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Rain brings optimism for drought-plagued Aussie farmers

Kevin Tongue says farmers like him are for the first time in a long while confident enough to plant crops
Kevin Tongue says farmers like him are for the first time in a long while confident enough to plant crops PETER PARKS AFP
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Tamworth (Australia) (AFP)

The coronavirus has brought new challenges for Australia's drought and bushfire-stricken farmers, but recent sustained rainfall and green shoots are now spurring hope of better times ahead.

Kevin Tongue eyes his field in the country's water-deprived southeast as lambs pick at fresh blades of grass finally punching their way through the soil.

"The turnaround from where we were 12 months ago..." Tongue told AFP. "It was barren."

"What we've got now mate is just amazing, the way the country has responded to that rain."

The worst drought in living memory created years of pain for rural Australia -- farms went to the wall, towns ran dry, and land lay fallow.

But around the city of Tamworth -- five hours drive from Sydney -- recent rainfall and predictions of above average levels to come may be enough to ensure the community's survival, even through the global virus pandemic.

"We just don't want to get carried away, you know, there's a long way to go to harvest, and Mother Nature can turn around very quickly," said Tongue.

Still, farmers like him are for the first time in a long while confident enough to plant crops.

Analysts at Rabobank Australia are predicting a profitable year for the sector despite global uncertainty, with farmers helped by a weak Aussie dollar that makes exports cheaper.

- Crisis after crisis -

It has been a rough run for Tongue and his community, with farmers suffering not just the drought but the worst bushfires in recorded memory, flash flooding and now a global pandemic of unknown duration.

"That's just a totally unprecedented set of circumstances that have impacted across the country and impacted agriculture producers in particular," said Rural Aid chief executive John Warlters.

Hay to help feed livestock, water deliveries and financial assistance are all needed, he said, but just as important is mental health support.

"Even when it rains, the need for that sort of support doesn't go away, and when the COVID restrictions are lifted the need for that support won't go away either," Warlters added.

The resilience of some locals has been bolstered by steady beef and lamb prices, Tamworth Mayor Col Murray said, in part because herds have diminished.

"The drought has been extraordinary, the impacts of that will last for a number of years to come, but that sense of optimism now is quite amazing and also quite refreshing," Murray said.

- 'Everyone's got to eat' -

The coronavirus has forced lockdowns across Australia -- closing industries and prompting thousands to queue for government welfare.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison this week welcomed the fact the drought is starting to break but warned that "when restaurants and cafes are closed, they are not buying from those producers like they were before".

Tongue says day-to-day life has changed little amid the pandemic.

For many farmers in this enormous country-cum-continent, it was already a relatively isolated existence even before social restrictions.

"This kind of pandemic hasn't actually affected agriculture, we've remained working," he said.

With 70 per cent of Australia's agricultural product exported and the majority of the nation's food sourced domestically, the one thing Tongue said people didn't need to worry about was supermarket shelves being empty for long.

"It's great that we can help the rest of the community. Everyone's got to eat, you know, our produce will be in demand forever."

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