It’s getting serious: Lack of rain hurting our farmers

Phillip Alcorn in a field of canola on his property near Harden. Photo: ANDREW MEARES
Phillip Alcorn in a field of canola on his property near Harden. Photo: ANDREW MEARES

For the next two weeks, Phillip Alcorn​ will have his eyes glued to the sky, and the weather forecast.

If there is no rain in the next two weeks, the Harden farmer's canola crop will be a write-off. 

"It's very serious," says Mr Alcorn, who has been farming for 25 years in the South West Slopes region of New South Wales. 

"This is up in the top couple of years for toughness," he says. "That is a direct impact of the dry," he says. 

A report by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics has forecast winter crop production will drop by 39 per cent in 2017-18. While this comes after an exceptionally good year in 2016-17 – which beat records by about 30 per cent – rainfall was also well below average in most cropping regions in June and "highly variable" in July and August. 

ABARES forecasts canola production will drop by 33 per cent, with wheat due to decrease by 38 per cent, barley by 40 per cent, chickpeas by 36 per cent and oats 45 per cent. 

But the report also warns even this lower level will only be achieved if "spring rainfall is sufficient and timely, especially in Central West NSW and the Eyre and Yorke peninsulas in SA". 

PwC food an agribusiness partner Greg Quinn said there will be lag before the impact on consumers is known, although he points to the record crops from last year, which means there is more "carry over" in grain stocks. There could be downward pressure on lamb of beef prices, but this is not likely to be seen until early in the new year. 

He adds there is unlikely to be much impact in terms of fruit and vegetables as they tend to be irrigated. 

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce said it was a "statement of the bleeding obvious" that crop production was down. "We've had a tough season."

The Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources usually grows barley at a property he shares near Coonabarabran. This year there wasn't the rain to even plant the crop. 

He said the dry weather highlighted the importance of dams for storing water as well as developments around long-range forecasting. 

The lack of rain is also hurting Ian Cargill, who runs beef and lamb east of Braidwood, near Canberra, at a property in his family since 1930. 

For Mr Cargill, the aim is to get a large percentage of his spring lambs ready – up to the 18 or 20-kilogram mark – for Christmas. But he says he will be surprised if they are ready for December 25 this year. 

Due to a drop in rainfall not only were about 200 fewer lambs born this season, there is less moisture in the ground for the grass to reach a good condition to feed those new little mouths. 

"The pressure's on at the moment, we'd really like to see some rain in the next few weeks," he says, adding "we're probably a week away from hand feeding here".