Parliamentary Secretary for the Hunter Scot MacDonald has spoken of the devastating impact of drought in the region in NSW Parliament.
Mr MacDonald, who accompanied me on a tour of some of the worst-affected Lower Hunter farms in February, recounted the harsh conditions he saw that have farmers and their animals walking a financial tightrope as they fight to survive.
He said the region had been in drought for about a year and noted the huge toll on mental health. He told the chamber it was “easy to see the stress of drought on people’s faces” and farmers were not the only ones at risk.
With the suicide rate among agricultural workers 1.6 times that of other workers worldwide – according to University of Newcastle and Griffith University data collected in Queensland – Mr MacDonald said much more work had to be done to support rural communities.
Research has reminded me that it is not only farmers who commit suicide but also agricultural workers—the shearer, the hay carter or the fencer,Parliamentary Secretary for the Hunter Scot MacDonald
“Everyone in the community is affected by the difficulties of a struggling rural community. Some can deal with it but others cannot and so they take another course of action.”
Mr MacDonald understands how debilitating it is to deal with drought. He worked on cotton farms and owned a produce store in Guyra during serious droughts in 1995 and 2002-03 where he heard, and saw, the impact on the rural town.
At the end of my tour with Mr MacDonald the barren landscape, and heightened emotions of the farmers we met, had us both feeling deflated.
“I am not just talking about the men in farming families; all the family members work together as a unit. Husbands and wives sometimes feel stress differently and might express it differently. We often hear of partners trying to support the enterprise through outside work.
Time and again, I encountered dry dams and river courses. I could feel the stress that the people are under, and which they communicated in different ways. Some were more direct than others,Parliamentary Secretary of the Hunter Scot MacDonald
“Nevertheless, the whole family feels the strain of uncertainty about when the next rains will come and how quickly conditions can deteriorate.”
Mr MacDonald noted Hunter farmers relied on dams and pumping water from the river to survive.
“But there is not much you can do about water sources,” he said.
“When rain is not falling from the skies people rely on surface water from dams and the local river, and they can quickly be backed into a corner.
“Agencies including Hunter Local Land Services, the Department of Primary Industries and Hunter Water are doing their best to help.”
Mr MacDonald also drew on his visit to the Lower Hunter with NSW Primary Industries Minister Niall Blair and Upper Hunter MP Michael Johnsen to again highlight the pressure families and workers feel during drought.
He did not write the speech beforehand – apart from collecting figures on suicide rates in the agriculture sector. Instead he spoke from the heart.
It came in response to Parliamentary Secretary to the Premier Scott Farlow’s motion about a Wellness Walk Bridge Walk for Mental Health that is raising awareness about mental health issues.
“Residents at one place we visited said that most years we would be up to our knees in water. They are just not used to sustained dry conditions.
The Hunter area is not used to drought. Many of the people we met remarked that their part of the world usually experiences east coast lows, flooding and storms and that is what they are used to dealing with,Parliamentary Secretary for the Hunter Scot MacDonald
“When an area has been in drought for some time people's normal responses start to wear down. The agistment options run out. The fodder options are more expensive. Fodder comes from further afield and farmers know that they are probably buying weeds from somewhere else.
“The bank manager starts to have some serious conversations with people and their equity starts falling away. Farmers become concerned about their livestock and their ability to do their job.
“The worst is seeing people struggling with financial and mental challenges. They become concerned about the welfare of their stock and they feel backed into a corner.”