Farmers on WA’s south coast are experiencing some of the driest times on record and fear they will run out of water if it doesn’t rain soon.
For about 200 farmers on the coastal strip between Albany and Hopetoun, about 500 kilometres south-east of Perth, this year will be remembered as one of the toughest.
Amid a positive outlook for most of the state’s grain growers and the harrowing stories of drought from the eastern states, some farmers feel they have been forgotten.
Two months until water runs dry
Tony Griffiths, who has a property south of Jerramungup in WA’s Great Southern, said if significant summer rains did not arrive, his farm would run out of water in two months.
“At this time of the year we’re usually running 3,000 sheep and at this stage, we’re running 1,500 and I’ll be getting rid of another half of them come January,” Mr Griffiths said.
“There are some farmers around here now that just about have no water, even house water.
It’s not just sheep enterprises feeling the impact of this year’s season, with harvest underway and yields about 80 per cent lower than his average.
Neighbouring farmer Daniel Hannig, who runs a cropping enterprise across three properties around Gairdner, said one of his farms had only received 150 millimetres of rain this year, and its canola crop had delivered just 150 kilograms per hectare.
“I’ve never gone below [700 kilograms per hectare], so it has been a bit of a shock,” Mr Hannig said.
But at another of Mr Hannig’s properties just 15 kilometres away, 270 millimetres had been recorded for the year.
“It’s just the luck of the draw where the rain has fallen,” he said.
Mr Hannig said he had never seen a season like this, having farmed in the region all his life.
Defining a drought
The responsibility of a declaration usually falls to the State Government, and aside from a severe water scarcity, there is no objective definition of a drought.
Prior to national drought reform in 2013, exceptional circumstances were a trigger for drought assistance.
These circumstances must be rare, in the sense that they do not occur more than once in 20 to 25-year period.
Mr Griffiths’ rainfall records, which date back to 1966, show this year is his driest on record, and Mr Hannig’s records suggest the same rarity.
However, WA’s government has not drought declared any part of the state since 1989, when drought was removed from the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements, losing its recognition as a natural disaster.
Recognising it as such was seen to distort farm input prices and remove the incentive for farmers to prepare for drought.
A spokesperson from the Department of Primary Industries said it would “continue to monitor seasonal conditions”.
“A drought declaration is not required in order to access assistance measures which are in place on an ongoing basis,” the spokesperson said.
“There is, however, a water deficiency declaration process which can occur at a shire level.”
Other assistance options include the Farm Household Allowance from Centrelink and access to Farm Management Deposit and WA’s Country Women’s Association recently made $5,000 vouchers available for struggling farmers.
No declaration in sight
Mr Griffiths said the situation in his region warranted a drought declaration.
“We couldn’t go two years in a drought here, because we would be out of water and all our stock would be gone,” he said.
But the dry spell is not the only thing confronting farmers, with the region having been battered with several wind erosion events brought on by 80 kilometre-per-hour gusts.
In May, farmers living beside the Stirling Ranges were affected by a bushfire that burnt through about 17,000 hectares.
In September, some crops were damaged by a major frost that swept across the region.
Despite all of this, farm lobby group WA Farmers Federation (WAFarmers) has not called on the State Government to act.
Mr York said WA was better at dealing with climate volatility.
“Farmers are good managers so I think there’s a lot of history there, they know what they need to do and generally they are well and truly advanced with their plans by this time of the year if they’ve had a poor season,” he said.
WAFarmers was yet to re-open the agistment register for farmers seeking paddocks to hold their stock through summer.
However, Mr York said the group would consider it in the coming weeks.
Remembering forgotten farmers
Mr Hannig said he did not want a handout, all he wanted was a bit of acknowledgement.
“You’re farming, and you know you’re having a tough year, and all you’re hearing in the media is how good WA is and how bad NSW is,” he said.
Chair of the Rural Financial Counselling Service in WA Julian Krieg said the plight of the farmers had flown under the radar.
“Everyone has been talking about what a good season WA is having and I’m talking nationally, but I’m also talking WA,” he said.
“When you’re hearing about all this good news and you’re hearing about all the good things that are happening for farmers on the east coast that are in drought, it must be a bit disconcerting to be living down there and think that nobody cares about you.”
Mr Krieg said it was important for farmers to talk to their bank, their financial adviser and their mates to get through the dry.