The grass on Jason Maloney’s dairy farm might look green, but it isn’t growing.
Looks can be deceiving, the fifth generation dairy farmer says as he tells how a lack of rain has not only dried up the dams on his Croom property but has also turned his finances to dust.
The harsh reality of the financial struggle Mr Maloney finds himself in hit the 36-year-old last week.
Like many other farmers doing it tough across the state, he wants to keep his animals alive. However, having to truck in food – and, possibly soon, water – means the monetary strain is mounting.
Faced with no other options, the farmer had to do something he’d never done before. He had to ask for help.
The plea came via a Facebook video, posted last Friday.
Mr Maloney wiped away tears as he spoke of the “immense” financial strain being felt by farmers and how he was desperate to find money to help keep his cows alive.
‘I was ashamed to ask for help’
“The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do is to ask people for help,” he said on the video.
“My cows mean the world to me and right now I’ve got a week’s worth of feed left, I’m nearly out of water and I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
He also told of how he was “so ashamed” about having to ask for help. “I’m doing this because I have to, not because I want to,” he said.
The dairy farmer told the Mercury he was buying in hay from “wherever we can find it in the country” and it was costing him $10 per cow, per day to feed the animals (a figure that doesn’t include on-farm and labour costs). In return, he gets $7.50.
“Something just isn’t adding up. For me, it really boils my blood that we have the Australian government sending a lot of money overseas for foreign aid and we’re not looking in our own backyard and helping farmers right now in these tough times,” he said.
“So many farmers over the ranges are shooting animals, and even worse than that they’re turning the gun on themselves … something’s got to be done.”
A ‘green drought’
Mr Maloney’s property might be just a stone’s throw from the coast – and the hustle and bustle of the City of Wollongong – but it’s not immune to the intense drought that’s gripping the state.
The NSW Department of Primary Industries’ latest drought mapping shows 99.8 per cent of the state is affected by the prolonged dry spell.
Just over 15 per cent of NSW, including Wollongong and the entire Illawarra district, are classified as being in “intense drought” – the worst category on the scale.
“Don’t be fooled because it looks green around you,” Mr Maloney said.
“We’re lucky we’re on the coast. We’ll get a bit of a southerly breeze come in that’s got some moisture in it and that helps keep the grass green, but the grass isn’t growing.
“We haven’t had grass of any sort of substance for quite a long time; the drought’s just so widespread.
“Because it’s green here that doesn’t mean anything, we’re still shipping in truckload after truckload of feed so that we can keep cows alive.
“It’s no different to the guys out west, it’s just that it looks pretty here compared to the dirt that’s out there. It’s the exact same pressure that we’re all feeling.”
The sentiment was echoed by Kiama mayor Mark Honey, himself a dairy farmer at nearby Jamberoo.
“Our places look green, but it’s actually very deceiving; there’s certainly no feed on the farm,” Cr Honey said.
Income down, expenses double
In what Cr Honey described as a “double whammy”, he has been buying in hay for about nine months and feeding his cattle more grain than usual.
“Your income’s down [and] your expenses are probably double of what they would be in a normal season,” he said.
The feed has been sourced from central west NSW, but because that area is out of hay the Honeys are now trucking it in from north-western Victoria.
The next load could have to come from as far afield as South Australia, as fodder supplies begin to run out.
“The cost of transport is the same as the actual cost of the fodder, or in some cases even more. Transport of the fodder coming in is hitting us for six as well,” he said.
Appeal for freight subsidies
The Illawarra’s parliamentary secretary, and Member for Kiama, Gareth Ward has been told by Cr Honey that the biggest help the government could give farmers was through freight subsidies.
“That used to be a standard drought provision by the government, but it seems to have dropped by the wayside,” Cr Honey said.
Mr Ward said he supported the introduction of freight subsidies.
“Loans just don’t cut it anymore, we need to go further than that,” he said.
Dams dry, no water run-off
Cr Honey has run out of water on his farm and has resorted to using a town water supply. Doing so has resulted in “quite horrific” water bills, he said.
“We haven’t had run-off into our dams and creeks since March last year, which is really unusual for this area,” he said.
Mr Maloney’s water sources are also limited. His main dam was dry and another was about five per cent full, he said.
Buying in water was “a very real prospect” if “serious rain” didn’t fall soon.
There’s been very little precipitation across the region in recent months, with rainfall deficiencies stretching back to early last year.
Cr Honey said decent rainfall during next fortnight or three weeks was “critical for the whole state”, so it could set people up for spring and help them start to replenish fodder stocks.
In the meantime, Mr Maloney has started a GoFundMe campaign, dubbed “Food for cows”, in the hope of raising $300,000. By late on Thursday, it had amassed more than $125,000.
He said he only needed about $80,000 of the funds raised and was already organising hay for other farmers.
Cr Honey backed the fundraiser.
“One of the biggest concerns in a period like this is not only the welfare of the animals and the land itself, but the welfare of the people who are actually on the land,” he said.
– If you need help, call Lifeline’s 24/7 crisis line on 13 11 14.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
- FOOD FOR COWS - Illawarra farmer Jason Maloney's fundraiser: gofundme.com/food-for-cows
- DILLY DROUGHT DRIVE (WOLLONDILLY): facebook.com/DillyDroughtDrive
- LIONS NEED FOR FEED: needforfeed.org
- AUSSIE HELPERS: aussiehelpers.org.au
- RURAL AID AUSTRALIA / BUY A BALE: buyabale.com.au, ruralaid.org.au
- DROUGHT ANGELS: droughtangels.org.au
WARM AND DRY CONDITIONS SET TO CONTINUE
A lack of rain and warmer-than-usual temperatures have combined to leave the Illawarra parched – and those praying for rain have been warned the months ahead don’t bring good news.
The Bureau of Meteorology’s latest climate outlook, for August to October, has revealed the prolonged dry conditions and above-average temperatures aren’t likely to end in the near future.
The outlook was “not a good news story for people hanging out for rain”, bureau climatologist Jonathan Pollock said.
Mr Pollock said rainfall had been “very much below average” across the Illawarra so far this year, in particular since April.
“[Across] most of the region, rainfall totals for the four months since April are in the driest 10 per cent of all years of record,” he said.
Conditions were particularly severe away from the coast where rainfall totals were among the driest five per cent of years on record.
A Mercury analysis of the bureau’s Illawarra rainfall data showed the first six months of 2018 were drier than the same period last year, when rainfall was closer to average, and significantly drier than the first half of 2016, when a June east coast low delivered a drenching.
July-to-date totals were also well down on average, with just 1.6mm recorded in Bellambi so far this month and 4.2mm at Albion Park.
Mr Pollock said the rainfall deficiencies went back further than just this year, with pockets of below-average totals across the Illawarra in the past 16 months.
Fewer rain-bearing systems – the result of more frequent and stronger high pressure systems – were to blame for the lack of rain, he said.
“Exceptionally mild” July temperatures across the region have also compounded the effects of the limited rain.
Looking ahead, Mr Pollock said there was a very low chance of above average rain in Wollongong between August and October.
There was a 71 per cent likelihood of drier conditions, he said, coupled with a 95 per cent chance of warmer-than-average daytime temperatures and a 92 per cent possibility of warmer nights.
The odds were worse in August alone, he said, with an 85 per cent likelihood of below-average rainfall next month and a near 100 per cent chance of warmer days.