Australia’s drought is like a cancer eating away at farms and families

GUNNEDAH, Australia, Aug 1 (Reuters) - From ground level, Australia's drought looks like a featureless, brown dustbowl, but from the air it transforms into an artistry of color and texture as the land cracks under a blazing sun.

Circular dry plow tracks resemble the concentric circles in Aboriginal dot paintings that tell of an ancient mythology, starving cattle queuing for feed look like an abstract painting and their black shadows stretching across the land a surrealist image.

But for farmer Ash Whitney, there is no such beauty, just blood, sweat and tears as he struggles to feed his cattle, cutting the drying branches of Kurrajong trees - a last resort during the worst of droughts.

21 PHOTOS
Australia's drought from above
See Gallery
Australia's drought from above
Farmer Ash Whitney stands in the middle of a dried-up dam in a drought-effected paddock on his property located west of the town of Gunnedah in New South Wales, Australia, June 3, 2018. "I have been here all my life, and this drought is feeling like it will be around a while," said Whitney. REUTERS/David Gray SEARCH "AUSTRALIA DROUGHT" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A lone tree stands near a water trough in a drought-effected paddock on Jimmie and May McKeown's property located on the outskirts of town of Walgett, in New South Wales, Australia, July 20, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray SEARCH "AUSTRALIA DROUGHT" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Sheeps eat grain dropped in a drought-effected paddock on a property located on the outskirts of Tamworth, in New South Wales, Australia, June 2, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray SEARCH "AUSTRALIA DROUGHT" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Farmer Ash Whitney stands atop a tree as he cuts off branches to feed his cattle in a drought-effected paddock on his property located west of the town of Gunnedah in New South Wales, Australia, June 3, 2018. "I have been here all my life, and this drought is feeling like it will be around a while," said Whitney. REUTERS/David Gray SEARCH "AUSTRALIA DROUGHT" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
An old bus used for storing farming equipment stands in a drought-effected paddock on a property located west of the town of Gunnedah in New South Wales, Australia, June 3, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray SEARCH "AUSTRALIA DROUGHT" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A windmill and solar panels stand next to a dam in a drought-effected paddock on farmer Scott Cooper's property named South Park located east of the town of Gunnedah, in New South Wales, Australia, July 21, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray SEARCH "AUSTRALIA DROUGHT" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Patterns can be seen in a drought-effected paddock created by a plough on a property located west of the town of Gunnedah in New South Wales, Australia, June 3, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray SEARCH "AUSTRALIA DROUGHT" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Dead trees are seen in a drought-effected paddock on farmer Scott Cooper's property named South Park located east of the town of Gunnedah in New South Wales, Australia, July 21, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray SEARCH "AUSTRALIA DROUGHT" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Farmer Ash Whitney stands on the back of his truck as he throws out hay to his cattle in a drought-effected paddock on his property located west of the town of Gunnedah in New South Wales, Australia, June 3, 2018. "I have been here all my life, and this drought is feeling like it will be around a while," said Whitney. REUTERS/David Gray SEARCH "AUSTRALIA DROUGHT" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A cow walks away from a water tank in a drought-effected paddock on farmer Tom