Poor water policy to blame for drought: farmers

By Sophie Baldwin

Drought can bring a man and his business to their knees.

It can be cruel and debilitating as crops wither and livestock starve to death before your eyes.

As tough as it is, Norm and Jan Thomas and their boys Cameron, Anthony and Shaun accept drought as part of life on the land on their property Cambria, 20 minutes from Barham in NSW.

But what they can’t accept is poor water policy.

‘‘This is a man-made drought and it is killing off irrigated agriculture in Australia,’’ Norm said.

Dartmouth Dam is sitting at 74.5 per cent capacity and Hume Dam is around 43 per cent.

‘‘In the past these type of storage levels would mean in a dry, drought year, we would still get an allocation of some sort and be able to grow hay, grain, cereal and fatten stock — this year we can’t produce anything because we have no allocation and water is being sent out to sea at South Australia or flooding the bush,’’ Norm said.

Under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, the environmental water holder has recovered about 2100Gl of water, the majority of which has come from Victorian and NSW irrigators.

The loss of water has had a significant negative impact on the towns that rely on irrigated agriculture to support them — services and shops are closing and school numbers and community club memberships are decreasing as families leave the country in search of employment elsewhere.

‘‘Permanent water is expensive and we simply can’t justify the cost of purchasing temporary water either so we are screwed, we can’t grow anything,’’ Shaun said.

He said as water left the district, costs to supply were distributed across fewer irrigators, resulting in ever increasing fees.

The Thomases face a yearly water bill of about $45000 — whether they irrigate or not.

The family has been farming in the area for more than 100 years; Shaun is the fourth generation.

Like many long-standing local families the Thomases even have a road named after them, not to mention they actually built it themselves, with just the help of a shire grader.

‘‘We built the road to help get the kids to school. Back then there were 23 kids on the bus, today there is just one,’’ Norm said, shaking his head.

The Thomases might have decades and decades of farming behind them, but water policy is crushing them.

They will make it through this season, but after that they have no idea what will happen to them if conditions remain dry.

They have gambled on a significant financial investment purchasing additional land.

But they worry instead of setting their family up for future generations, it could actually contribute to their demise, if dry conditions continue and the irrigation allocation remains at zero.

A zero allocation has meant a small 300tonne cereal crop harvest, no rice planting for 2018 and the forced sale of last year’s lambs.

They watched 810ha of crop wilt and die before their eyes.

‘‘We are fortunate to have some hay and grain on hand to feed the sheep but that will only get us through so far then who knows,’’ Shaun said.

In a good year their 3000ha farm can produce 2000tonne of rice, 1800tonne of cereal and support up to 1000 ewes.

Their rice crop also attracts vast amounts of wildlife every year.

Ecologist Matt Herring from Murray Wildlife previously held a field day at Cambria, where 97 species of bird were noted on the property over the growing and harvesting cycle of the rice crop.

Cambria has been home to the third largest sighting of painted snipes in Australia, as well as rare species including bitterns, magpie geese and spotted crakes.

No water means no rice and no micro-wetland for the birds and animals that this crop always supports.

‘‘My father was an avid birdwatcher and he passed his knowledge on to me,’’ Norm said.

‘‘Before he passed away I was able to show him two things that had never been sighted on Cambria before — magpie geese and a black wallaby — and it was a huge thrill for both of us.’’

The Thomases have always taken great pride in what their farm can grow and the wildlife it can support.

‘‘One little mistake now and you are history, the pressure is just enormous,’’ Norm said.

‘‘This season we lasered paddocks in preparation for rice and we have had the cost of that but there will be no return — we can’t grow rice because there is simply no water in our system,’’ Shaun said.

There will be no significant income for the family until next spring — and that is providing it rains.

‘‘We have no idea what to budget for or even what a normal year is for us any more,’’ Norm said.

‘‘We have the next 12 months covered but after that we will be in no-man’s land and back to the bank manager if things don’t change.’’

An emotional Norm said Cambria meant everything to him.

‘‘My father and his father’s father, they have all had a crack and I would love my boys and their children to have the opportunity to farm here — over 100 years of farming in one place would be very hard to walk away from.

‘‘We can deal with the exposure to the elements, it’s all the red tape and bullshit that now goes with water that is making it all so hard.’’

In fact times have been so difficult, Cameron and Anthony have travelled to Western Australia in search of employment.

This has helped take some financial pressure off the farm.

‘‘The farm is my passion and I want to be able to hand it on to the next generation so they can improve and expand it into the future for their families,’’ Norm said.

Shaun returned to the farm with knowledge in the agronomy field.

‘‘Mum and Dad made sure the three of us boys moved off-farm to try something different and we all chose careers related to agriculture,’’ Shaun said.

He is determined to improve the farm, like the generations before him.

‘‘I want to make a life on the farm. Not only for me but for the children I hope to have one day — I want them to be able to have the same opportunities and freedoms I have had growing up.’’