The most severe drought for 100 years in Australia is getting worse.
Farmers warn that this winter's wheat crop could be even smaller than
last year's if rain does not come soon. Most Australian grain is
exported and empty Outback grain silos have contributed to shortages
and rising global prices. Australia is the third-biggest wheat
exporter behind the U.S. and Canada. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.
With the drought showing no signs of easing, Australian farmers say the chances of a bumper wheat crop this year look slim.
Lawrie is the president of the New South Wales Farmers' Association. He
says that good rains at start of the sowing season did not last.
of course, we had a very dry autumn right across many parts of New
South Wales," Lawrie noted. "It's knocking some of the forecasts of
production down. There's no doubt they were anticipating a good winter
crop but as time went by, of course, those figures get knocked back
down and they still will continue to get knocked down until we get a
good widespread rain right across the wheat-growing belt."
drought - known here as the "Big Dry" - has forced more than 10,000
Australian farming families off the land over the past five years.
farmers are in the middle of the growing season for their winter wheat
- a crop that is planted as the weather starts to cool in April or so,
and then is harvested early in the warm summer months, toward the end
of the year.
Wheat farmers in New South Wales - the
second-biggest wheat growing area in Australia - have seen yields
shrink dramatically. And the situation elsewhere in the country is not
Much of Australia's wheat harvest is sold overseas, mainly to the Middle East and Asia.
year's poor harvest contributed to the current international food
crisis - with tight supplies and increasing demand forcing prices
Ian MacDonald is the New South Wales Minister for Primary Industries.
until 2002, the five-year average (harvest) was around 5.7 million
tons, a large percentage of that wheat then being exported," MacDonald
explained. "However, for instance, last year it was one-point-eight
million tons, so there's a huge shortfall there that is obviously not
going onto the international market and therefore would be putting - in
conjunction with a number of other factors - pressure and upward
movement in prices globally."
Australian officials have cut this
year's wheat output forecast by about nine percent to just under 24
million tons. The amount of barley produced is also likely to be below
There is better news for the next rice
crop, which is expected to hit 253,000 tons. That is up considerably
from the paltry 19,000 tons that was just harvested, after the drought
had reduced irrigation water supplies.
Australia's canola harvest is also expected to exceed last year's figure.
Ian Macdonald says farmers still face great uncertainty.
we can get some decent rain although it's not looking very good, with
62 percent of New South Wales in drought and only 13 percent
satisfactory. So, the outlook at this point is rather bleak to say the
least," he said.
Australians are not immune from inflationary
effect of world grain shortages. Grocery bills here have soared 45
percent in the past decade.
Christopher Zinn from the consumer
group, Choice, says Australians are generally an optimistic bunch and
will be hoping that the problems will end soon.
cushioned and we're still the Lucky Country in so many ways but these
realities - these global realities - are really coming home with a
vengeance now," Zinn said. "So, I think that there is a reality check
going on - might be uncomfortable. Hopefully, that mythology of the
Lucky Country, people hope they'll steer their way through. But we'll
see how long it lasts and how fast basically the price increases keep
News about Australia's shrinking wheat crop
comes just as heavy rains and floods in the United States have
destroyed millions of hectares of corn and soybean crops. The U.S.
government expects the corn crop to be 10 percent lower than last
Australian wheat farmers who do manage to
produce a healthy crop this year hope to take advantage of record
prices on international markets. They are, though, unlikely to enjoy a
handsome pay day. Any profit they make will be reduced by the high
cost of fuel and fertilizers.