Wollaston's property located west of the town of Tamworth in New South Wales, Australia, June 2, 2018. "I can't seem to be able to do anything else apart from just feed, and keep things going, and it (the drought) seems to be one step ahead of me all the time. We'll battle it out, but it puts a strain on everyone," said Wollaston. REUTERS/David Gray SEARCH "AUSTRALIA DROUGHT" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A gate casts a shadow next to car tracks on Jimmie and May McKeown's drought-effected property located on the outskirts of the town of Walgett in New South Wales, Australia, July 20, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray SEARCH "AUSTRALIA DROUGHT" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Tyre tracks from farmer Jimmie McKeown's truck can be seen in a drought-effected paddock on his property located on the outskirts of the town of Walgett, in New South Wales, Australia, July 19, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray SEARCH "AUSTRALIA DROUGHT" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
An irrigated paddock can be seen next to a ploughed paddock on a farm located on the outskirts of the town of Mudgee in New South Wales, Australia, July 18, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray SEARCH "AUSTRALIA DROUGHT" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Farmer Scott Cooper drops hay for his cattle next to a dried-up creek in a drought-effected paddock on his property named South Park located east of the town of Gunnedah, in New South Wales, Australia, July 21, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray SEARCH "AUSTRALIA DROUGHT" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Farmer Jimmie McKeown walks near a water trough and tanks on his drought-effected property located on the outskirts of the town of Walgett, in New South Wales, Australia, July 20, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray SEARCH "AUSTRALIA DROUGHT" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
An old Sydney tram sits in a drought-effected paddock on Jimmie and May McKeown's property located on the outskirts of the town of Walgett, in New South Wales, Australia, July 20, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray SEARCH "AUSTRALIA DROUGHT" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A windmill lies on the ground in a drought-effected paddock on farmer Scott Cooper's property named South Park located east of the town of Gunnedah, in New South Wales, Australia, July 21, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray SEARCH "AUSTRALIA DROUGHT" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Farmer May McKeown feeds her remaining cattle on her drought-effected property located on the outskirts of the town of Walgett, in New South Wales, Australia, July 20, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray SEARCH "AUSTRALIA DROUGHT" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A road can be seen next to tracks leading to a water tank located in a drought-effected paddock on farmer Ash Whitney's property located west of the town of Gunnedah, in New South Wales, Australia, June 3, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray SEARCH "AUSTRALIA DROUGHT" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A dead tree lies in a drought-effected paddock on farmer Tom Wollaston's property located west of the town of Tamworth in New South Wales, Australia, June 2, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray SEARCH "AUSTRALIA DROUGHT" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A kangaroo casts a shadow as it drinks from a water tank located in a drought-effected paddock on farmer Ash Whitney's property located west of the town of Gunnedah in New South Wales, Australia, June 3, 2018. "I have been here all my life, and this drought is feeling like it will be around a while," said Whitney. REUTERS/David Gray SEARCH "AUSTRALIA DROUGHT" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

