On Tuesday 18 December, the Penny Appeal team, Aamon, Amr, Rania, Abdullah and I met at the office at 8 am sharp. We took a few minutes to mentally prepare ourselves for the four-hour drive ahead, that’s right, it takes four hours to drive into another town that’s in the same state, Merriwa New South Wales.
Along the way, we spoke about what we might see upon our arrival and agreed, we’re all curious to hear stories of local farmers that are struggling from the effects of a drought that we’d only heard of in third world countries and not right here at home.
To say that nothing could prepare us for what we were about to experience is an understatement.
Merriwa is a town of at least 2000 people not too far from the beautiful green fields in the Hunter Valley. Most families own cattle breeding farms, a business that their families have been in for generations.
As Australians, we know that beef cattle production is a well-established and major industry in our country and so, from the perspective of someone living only four hours away, let alone the other side of the world, it’s easy to hear about drought in regional New South Wales and glaze over. It’s one of those ‘common occurrence’ periods we hear about every year.
But this isn’t just another drought. To families living in towns in regional New South Wales, this is their crisis.
About three hours into our drive, we noticed some slight changes as we got closer to our destination. Changes in the air as it became drier, changes in the colour of the land as it turned from green to yellow to brown.
We then turned onto the drive that would take us to Colin’s farm, the farmer that was to receive and distribute the bales of hay we were delivering on behalf of Penny Appeal and Yusuf/Cat Stevens, and everyone in the car grew silent as we drive past the remains of a cow along the side of the drive. Looking beyond that, all we could see was a dry, brown landscape, a dramatic change from the green fields in the Hunter Valley.
As soon as we arrived at our destination and saw the look of relief on the friendly faces of the farmers gathered to greet us, we knew that this delivery meant more to them than we knew.
Nothing formal about this visit. After introductions and a short tour of the farm, conversations about family, work, and life were the topics of discussion. This group of amazing people isn’t different from us at all. They work hard to provide for their families and they’re super passionate about what they do which makes the situation they’re in much more difficult.
A drought for those of us that reside in Sydney doesn’t usually result in sleeping hungry at night but for these farmers, it could. If their land doesn’t produce enough to feed their livestock, the quality of their livestock depreciates which results in all kinds of losses.
“I had to put them down. One hundred cows, my livelihood”
Des Hunt runs a Cattle Farm that has been in his family since the 1850s. He comes from a long line of farmers that have seen and experienced drought, cyclones, torrential rain and so much more, but says that this drought is one of, if not the worst droughts he’s seen.
“The suffering has increased which is why there’s a lot of attention surrounding this now but we’ve been living it for years”.
Des went on to explain that last year, whilst Australia was experiencing one of the hottest summers on record, the land became dry and after spending all his savings on feed for his cattle because his land wasn’t producing enough he could no longer look after them.
“The cows hadn’t eaten proper feed in months. I couldn’t sell them because they weren’t too healthy and I didn’t want to starve them. I couldn’t give them the food from my table because we were short on that too and that wouldn’t work. I had to put them down. One hundred cows, my livelihood.”
Des went on to tell me that he’s one of the lucky ones. “Why?” I asked him. He explained that the drought not only affects the farmer’s livelihoods, but it also affects their mental health. A farmer
“Being in debt, selling off land that’s been in their family for generations, losing their livestock because there’s not enough feed being produced or enough money to purchase it and not being able to make enough to pay their bills and put food on the table is a lot of pressure for the main bread-winner.”
Des then begins to tell us about how a farmer tragically took his own life after losing his farm and all of his family’s livestock.
Bob’s story is similar.
“The only access we have to water is the river running through the property. When there’s no rain, that river is dry. Once that river stops, the pumps stop working and we’re not able to grow the grass and grain to feed our livestock and if we can’t sell them because they’re in poor quality then we lose them”.
Des and Bob’s stories are all too common. When we told a colleague from Rural Aid that we wanted to talk to a farmer affected by the drought about the challenges they’re facing, he said “Just drive up to regional New South Wales. You’ll find that most of them have been affected”.
Thanks to the 1 million dollar donation to Penny Appeal from Yusuf/Cat Stevens 2017 ‘A Cat’s Attic: Peace Train 50th anniversary Tour’, we were able to provide some relief to the farmers affected by the drought that could continue in what’s expected to be yet another record-breaking summer with forecasts saying that it may be one of the dryest one’s yet.