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The big dry is putting regional communities in NSW through their paces and the Bureau of Meteorology warns it could take until autumn 2019 for recovery rains to make a dent. MELISSA COADE speaks with the rural lawyers, farmers and graziers whose clients and livestock are waiting for the dust to settle.

Cobar is home to 71-year-old lawyer and grazier Geoff Langford. The fourth-generation farmer, who runs a merino wool farm south of the mining town in NSW’s Central West, says the first nine months of this year have been the driest period he has ever known.

“I’ve only had 25 millimetres on my farm from 1 January to 30 September, which is the lowest on my records that go back many, many years,” Langford says.

Langford sold his wethers (de-sexed male sheep) some time ago and he is now down to about 700 head of breeding stock. For now, the sheep on his farm are in good condition. Recent winds have seen the leaves and twigs from trees shed, creating stock feed for his animals.

“There’s not as many mouths to eat on the farm now as there were, because I’ve got rid of sheep,” Langford says.

“My problem is going to be the diminishing water supply and there’s only one place that water comes from.”

NSW was declared 100 per cent in drought in August, and this winter has been its fifth driest on record. For the past few months, much of Greater Sydney has been classed as being in “intense drought”, the most extreme of six categories set by the NSW Department of Primary Industries’ (DPI) drought indicator. But the impact of this weather has devastated some communities in regional and rural parts of the state in ways city folk can only imagine.

Even without a climate catastrophe or sudden legal problems to tend to, these places have been already struggling to survive.

“When you’ve got drought, you have less production because you have less livestock and with that there’s fewer dollars income,” Langford says. “There are fewer jobs for people who support the industry – for the shearers, stockmen, shed hands – and so they have to go looking for other jobs.”

In Cobar, where there are three gold and copper mines nearby, another industry can absorb some of the people who have lost their farm jobs. “Crisis” is how some have described the situation in the Western District which includes Broken Hill and the Central West region, including Parkes, Condobolin, Nyngan and Coonable. The area around Walgett and the North West region has also experienced the worst dry in rainfall terms.

Cobar solicitor Peter Payne sees firsthand the withering landscape during his fortnightly circuit work in courts in Brewarrina, Bourke and Nyngan. As the sun goes down, he is greeted by kangaroos in their hundreds,hopping up to the side of the road where water from condensation collects in dribbles.

“Heading towards dusk, at night time and at dawn, the ‘roos are along the side of the road,” Payne says. “I get a guard of honour these days because invariably there’s a bit of green pick. I am never lonely.”

In Cobar, a flock of about 20 emus has also moved into town. Langford says he has spotted them on the grass of the high school and once on the greens of the golf club. But as the wildlife moves into town in search of water and grass to feed, people and businesses are moving out. Only one stock and station agent remains in Cobar and the police sergeant, who recently retired, has not been replaced. Two bakeries have become one, the toy shop has closed, motor vehicle dealers have cleared out, and even the hardware store is no more.

Communities feeling the pinch

Langford likens the economic blows of the drought in places such as Cobar and beyond to the impact of BHP’s Newcastle steelworks closure in 1999, or the mass sackings in South Australia when its automotive industry folded last year.

“People tend not to do as much. They tend to pull in their horns, so to speak, and not spend as much. They also don’t do as much legal work,” he says.

“The whole of the Cobar Shire is about 4,500 people and with those numbers you don’t need to lose many before it affects the whole community. You only need 10 rural workers to go out of the picture for there to be an impact.”

Stephanie Hughes, the director of Hughes & Co. Lawyers and Conveyancing with offices in Parkes and Forbes, says her practice has seen a reduction in conveyancing work and local businesses suffer because of a lack of cash flow. She says something must be done to address the wider hurt to the community brought on by drought.

“The drought assistance that is coming in is very helpful in that it’s lots of hay bales for farmers,” she says. “What it is not necessarily doing is propping up the communities.

“The problem with some of the [relief] donations is that you can buy a box of Weet-Bix in Sydney and send it out here but it doesn’t support the local grocery store. In turn, the local grocery store suffers and then they’re not there anymore because they don’t make it through all this.”

A NSW Business Chamber survey published in August found 84 per cent of businesses had been negatively impacted by the drought. About a third of the 1,000 people surveyed across the state indicated that their business was at risk due to the drought. Businesses reported on average that they may have to reduce staffing levels by 1.5 employees.

In a statement, Business Chamber chief executive Stephen Cartwright said the big dry has “revenue down across the board” with drought affecting all parts of the regional businesses supply chain, including retailers, manufacturers, construction, and tourism operators.

Agriculture isn’t easy

Langford says a devastating drought in the ‘60s sent the children of many landed families out of Cobar, in search of work and a new life. He considers conditions to have been worse back then because there were more people whose entire livelihoods were tied to the land. Today, so-called “Pitt Street farmers”, those like Langford who have a job in addition to being involved in primary industry, are the norm.

