Early last year, the bush storyteller Murray Hartin penned a 14-stanza poem in three hours flat. Rain From Nowhere is about a farmer on the brink of ruin who receives an empathetic letter from his father. A celebration of resilience and hope, it is as moving a piece of Australian verse as has been published in decades. It's also pertinent. The driest continent on earth is in the grip of the worst drought in its recorded history. Beginning in 2002 and spanning, at times, the breadth of the country, the dry spell has pushed farmers to the limits of their ingenuity and patience. Some have cracked. In this hot land, the suicide rate in rural areas is 20% higher than in the cities.
No thought so dark has lodged in the mind of Les Gordon, a rice grower near the town of Barham in the country's southeast. But the drought's baking breath has dried and cracked his fields. Gordon should have been harvesting last month across a good portion of his 1,600-hectare farm. Alas, there was nothing to harvest. With no rain in sight and no access to the depleted reserves of government-controlled water, Gordon last September didn't bother to plant a crop.
He was one among many. "Rice is basically buggered," says Brett Heffernan, of Australia's National Farmers' Federation. In a normal year, Australia's 2,000 rice farmers produce about 1.2 million metric tons of the grain. This year's harvest was a paltry 18,000 tons the lowest yield since 1927, when the country's rice industry was four years old. "Frustration is the common feeling at the moment," says Gordon, president of the Ricegrowers' Association of Australia. "We think we're really good food producers. But at the moment we're not producing any food."
No longer just threatening Australia's $30 billion agricultural economy, the drought is contributing to soaring world food prices rice, wheat and corn prices have more than doubled in the past two years which in recent weeks have triggered panic buying, hoarding and a string of riots across the developing world. "International agencies are belatedly recognizing," says Julian Cribb, a professor of science communication at Sydney's University of Technology, "that the global food crisis is much closer than the climate change crisis or even the next oil crisis."
A cluster of factors is depleting the world's supply of grains. In Europe, the U.S. and Asia, more farmers are growing crops, especially corn, not as food but for conversion into biofuel. Meanwhile, demand for food is surging in China and India, where hundreds of millions of increasingly prosperous people are eating more. Though the demand in these countries is for less rice and more meat and fish, this increases the consumption of grain in the form of feed: it takes 7-15 kg of grain to produce a kilogram of meat. Record-high oil prices and escalating freight costs, as well as drought in the Middle East, have all contributed to world wheat stocks, for example, plunging to their lowest level in 30 years.
With everything else that's going on, the drought-ravaged rice and wheat farms of Australia's agricultural heartland the Murray-Darling Basin, named for its two major rivers have become the world's problem. As to how long that problem's likely to last, scientific opinion is divided. One school of thought is that there's no evidence global warming is causing this drought or will ever cause anything like a permanent one; there's even a theory that higher temperatures could help boost Australian agricultural production by bringing more rain to some parts of the country. On the other hand, modeling studies by Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation suggest temperatures will rise by 1-6°C over the next 60 years, increasing evaporation and water scarcity in future droughts.
Even in normal times, the Murray-Darling Basin, which covers parts of four states and the Australian Capital Territory, isn't water rich. On average, it receives a modest 250-300 mm of rain a year, and much of the terrain is semi-arid. Its farmers have mostly thrived until now because over 70% of the country's irrigation resources are concentrated there. But with the drought dragging on, the allocation of surface water to farmers last Southern spring planting time for rice farmers was zero.
"The land is lunar-like now," says Ian Brunt, who's on 120 hectares near the New South Wales town of Finley and has been rice farming for 32 years. "The tractor's throwing up clouds of dust." Les Gordon recalls the disenchantment among farmers in 1982 when state authorities limited farmers to 60% of their normal water allowance. Now, "I would kill for a 60% allocation," says Gordon, who still farms with his father, Henry. "Dad planted his first rice crop in 1949. No one around here has seen conditions like this before."
This year's meager Australian rice harvest has sent shockwaves through the local industry and beyond. With almost nothing to process, the grower-owned company SunRice announced late last year that it was mothballing its Deniliquin rice mill, the largest in the Southern Hemisphere, as well as its Coleambally mill, making 180 jobs redundant. Though no Australian farming family relies purely on rice for its income, many have laid off workers, sold machinery and increased their debt in response to recent shortfalls.
In a normal year, Australia exports 85% of its rice production as branded product to some 70 markets through Asia, the Middle East, the South Pacific and other destinations. So it is that although Australian rice represents only 0.2% of world rice production, it accounts for more than 4% of the global rice trade enough to feed 40 million people one meal a day for a year.
This year's near wipeout has thrown the market out of kilter. To keep its customers supplied with high-grade rice, SunRice has had to buy it from a number of other countries, then process and pack it overseas. In coming months, not even Australians will be eating much locally grown rice; instead it will be imported from Thailand, India and Pakistan. The SunRice purchases partly explain why rice importers in other parts of the world are having trouble finding supplies.
The drought has also savaged recent Australian wheat crops. Normally among the top three or four wheat exporters in the world, Australia has managed to produce little more than half of its usual 20 million metric tons in each of the past two years. But these setbacks are having a paradoxical effect. Not nearly as thirsty a crop as rice and expensive now on world markets at about $350 a ton, wheat in Australia is attracting new growers. "Some are looking at putting wheat in this year instead of restocking on cattle because it's cheaper and because they can get a better return," says the Australian Wheat Board's Peter McBride. If the wheat belt gets average rainfall between now and the end of the year, industry insiders believe Australia's next crop will be its largest ever.
That's a big if. A La Niña weather pattern, which is associated with above-average rainfall and had been giving farmers in southeastern Australia hope over the Southern winter, is weakening, according to forecasters. "Australian farmers have been incredibly innovative in overcoming water shortages and maximizing production under trying conditions," says the National Farmers' Federation's Heffernan. "If they just get a bit of rain, you'll see production kick in very quickly because they've done the preparation." Any Australian rebound would be a bonus on top of expected bumper wheat crops out of the U.S. and Canada in 2008-09.
Such cautious optimism doesn't extend to all crops, however. Insiders doubt whether Australia's rice production will ever return to pre-drought levels. Under proposed water-policy reforms, farmers in the Murray-Darling Basin will be subject to tighter restrictions than in the past. "My wife and I are sticking it out," says Ian Brunt. "But we've got three boys with equity in their own farms, and they've had enough and want out. They're sick of drought and sick of the politics of water." Murray Hartin's poem ends happily, with the hero hugging his wife as "they heard the roll of thunder and smelled the smell of rain." For many Australian farmers and some of the world's poorest people real life mightn't be so kind.