Australian Farmers Watch Skies as Drought Returns
SYDNEY - Wheat farmer Xavier Martin stares at bare patches on the hills around his property in eastern Australia. The grass has died and even the trees are thinning out.
It has not rained properly for months. The drought that hit in 2002, Australia's worst in a century, is beginning to return.
Martin's 2,000 hectare (4,942 acres) farm at Gunnedah, in northwestern New South Wales, is on the edge of an expanding band of serious drought which the Australian weather bureau says has spread right across the centre of the country.
He is typical of Australia's 35,000 wheat farmers who are weighing up whether to plant big crops in the next few weeks or to play safe and plant small.
"You pick up the calculator more often than you normally would," Martin said. "I'm quite apprehensive about the season if we don't get a rain break by the end of May."
After a very dry start to the 2005/06 season, less than two weeks remain for most of Australia's grain growers to receive rain in time to set up a big crop. April 25 is the rule-of-thumb date which Australian farmers use to calculate whether enough rain has fallen to go for a big crop.
"It's dried up right through the wheat belt around Australia," Martin said.
"We've seen droughts before but everyone was hoping against hope that we weren't steaming back into another drought.
"You've still got debt to service, weeds to control, significant investment in machinery ... so you can see all the costs sitting there."
EL NINO FEARS
Australia's next wheat crop, which will be planted in late April through to early May, has been put at between 22 million tonnes and 24 million tonnes by a range of forecasters.
Production at this level, which would be up from last season's 20.4 million tonnes but less than the record of 25.7 million tonnes set the year before that, would be enough to keep Australia in second position among world wheat exporters, after the United States.
But it all depends on rain.
In the growing year to March 31, 2003, savage drought triggered by an El Nino weather effect decimated Australian crops, slashing wheat production to 10 million tonnes.
That cut exports to all but Australia's most crucial markets and required the humbling act of importing feed wheat from Britain for the first time since colonial days.
It also triggered a mass liquidation of the country's 27 million cattle and 100 million sheep.
Rainfall deficiencies going back to the big El Nino drought of 2002 still lingered, said Grant Beard, spokesman for the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.
Now the bureau is on alert for another El Nino, which causes drought in eastern Australia and Southeast Asia and floods in the of west of North and South America.
"We think the risk of an El Nino forming at the moment is double or more than double the risk normally at this time of year," Beard said on Wednesday. "We've got our antennae up."
A big surge of sub-surface warm water that began in February has expanded eastwards across the Pacific -- one classic sign of El Ninos, which are created by interaction between abnormally warm or cool seas and the atmosphere.
"The next four weeks could be critical," Beard said.
HELP WITH GROCERIES, DEBT
Australian farmers are already feeling the pinch.
The government of New South Wales, a premier eastern cropping and livestock state, said this week that growing drought now covered 76 percent of the state, threatening winter crops.
The Bureau of Meteorology said in its last drought statement on April 4 that an expanding band of rainfall deficiencies extended across the continent from Port Hedland/Broome in the northwest of Western Australia to Bourke in northwestern NSW.
Southern Queensland, a major sugarcane and cattle region, is also affected.
With 46 percent of Australia now declared to be in drought, federal "exceptional circumstances" assistance to farmers to help with groceries and interest payments on debt were growing by A$4 million ($3 million) a week, a spokesman for federal Agriculture Minister Warren Truss told Reuters.
"Those who rely on the winter rainfall are watching the sky anxiously for those autumn and winter rains," he said.
Australia exports around A$30 billion a year worth of farm produce to markets mainly in Asia and the Middle East.
It is the world's largest exporter of beef, livestock, wool and barley, the second largest exporter of wheat and canola and the third largest exporter of cotton and raw sugar.