“A number of blokes of my vintage on the land didn’t go back to the land, or, if they did, they did much later after getting jobs elsewhere,” Langford says.

“Nowadays there are a number of farmers here who have two jobs. But that doesn’t mean they are not affected by the drought. You’re still not getting money from the farm and are still spending money on the farm.”

Langford had always wanted to be a lawyer. It was the plan that his brother, John, nine years older, would take on the family business and eke out a living as a full-time farmer while Langford pursued a career in law. After graduating from the University of Sydney with an arts/law degree, the call of the country eventually saw the boy from Cobar return home to set up a sole general practice in 1984.

Like Langford, Hughes also comes from a farming family. The Forbes-based lawyer, whose parents hail from Tullamore and Trundle, says her mother and father were not “townie people” but came from big farms. There was no question she would follow in their footsteps.

“I’m a country girl. I grew up on the land and so for me the decision to acquire a farm was to continue that,” Hughes says proudly.

As well as running her legal practice, Hughes owns a small 125-acre property along the Lachlan River in Forbes, which she plans to transform into a mixed-use farm. Most of her clients are farmers. They are also her neighbours.

I’ve had clients say to me that they’ve driven around with the valuer and they wish they hadn’t. They knew it was bad, but they didn’t realise it was that bad.

Director, Hughes & Co. Lawyers and Conveyancing

“Our topic of conversation in phone calls is whether it will rain,” she says.

“If there has been a recent shower, the question is ‘How many millimetres did you get?’ We’ve had very little recently, hardly enough to settle the dust, let alone do any good. People are at breaking point. It’s scary.”

Hughes laments the money lost to poorly livestock, which she cannot sell and pays premium price to feed, but acknowledges there are others in the community facing greater challenges. Most recently, she outlaid $11,000 on an irrigation pipe, $3,000 to dig the trench for it, and another $12,000 for a sprinkler system.

Solicitor Stephanie Hughes, pictured with her dog, Minnie, on her property on the Lachlan River, near Forbes, and bottom, with colleague Jessica Bourke. Hughes says her farm has no ground cover and is susceptible to dust storms. Right: Minnie, in front of Hughes’ office in Forbes. Previous: Solicitor Peter Payne surveys a dam 20km east of Cobar.

“I’ve had clients say to me that they’ve driven around with the valuer and they wish they hadn’t,” Hughes says. “They knew it was bad, but they didn’t realise it was that bad.”

There are legal implications to the changing reality of modern farming, especially in the areas of family law and wills and probate – but mostly finance. Traditionally cash-poor, asset-rich farming businesses are now heavily financed; they have to be to remain competitive. But that means having a reliable income so they can meet repayments, Hughes says.

Payne also has observed noticeably more interest in carbon credit agreements among landed clients.

Hughes says that while once upon a time you had to save money to buy something, “now people throw money at you”. “The problem we have developed over the years is we have more resources available to us such as technology and finance. People become accustomed to that and it’s very difficult when they can’t then meet finance requirements.”

Hughes concedes that her own farm undertaking has been an expensive decision, and for now the property is not viable without the off-farm income generated by her legal practice. The drought has thrown more setbacks into the mix, but she remains optimistic.

“I am very proud to be surrounded by people who are so positive in their outlook – notwithstanding the fact they’re under a lot of pressure,” Hughes says. “People are exhausted mentally and financially, but I think morale is as good as it could be.”

Remote prospects

Bill Dickens, the head of Dubbo’s office for Legal Aid NSW, has observed the few shops that are left shut down, one by one. The lack of rain has exacerbated what he has identified as the ongoing disintegration of marginal communities. For Legal Aid clients, this trend has major implications for job prospects and cost of living.

“There’s not a lot to do in these places. There is no employment, no shops, no money to spend. I think people are drinking more and they are getting in more trouble,” Dickens says.

“Petrol is really expensive. Try filling your tank on social security. It just doesn’t happen.”

Dickens’ team services a large swathe of western and north-western NSW, including Bourke, Nevertire, Warren and Walgett. His Legal Aid lawyers also visit Lightning Ridge and as far as Mudgee. Unlike Dubbo, Dickens says these small towns lack critical mass – in terms of people and business – to sustain themselves during times of hardship.

“A lot of remote locations we service have some of the highest indicators of social disadvantage in the country,” Dickens says. “The drought accentuates and magnifies their problems. The little employment that is available is on-farm employment, and that has completely disappeared.”

An ABS population analysis between 2006-2015 confirms this view. As towns like Bourke, Cobar and Walgett are shrinking, Sydney’s population grows. “People are drifting away at a greater rate,” Dickens says. “So these places are really at risk.”