Scone and District branch of the Country Women's Association looks to the sky and towards the future, waiting for the drought to break

GATHERING: CWA members Audrey Knight, Wendy Balneaves, Anne McPhee and Lyn Tout outside the meeting room in Scone. Pictures: Jonathan Carroll
GATHERING: CWA members Audrey Knight, Wendy Balneaves, Anne McPhee and Lyn Tout outside the meeting room in Scone. Pictures: Jonathan Carroll

It was a sight that should have filled Anne McPhee's heart with joy.

Yet as she squinted at the rain falling, the beef cattle farmer from near Gundy, in the Upper Hunter, was not about to let her hopes run too far ahead.

"Over the last three and a half years, we've been given false hope so many times," Mrs McPhee said.

In the past three years, Anne McPhee explained, the average annual rainfall at their property had been 320 millimetres, about half of what usually fell. As a result, she said, their dams had nothing but dirt in them.

"Even with this," Mrs McPhee said, gesturing towards the rain, "we're looking at it and saying, 'When it's all in the gauge, we'll celebrate'.

"We're just quietly hoping it keeps coming down at this point. We can't make plans on it."

Beneath the iron roof being gently tapped by rain drops, Mrs McPhee was meeting with 14 fellow members of the Scone and District branch of the Country Women's Association.

Each of them have their own story of hopes dashed and dreams withering in the long drought.

But in the CWA, they also have each other.

Under the portrait of the Queen, and with freshly baked cakes and cups of tea, the women gathered on Friday for their first meeting of 2020. Some were regulars, others had not been beyond the farm gate for a while.

SWEET RELIEF: Morning tea and a chat at the Scone and District CWA meeting.

SWEET RELIEF: Morning tea and a chat at the Scone and District CWA meeting.

Wendy Balneaves, a beef producer from Wingen, about 19 kilometres north along the New England Highway, said the drought had also dried up a lot of social contact.

"You do feel very much on your own sometimes," she said.

Angela Caslick, a fifth-generation farmer from Moonan Flat, had not attended a meeting for about six months, "but you know the people are here, you have that support. You speak to them in the street, they ring you up. So it is a great organisation."

"You don't talk about drought," said Carol Downton, wearing a bright floral dress. "You talk about different stuff to keep them above board."

But on this day, as the clouds hung over Scone, the CWA members opened up about the impact of the dry times.

When a face is put to the drought, it is usually that of a male farmer.

But on many properties, it is the women who not only help run the farm, they also organise the household, and they are the main counsellor and adviser for partners and kids.

So through these dry and stressful years, many of the women had carried what Anne McPhee called "the quiet burden".

"I think women, in some ways, we slip through the cracks a little bit," Mrs McPhee said. "And this is one of the reasons the CWA was formed in the first place."

As the honour board in the meeting room indicates, the Scone and District branch was launched in 1925, just a few years after the CWA came into being to improve conditions, and lessen the isolation, for country women and their children.

Ninety-five years on, president Lyn Tout explained, this branch had the Day Ladies and another group, the Evening Girls, "because most of them are young".

TRADITION: Scone and District CWA members Sue Lewis (treasurer), president Lyn Tout and secretary Carolyn Carter sing the national anthem.

TRADITION: Scone and District CWA members Sue Lewis (treasurer), president Lyn Tout and secretary Carolyn Carter sing the national anthem.

Between them, the Day Ladies have centuries of experience on the land. They have enjoyed the good times and endured the lean.

They can remember droughts of the past. Margaret Richardson conjured up a childhood memory of a drought that took hold about 1939, "and the paddocks were just like this floor", she said, pointing to the wooden boards. Lorraine Gardiner, who was given a CWA membership as a birthday present from her mother, rattled off reminiscences of droughts in the late 1960s and the 1990s.

But the women believed no drought in their time had been so pervasive, so damaging, as this one.

As Del Mayled, from Wingen, said, "There's been big droughts before, but nothing like this."

