Life on dry land for next farming generation

 

WHEN the windscreen wipers on Peter and Kathleen Holcombe's ute sprang to life on a trip to Sydney late last year, the couple's children, Eve, 3, and Finn, 2, went into meltdown.

The Holcombes live 40km east of Walgett in the state's north, an area hit so hard by drought that the kids had never seen windscreen wipers in use before.

"There was a lot of shouting and squealing coming from the back seat," Kathleen said.

"The kids didn't know what was going on."

 

Little Eve Holcombe, is the human face of the worst drought to hit NSW farmers in more than 100 years.
Little Eve Holcombe, is the human face of the worst drought to hit NSW farmers in more than 100 years. Sam Ruttyn

West of the Great Dividing Range, once lush farms are blistered and barren. Farmers walk through fields of dying livestock, families are selling off starving animals, and many are using depleted savings to buy feed from interstate.

The calamity hitting these towns - from Walgett to Parkes, from Tamworth to Broken Hill - has been felt before, in 2015 and 2006 when the Millennium Drought ­reduced these regions to a dust bowl.

Sheep on the Holcombe property, who are battling their driest spell in decades. Picture: Sam Ruttyn
Sheep on the Holcombe property, who are battling their driest spell in decades. Picture: Sam Ruttyn

But even against those disasters, this drought stands out. Large parts of NSW are in the midst of the driest 14 months since record-keeping began in 1900, a spokesman for the Bureau of Meteorology said.

 

 

Peter Holcombe, 32, with his daughter Eve, 3, and son Finn, 2, at their dry farm near Walgett. Picture: Sam Ruttyn
Peter Holcombe, 32, with his daughter Eve, 3, and son Finn, 2, at their dry farm near Walgett. Picture: Sam Ruttyn

In areas like Walgett, farmers have gone 665 days since their last decent rainfall.

And their plight is largely unseen. Despite withering crops, the state government has not made a "drought declaration" since 2013, a move that would immediately ­relieve pressure by delivering ­urgently needed financial assistance.

"This area has always been good cropping country," said Walgett Shire mayor Ian Woodcock. "But right now it's the driest it's ever been. Roads are like talcum powder."

Mothers' groups and local not-for-profits are cancelling regular catch-ups because families don't have time to spare. On the Holcombes' 6900ha property, fields of wheat and 1.5m high canola have given way to a ravaged landscape where nothing grows.

The sight of a dead and dying sheep is routine enough for the children to be left unaffected.

"There's another sick one," said toddler Eve of a dying animal, as she and her father took The Sunday Telegraph on a tour of the property.

"I grew up here and ideally my kids will grow up here as well," Mr Holcombe said. "But that gets more and more uncertain the longer the drought goes on."

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Their story is typical of farming families in the region. The Hol­combes' property, Coorallie, is owned by Peter's parents, John and Terry Holcombe, who live in the homestead while Peter, 32, and Kathleen, 35, rent a house nearby.

Using funds from a bumper 2016 harvest of wheat, barley, chickpeas, fava beans and canola, Peter paid down his debts, bought some new equipment, and planned to build his own family home.

What no one foresaw, however, was the drought to come. Cattle that used to run all over have been sold to pay down Mr Holcombe's mounting debts. He's also halved his 4000-strong sheep flock, many of them breeding stock which he will need to rebuild once the drought breaks.

The Holcombes lived and ran their business on a bank overdraft between 2013 and 2015. The bumper harvest in 2016 was lucrative enough for the family to pay back their loans but there wasn't any change, so when the drought hit again in 2017 the Holcombes went straight back into debt.

On the other side of Walgett, 56-year-old James Foster, a sixth-generation farmer, is one of many clinging on.

His farm is located in what used to be the state's most productive regions, an area between Walgett, Dubbo and Broken Hill that annually produced more than $400m worth of wheat, $300m worth of cattle, and $250m worth of wool.

Today, however, Mr Foster spends his days trying to keep his animals alive, patrolling his 13,300ha property to bulldoze mulga trees so his sheep can feed straight off the branches.

"I've been here my whole life and this is the worst I've seen it," Mr Foster said.

This week he plans to drive into Central Queensland just to buy hay and bring it home himself to avoid prohibitive freight costs.

James Foster, pictured with his pet sheep ‘Prince’, has been on his farm for 56 years but is getting ready to sell. Picture: Sam Ruttyn
James Foster, pictured with his pet sheep ‘Prince’, has been on his farm for 56 years but is getting ready to sell. Picture: Sam Ruttyn

He'll undertake the trip despite an impending court date challenging a licence suspension, which he ­received during his last hay run - he had allegedly flouted new trucking rules preventing a person from driving more than 15 hours a day.

The drought is having a wide flow-on effect, forcing some rural businesses to cut back shifts or, in some cases, lay off staff. The co-owner of Duncan & Duncan, a farm machinery dealership, said busin­esses in town had taken the same hit to their bottom line.

"My business, like most in town, is directly related to farming and while there's no rain, tractors aren't moving and don't need servicing and people aren't real keen on buying new kit if they can't see a crop coming in," Paul Duncan said.

The D. and G. Lane grain trucking company has been forced to drastically cut shifts for its drivers. "I simply can't give my drivers any work," David Lane said.

According to Mr Lane, every business in Walgett has either laid off workers or frozen new hiring.

He's worried the unemployed will leave town and never return.

"Country people are resilient but everyone here's depressed, which is to be expected when you're living under extreme fin­ancial pressure month after month, year-in, year-out," he said.



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