10th July, 2006: PERTH, AUSTRALIA - Crop forecasts have been slashed, feed prices are soaring and there are reports of farmers taking their own lives as the record dry in Western Australia begins to bite.
The president of the grain growers section of the West Australian Farmers Federation, Ray Marshall, said it was shaping up as a disaster.
"We have just gone through the driest June on record," he said. "We have had no rain for July, except for 1mm on Saturday night."
Ron Storey, from Australian Crop Forecasters, said the state's grain crop was going backwards. "A lot of the crop is not yet planted, and that which is in is in very bad shape."
He said Western Australia was not only the biggest grain-producing state -- contributing on average more than one-third of the national crop -- but it had also been the most consistent, "often with crops in the eight or nine million tonnes as far as wheat is concerned".
"This year it could be half that. At the moment it doesn't look too good."
Leon Bradley, from Western Graingrowers, said many growers had planted in dry soil and were waiting for germinating rains.
"The survey that I have seen indicates that only about 50 per cent of the state's crop has come up." With planting costing about $200 a hectare, Mr Bradley said "there would be thousands of WA wheat producers that have more than half a million (dollars) going up in smoke here".
Prices are rising. Mr Bradley said lupins, used for stockfeed, were $135 a tonne last December. They are now $260 a tonne.
Premium-grade wheat for 2006-07 is $223 a tonne, up from $188 last year.
Good feed last year resulted in more lambs being born, but they had little to eat.
"There is no paddock feed, basically they are surviving on handfeeding," Mr Marshall said. "The supplies of stockfeed on farm are just about exhausted. Which ever way you look at it, it is bit of a battle." But he lives in hope of rain. "If we get substantial rain in the next 10 days to a fortnight there is still potential there for a fair average crop."
The Anglican Archbishop of Perth, Roger Herft, is embarking on a tour amid reports of several suicides in the wheatbelt.
He said it hurt farmers deeply, not just financially, to watch the land suffering.
"They are attached to the land in a far deeper way than as a mode of production ... I have watched farmers having to put down a beast and it's not easy for them," he said.
In a letter to wheatbelt parishes Dr Herft wrote: "Our heart goes out to you who are dependent upon seasonal rain for your livelihood.
"Times like this bring burdens upon us too great to bear."