by Lisa McIntosh

Ian Unger’s family has farmed sheep and grown cereal grain in the Parkes area of central-west New South Wales for four generations and he’s been on the land himself for more than 60 years, experiencing drought multiple times.

But late last year Ian said the big dry then gripping large parts of New South Wales, and sections of Queensland and South Australia was unlike anything he’d experienced, due to its expansive reach.

‘We’ve had droughts in 1982 and 2002 that were equal to this one locally but I’d never seen a drought quite like this one, because it was so extensive’, says Ian, who has hosted a fundraiser for drought-affected families with wife Marion (see page 30), and is a founding member of a local depression and suicide prevention support group, which aims to support rural people through mental health struggles and raise community awareness.

The member of St Paul’s Lutheran Church Parkes says, thankfully, the drought has eased in some areas over the past few months.

And while floods have hit North Queensland, with formerly drought-stricken graziers now losing livestock to drowning and pneumonia, many parts of Australia are still without any rain or enough to make a difference to the growth of crops and feed, and the welfare of stock.

Andrew Kotzur, managing director and co-owner of a bulk handling and storage facilities manufacturing company that bears his family name, says that while there are currently pockets of very productive farmland around Australia, some people are facing extreme conditions.

‘I remember joining my father in our family business in the 1982 drought’, says Andrew, whose company has hubs in Walla Walla New South Wales and Toowoomba in Queensland, but services all of the grain-growing areas of Australia. ‘I have seen a few droughts. But there are areas – and significant areas – where I have never before seen it as bad as what it is this year.’

In South Australia, at the ominously named Worlds End near Burra in the state’s mid-north, Stephanie Schmidt says the area’s near-record low rainfall last year was devastating for their family.

‘2018 was the worst year we have experienced’, says Stephanie, who helps out husband Simon on their sheep, wheat and barley farm when she can, along with looking after the bookwork and finances, caring for their two young children, and working part-time.

‘2017 was a fairly poor year; however in 2018, we had a total of around 140 millimetres for the year which is almost our lowest rainfall on record. The highest rainfall we recorded in one sitting was 6 millimetres. Because of this, the majority of our crops failed for 2018.

‘We have destocked a lot of our sheep and at this stage we have not mated our sheep for lambing this year. Because of this we have not had any income from our farm and will not have any income from our sheep for at least the next year.’

Farmer-grazier Richard Pietsch, who has sheep and cattle and some lucerne on a property at Inglewood on southern Queensland’s Darling Downs, also has had to sell stock due to a lack of feed. He compares the current big dry with his first experience with drought as an 18-year-old in 1965.

‘You get dry times and I’d say I’ve experienced a drought officially seven or eight times, but this is a particularly bad one and so it relates very much to 1965’, says Richard, who was a member with wife Marie at the recently closed Millmerran Lutheran Church, but now will make the 110-kilometre journey each way to go to church at Pittsworth at least once a month, along with house-based church services at Millmerran, a ‘mere’ 70 kilometres from their home.

Andrew, who is the chairperson of Zion Lutheran Church Walla Walla, believes that, while some people on the land are facing desperate times, many farming communities are better able to cope these days with the fickle nature of the seasons.

‘I actually think a lot of growers are more resilient and better prepared for these events than they were in the past’, he says.

‘I don’t want to discount the fact that some people are doing it really tough. But there are a lot of people who are better managing what they’re doing.’

But while the geographical diversity of the business Andrew co-owns with wife Michelle means it has some shelter from the fallouts of drought, the company has not been immune to the rural downturn and has had to lay off some staff.

‘It has certainly impacted us – we’ve downsized along the way to enable ourselves to ride it through. [Letting go staff] are certainly the hard decisions’, Andrew says.

For not only does drought have an economic toll, it also has social, emotional and psychological effects on individuals, families, businesses and communities.

‘It’s hard; mentally it’s very tough and as you get older it’s harder to deal with’, Richard says. ‘Your faith’s very important but you can still get down.’

Stephanie, who works two days a week as a psychologist and who attends Geranium Plains Lutheran Church with her family, says one of the most difficult aspects of drought is not knowing how long it will last.

‘The emotional toll of the unknown starts to weigh on us, but in a way it has also brought us together stronger as a family’, she says. ‘We try to practise gratitude daily. I guess when you lose things that you didn’t expect to lose, it makes you even more grateful for what you have.’

Stephanie is inspired by her husband’s faith in facing the unknowns in their future. ‘My husband’s faith definitely is one of his biggest strengths’, she says. ‘During uncertainty, he is able to pull on his faith which helps him get up and face another day, another year of the unknown.’

Ian certainly believes that, even in the direst of circumstances, ‘in all things God works for the good of those who love him’, as Romans 8:28 promises.

‘There is a hand of protection that is there but not always seen’, he says. ‘When people ask, “how come you’ve got a drought when you go to church every Sunday”?, I can answer that I don’t have to worry about the future.’

Andrew agrees. ‘I think it’s your Christian faith that gives you a positive outlook. We’re not in this on our own’, he says. ‘What will be is in some ways out of our hands but we still have to make the best use of our talents and skills. Ultimately it’s about a lot more than worldly things and what might happen this week or this year.’

The LCA Disaster & Welfare Fund is receiving donations to support struggling farming communities, as well as to those affected by the Queensland floods. To contribute via the LLL online, click here. Alternatively, you can deposit a donation into the following account: LCA Synod Ac; BSB 704942; Account 100698743.

Subscribe here to receive stories & upcoming issues in full