In the midst of the hottest October on record, farmers across central Victoria are facing their second failed harvest in a row – and the flow-on effects are expected to hit rural and regional communities hard over coming months.
As their crops wilt after one of the driest starts to spring on record, many growers are confronted with a difficult decision as they try to minimise losses. Do they start harvest early and hope for some return on their investments? Or do they bale valuable cereal crops for hay?
Others have paddocks so sparse they are not afforded the luxury of this dilemma. This year, their harvesters will not leave the shed. What is left of their crops be turned over to stock or left to die.
In a good year, cereal crops are the highest earner for fourth-generation Charlton farmer Trevor McGurk and his son Matt. But, this season, they opted to bale 1,000 acres of wheat and other cereal crops for hay to sell to dairy farmers.
"We're in survival mode,"Trevor McGurk
“We’re not traditionally hay people but we’re trying to salvage some of our costs... last year, hay was our biggest source of income.”
It is a plan which the McGurks also adopted during the millennial drought.
“We had to cut hay back in ‘06, ‘07 and 08 as well,” Trevor said.
“In terms of rainfall this season is probably as bad, if not worse than then.”
Trevor said he had recorded 138 millimetres of rain on property since April 1, which put it in the decile one, or lowest 10 per cent since records began.
In August this year, Wedderburn received 21.5 millimetres of rain – less than half the area's mean August rainfall of 49.9mm. Last August it was 10mm, slightly more than August 2007 – the worst of the last decade – which saw 9.4mm.
Across the state, October is tracking to be the third driest on record.
But the McGurks have one advantage over many of their neighbours.
They are the last property on the Wimmera Mallee Pipeline, which brings stock and domestic water to their doorstep.
Four-kilometres down the road, Wedderburn farmer Ian Gould has been hauling in water by truck since the last of his dams ran dry in March last year.
“We’ve carted 81 semi-loads since then and I’m just about to go for another,” Ian Gould said as he prepared for the 40-kilometre round trip.
“It doesn't pay to work out the financial costs to tell you truth... we’ve just got to keep our merinos alive for when the rains do come.”
Mr Gould is part of a steering committee for the local branch of the Victorian Farmers Federation, which is pushing to have the pipeline extended to other farmers around Wedderburn.
The idea has been picked up by Loddon Shire Mayor Gavan Holt, who wants to see the pipeline extended across the whole south-west corner of the shire.
“In Inglewood, Birchwood, right up through to north-west Victoria it is already clear we’re going to have a very poor, if not a failed, harvest,” the Wedderburn councillor said.
The farmer and former publican of the Wedderburn Hotel said his hometown faced a “four-pronged” problem.
“Farmers are without stock and domestic water and [Loddon Shire] is pouring potable water on our sports fields: netball, football, lawn bowls, cricket,” he said.
“Both of which are unsustainable.
“Then there is the issue of lifestylers or tree changers who are living in rural blocks, have no water and are carting water from standpipes into town, and fourth is our inability to attract intensive-animal farming because of a lack of water.”
Cr Holt met with state Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Water Lisa Neville earlier this year to put forward the proposal.
In September, Minister Neville announced $1.5 million to investigate raw water supply options.
“The government understands the importance of a secure raw water supply in meeting these challenges and providing the economic, social and environmental outcomes we want for rural communities across Victoria,” the minister said.
“We are committed to considering all possible sources of water and the extension of the existing water grid where it can benefit farmers and communities such as Wedderburn.
“We've seen below average rainfall and we know that unfortunately that it is going to get drier.”
The findings of the report into the pipeline extension are due by Christmas. In the meantime, Mayor Holt said he expects things to get worse.
“The full effects of this aren’t going to be felt until after harvest, that’s when farmers sit down with bank managers and review their financial strategy,”Mayor Gavan Holt
Wedderburn Development Association president Leigh Randall said local business owners were also preparing to tighten their belts.
“If you weren't concerned right now, you'd be silly,” he said.
Mr Randall has run the local supermarket for 21-years and knows what to expect after a bad harvest.
With 15 junior employees, Mr Randall is the largest employer of teenagers in town. Reducing their hours, he said, was one of his only options when faced with the inevitable loss of income.
“People cut back in a bad season, they buy cheaper value products to be able to feed their family... and that carries on to our profits,” he said.
“But our electricity doesn't go down, our rates stay the same and so does our insurance.
“The only thing we can really adjust is wages.”
And other businesses would be worse off than his, he said.
“My wife runs the hardware store and for her and others, like the tyre repair, it’s going to be very tough,” he said.
“People always need food but if they need a new fence… well maybe that has to wait,”Wedderburn Development Association president Leigh Randall
It is not just businesses which are affected. Victorian coordinator of the Black Dog Ride, Ric Raftus, said drought had a “domino-effect” of the whole community.
“It just flows through to everybody in the community, the farmers haven't got as much money to spend so the small business are impacted, kids are affected at school because there might be arguments at home because of the financial pressures we’re all feeling,” he said.
“Then there's the issue of the straw that breaks the camel's back… with mental health, issues can build up over a period of time and it might just be this drought or this bad season that might just tip somebody over the edge.”
But Ian Gould, for one, remains optimistic.
“This is the longest period of dry that I’ve known since I returned to the farm in ‘79,” he said.
“But it will rain again – you’ve got to think that, if you’re not positive and thinking about the future you might as well not be here,"Ian Gould
“And in farming, you’re either in it, or you’re not.”