July 21, 2005

Australian farms gleam as rain washes away drought

By Michael Byrnes

COWRA, Australia (Reuters) - Fine rain falls on farmer Ian
Donges as he surveys a green valley from one of his high
paddocks. Rivulets of water run down the hillsides, forming
puddles on land that just a month ago was dusty dry.

"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

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 toward
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 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
to 8 percent of capacity.

This big dam, which could hold 1.2 million megalitres (264
billion Imperial gallons), or up to five times the contents of
Sydney Harbour, is now a giant empty chasm with its 85-meter
(279-ft) wall rising from a sludge of chirping frogs.

Wyangala is designed to serve towns and irrigate crops such
as grapes for Australia's A$3 billion ($2.3 billion) a year
wine exports. The tap is now turned off for general irrigators,
even though some pay up to A$10,000 a year for licenses, and
supplies have been severely restricted to higher-paying

Domestic and public water use is also severely restricted.

Deputy mayor and farmer Bill West takes time off from
shearing sheep to say Cowra Shire Council is urgently
recommissioning a well beneath the base of the Lachlan River,
and is considering sinking bores and bringing in other

Recent rain has raised Wyangala's reserves by only one
percentage point. Still, it has put a spring in Cowra's step.

"There's money in mud, nothing in dust," West smiled.