Praying for rain

Records have tumbled across the state, with much of the region receiving its lowest June rainfall to date. Despite this, farmers remain optimistic about the season, ASHLEY FRITSCH reports.

Five-eighths of bugger all. That is how much rain has fallen in Elmore according to farmers in what has become the driest June in Victorian records.

Just 2.4mm fell in Bendigo, 5.1mm in Maryborough, 7.2mm in Castlemaine and a tiny 1.2mm in both Echuca and Kerang.

Elmore farmer Ged McCormick had about 2mm fall at his family’s farm and after a dry May, he says it’s starting to show in the crops.

“All around the tree lines is starting to stress out and the difference is getting bigger,” he said.

“Things just stop growing when the weather gets like this.”

It’s a far cry from this time last year, when Elmore had a “hell of a lot more” rain. 

About 75mm fell at the McCormicks’ farm in June 2016 – this year, the 2mm has been mostly made up from dew.

“It’s a total contrast – last year it was too wet to do anything, now it’s too dry,” Mr McCormick said.

“We’ve just got to hope and pray that it rains sooner rather than later.”

Across the state, Victoria has averaged about 11mm of rainfall in June, in comparison to the previous record low of 22mm in 1944.

Strong high pressure systems have dominated southern Australia throughout the month, resulting in extreme dry conditions with cold nights and multiple frosts. 

Bureau of Meteorology head of climate predictions Dr Andrew Watkins said the high pressure systems were forecast to continue into July.

“It’s looking like we’ll have odds of around about 70 per cent for Victoria of having drier than normal conditions,” he said.

The figure shifts to an 80 per cent chance of the next three months being warmer than average.

Bendigo’s June record low was 6.6mm back in 1876, meaning 2017 is now the driest June in more than 150 years of records.

In Elmore, 1944 was the driest June on record with just 1.8mm of rain.

Third generation farmer Andrew Holmberg says 2017 is worse – with less than 1mm falling at his farm.

“We really haven’t seen a decent rainfall event since Anzac Day,” he said.

“It has just been a downward trend since then.”

The Holmbergs have sown about 2700 hectares of canola, wheat, barley, chick peas, field peas and oats this year but say at this stage the odds are stacked against them.

The lack of rainfall coupled with a high number of frosts has dried out the soil and stalled crop growth.

“History shows seasons with high numbers of frosts equate to poor seasons,” Mr Holmberg said. “If we don’t get some sort of decent rainfall event in July, you get into August when temperatures increase and the winds pick up.”

Elmore farmer Ged McCormick says everyone tries to think positively. Picture: GLENN DANIELS

Elmore farmer Ged McCormick says everyone tries to think positively. Picture: GLENN DANIELS

It’s a scenario that’s playing out not only in Victoria, but also across other states.

“It’s dry everywhere in Australia,” Mr Holmberg said. 

“It’s not as though we’re missing out here – they’re missing out everywhere in Australia.”

He says farmers have to be prepared for it.

“You’ve got to plan for these seasons nowadays.”

Fifth generation farmer Glenn Trewick said it was almost as though the tap had been turned off at his Elmore farm since April.

“If we can get a couple of good rainfall events in winter, we’d battle through with an average crop,” he said.

“But if it remains dry it would certainly make it a long spring and summer.”

About 1mm has fallen at the family farm in June, after 16mm in May and a “fantastic April figure” of 93mm.

The grain farmers have about 2200 hectares sown this year and if more rain doesn’t fall, it will make it a very tough year.

“We just need one good rainfall event and we would be up and running again,” Mr Trewick said.

Elmore farmer Glenn Trewick in the wheat crop that should be double its current size. Picture: GLENN DANIELS

Elmore farmer Glenn Trewick in the wheat crop that should be double its current size. Picture: GLENN DANIELS

Quambatook farmer and Victorian Farmers Federation vice-president Brett Hosking said dry weather at any time of the year could be a challenge.

“Whenever we go into a period like this it creates a little bit of unease and a little bit of cautiousness in decision making,” he said. 

“Farmers tend to evaluate the risk and the reward potentially of the decisions they make so they’ll make changes to their planning to adapt to the season.”

Mr Hosking said one of the good things about a slow start was the potential “to have a cracking finish”.

“Every year is different and that’s one of the great things about being a farmer - we work in an environment that changes all the time and we get to make real life decisions that don't necessarily have a correct answer but we make judgement calls and we use information,” he said.

“This year is different and this year will finish different and next year will be totally different too, but our farmers will do the best job they can with the circumstances they’re delivered.”

Both Mr Holmberg and Mr McCormick say they are optimistic, despite a less than desirable forecast for the months ahead.

“Who knows, we might go into the wettest July, you just never know,” says Mr Holmberg.

“You’re not guaranteed that it’s going to rain. I’m concerned, I don’t like it, but you’ve got to be optimistic – that’s what we do.”

At the McCormicks, the fourth generation farmer says you’ve got to think positively.

“It’s all these curve balls thrown at you all the time,” says Mr McCormick.

“You’ve just got to overcome it – attack it and keep moving forward, that’s what it’s all about.”