"I could have cried when I saw the terrible, terrible country," said 92-year-old Joyce Eccles, recalling a recent drive through the area.

"We've had droughts before, but the water's never been as bad," said Audrey Knight.

"It's the water that's disappeared. Dams are dry, the creek's not running, the river's not running. This is the worst the water has ever been."

Audrey Knight runs a beef cattle farm with her husband at Kars Springs, about 40 kilometres north-west of Scone. To feed their stock, they have had to buy in hay, which costs about $18,000 a load.

Yet even securing feed for stock could lead to disappointment, as Angela Caslick explained.

The Caslicks had ordered hay from Victoria. But when the truck went south to pick up the load, the farmer apologised and explained he had sold the hay to a rural charity organisation a week before because "they were offering to pay more money".

"This is happening quite a lot," said Mrs Caslick. "And it's happening with grain as well as hay."

LISTENING: Scone CWA member Elaine Goggin.

LISTENING: Scone CWA member Elaine Goggin.

Wendy Balneaves said to keep her stock alive, she had gone into "tremendous debt", having spent tens of thousands of dollars on feed and water.

The beef cattle farmer said she had been encouraged to lighten the load and sell some of her herd, but she resisted.

"It breaks your heart to see cows you've had from calves... to have them slaughtered just for very little money, very little return," Mrs Balneaves said.

The impact of the drought has crept across the paddocks and into town.

Anne Marsh recounted how her daughter, living on a small property just out of Scone, had run out of water. She had to buy in water six times, costing about $160 each tanker load.

"I've been doing her washing, because she can't do it, she can't afford to do it," Anne Marsh said.

Angela Caslick, holding the microphone, speaking at the Scone and District Country Women's Association meeting. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Angela Caslick, holding the microphone, speaking at the Scone and District Country Women's Association meeting. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

As the flow of income has shrunk, a number of shops and businesses in Scone have closed.

Some of those off the land have sought work in town to bring in money.

Anne McPhee recently saw a woman farmer she knew working at the checkout counter in a local supermarket.

"She said, 'I'm here, I'm feeding the cattle. My wage is feeding the cattle'," said Mrs McPhee.

"So there's a lot of partners who have gone back to work."

The CWA members acknowledged government funding to help farmers and their families keep going.

Yet branch secretary Carolyn Carter wondered if the drought had drifted away from the public's attention, with an attitude of "let's move onto something else".

Even so, treasurer Sue Lewis said the branch still received private donations, and that money was directed towards households in need, even if they didn't ask for help.

As one of the members said, "We have a spy system; we keep our ears open".

The branch had also organised events such as a ladies' day out, so that women could talk, have a break, and, as president Lyn Tout said, "to not have to think about the drought for a day".

Scone CWA member Anne Marsh speaking at the meeting. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Scone CWA member Anne Marsh speaking at the meeting. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

But the drought has consumed thoughts, and so much else.

Carolyn Carter recalled how her father used to be concerned about what would be left for his family after hard times.

"And that is a huge worry, I'd think," Carolyn Carter said. "How long is this drought going to go for, and what are we going to have left, if anything, at the end of it all?

"Then there's the thought of owing it to your ancestors that you actually fulfill their legacy. That's a very important issue."

Thinking about a legacy is one thing; planning for the future is another.

Before the drought, Anne McPhee and her husband had been working towards retiring, and "we just had all our ducks in a row".

"Then the ducks had nothing to swim on," she said, laughing ruefully.

"We usually operate on a five-year plan, but with this drought, that plan has just gone out the window," said Angela Caslick. "So you haven't got a plan, you work from day to day, and you hope that tomorrow's a better day than today."

For now, the members of the CWA could only sip on their tea, with just a dash of hope, and hear the rain fall.

"It gives hope," said Lorraine Gardiner.

"But we all know that it's going to take a long time, once the drought has finished, for things to recover."

Members of the Scone and District Country Women's Association. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Members of the Scone and District Country Women's Association. Picture: Jonathan Carroll