"I have been here all my life, and this drought is feeling like it will be around a while," says a despairing Whitney, whose property near the town of Gunnedah is on the Liverpool Plains, a usually fertile area now withered having received the lowest average rainfall in nearly 30 years.

The worst drought in living memory is sweeping parts of eastern Australia, leaving farmers struggling to cope and many of them asking questions about the future.

Cattle farmer Tom Wollaston, born 70 years ago in the same house he lives in today, is afraid for what this drought will mean for his children, who aim to take over the 5,683 acre property when Tom "hangs up his boots".

"I can't seem to be able to do anything else apart from just feed, and keep things going, and it (the drought) seems to be one step ahead of me all the time. We'll battle it out, but it puts a strain on everyone," says Wollaston.

His wife Margo says droughts have a very negative impact not only on her family, but the whole farming community around the nearby town of Tamworth in northwest New South Wales (NSW) state.

17 PHOTOS
Australia's drought from the ground
See Gallery
Australia's drought from the ground
Farmer Tom Wollaston's wife Margo talks with her daughter Natasha and her granddaughter Abbey as a rainbow forms above them at sunset on their drought-effected property, located west of the town of Tamworth, in north-western New South Wales in Australia, June 2, 2018. Picture taken June 2, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Farmer Ash Whitney reacts as he talks about the effects of the drought on his property, located west of the town of Gunnedah, in north-western New South Wales in Australia, June 3, 2018. Picture taken June 3, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray
Cattle push each other as they kick-up dust at sunset on farmer Tom Wollaston's drought-effected property, located west of the town of Tamworth in north-western New South Wales, in Australia, June 1, 2018. Picture taken June 1, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray
Farmer Tom Wollaston's wife Margo talks with her daughter Natasha and her granddaughter Abbey at sunset on their drought-effected property, located west of the town of Tamworth in north-western New South Wales, in Australia, June 2, 2018. Picture taken June 2, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray
Farm worker Glenn McCosker watches sheep eat grain as he sits atop a feeder as it moves around a drought-effected paddock, on a property located on the outskirts of Tamworth, in north-west New South Wales in Australia, June 2, 2018. Picture taken June 2, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray
Electricity poles are at sunset on farmer Tom Wollaston's drought-effected property, located west of the town of Tamworth in north-western New South Wales, in Australia, June 2, 2018. Picture taken June 2, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray
Farmer Ash Whitney wears his hat as he talks on his drought-effected farm, located west of the town of Gunnedah, in north-western New South Wales in Australia, June 8, 2018. Picture taken June 8, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray
Sheep are seen in a drought-effected paddock on a property located on the outskirts of Tamworth, in north-west New South Wales in Australia, June 1, 2018. Picture taken June 1, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray
Farmer Scott Cooper and his daughter Charlie ride their horses along a fence in a drought-effected paddock on their property named 'Nundah', located south of the central New South Wales town of Gunnedah, in Australia, July 21, 2018. Picture taken July 21, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray
Farmer May McKeown reacts as she drives her truck to feed the remaining cattle on her drought-effected property, located on the outskirts of the north-western New South Wales town of Walgett, in Australia, July 20, 2018. Picture taken July 20, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray
Farmer Ash Whitney walks down the middle of a road that divides his drought-effected property, located west of the town of Gunnedah, in north-western New South Wales in Australia, June 3, 2018. Picture taken June 3, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray
Farmer May McKeown feeds the remaining cattle on her drought-effected property, located on the outskirts of the north-western New South Wales town of Walgett, in Australia, July 20, 2018. Picture taken July 20, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray
Farmer Ash Whitney lights a cigarette as he stands in the middle of a road that divides his drought-effected property, located west of the town of Gunnedah, in north-western New South Wales in Australia, June 3, 2018. Picture taken June 3, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray
Farmer Scott Cooper rides his horse through a drought-effected paddock on his property named 'Nundah', located south of the central New South Wales town of Gunnedah, in Australia, July 21, 2018. Picture taken July 21, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray
Cattle walk across a hill next to a dead tree at sunset on farmer Tom Wollaston's drought-effected property, located west of the town of Tamworth in north-western New South Wales, in Australia, June 1, 2018. Picture taken June 1, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray
Farm worker Glenn McCosker checks a drought-effected paddock as sheep run towards him before they are fed grain, on a property located on the outskirts of Tamworth, in north-west New South Wales in Australia, June 2, 2018. Picture taken June 2, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray
Charlie Cooper, daughter of farmer Scott Cooper, stands atop bales of hay sitting in a drought-effected paddock on their property named 'Nundah', located south of the central New South Wales town of Gunnedah, in Australia, July 21, 2018. Picture taken July 21, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

"I find droughts a little bit like cancer - it sort of eats away at you, and it just gets drier and drier and more severe and more severe, and impacting on your life a lot worse. I do try really hard to keep the house and the garden clean and green because that keeps your head in the right space at night time".

May McKeown, 79, and her son Jimmie live on a property near the northwest NSW town of Walgett, and say they are extremely worried about the future having had almost no rain since 2010.

"My great grandfather settled on this land in 1901, and he never had to remove cattle from the paddocks over there," she says pointing to the west. "But we have had to remove them all and bring them closer to the homestead so we can more easily feed them."

The farm has made little income in recent years and when they run out of hay in a few months, rising hay prices will leave them in a financial situation her family has never had to contend with in more than a 100 years, she says.

A quarter of Australia's agricultural production by value is grown in NSW and the state government has offered more than A$1 billion in emergency funding to farmers. It announced the latest tranche - A$500 million - on July 30.

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology says parts of Australia experienced the second-warmest summer (December-February) on record and have just been through one of the driest and warmest autumns (March-May) on record.

And the dry spell, which has left more than 95 percent of NSW in drought, according to Department of Primary Industries, has no end in sight.

Read Full Story