, farmers turned hyperactive when rain finally fell.
Groves began to plant the day after the first fall, working two tractors lit with halogen floodlights throughout the nights until 3 a.m., taking a break then starting work again at 7 a.m. He and a station hand sowed 900 acres (364 hectares) in 13 days.
Paddocks around Cowra blazed with lights night after night.
Donges trails a line of grain feed from a bin towed behind his four-wheel drive, which battles to grip the muddy land. A mob of sheep ambles over, in stark contrast to their starving rush to the feed a month before.
"They're not in panic mode now," he says. The grain is now a supplement, to top up pasture feed, instead of the survival rations of a few weeks ago.
Nearby, Groves' livestock feed bill has fallen to A$350 ($263) a week from A$1,000 a few weeks ago. The rain is worth A$150,000-A$200,000 to Groves in winter crops.
"There's an awful lot of money been saved," he says.
To the west, on the edge of the outback, the rain arrived just in time to save many farms from total, final collapse.
But you do not have to go far to see the enduring power of this drought, which was triggered by an El Nino condition in the Pacific caused by abnormal sea temperatures.
Thirty-five km (20 miles) out of town, Wyangala dam, which serves Cowra and a string of other mid-western towns, is down t