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Blue skies, blue days in rural Australia

  • Story Highlights
  • Australia, the driest continent in the world, has been battered by severe drought
  • Drought conditions and its consequences in rural areas have led to depression
  • Joan Limon: "You do get sick of blue skies day after day after day"
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By David Challenger
CNN
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TARAGO, Australia (CNN) -- It sounds like the ultimate advertisement jingle for a holiday: Blue skies, nothing but blue skies, all day long.

Workers are busy on Sunnybrook shearing sheep, but drought conditions could prove detrimental.

Joan and Max Limon's property, which produces sheep and cattle, is situated in the state of New South Wales.

But in Australia, the driest inhabited continent in the world, sheep and cattle farmers like Max and Joan Limon look skywards daily and wish for a lot more gray.

"You do get sick of blue skies day after day after day," Joan says. "Even now during the shearing season, I pray for rain, which is not what you want at this time. But rain is more important than dry sheep. Rain will bring some money; dust brings nothing."

The Limons' farm, christened Sunnybrook in more optimistic times, is situated in the Southern Highlands region of New South Wales -- a state that is currently designated as 70 percent drought affected.

The reasons for drought in Australia are varied, depending on who you believe. Some say it's due to climate change; others that it's just a natural cycle of weather patterns.

But what's clear is that rural Australia is battling severe dry conditions in what has commonly been agreed as the worst drought in at least 100 years.

Max bought Sunnybrook in 1986 off his father -- a returned WWII soldier who started the farm in 1948. He and wife Joan now run the 1,600 acre (647 hectare) property, which mainly produces sheep and cattle.

Fact Box

-- Causes of drought include factors such as the El Nino Southern Oscillation, variations in energy from the Sun, and changes in land-use
-- But most of the global and Australian warming since the mid-20th century is likely due to increases in greenhouse gases
-- Australian average annual mean temperatures have increased by 0.9 degrees C since 1910
-- Since 1950, eastern and south-west Australia has become drier
-- Across Australia, a warmer and drier climate is expected
-- Median estimates for 2030 indicate a warming of about 1 degree C, relative to 1990, and a 3 to 5 percent decrease in rainfall
Source: Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology

"I was born here, and I do love the country life," Max explains. "But I sometimes question why we stay."

Simply put, when the rain stops, debt grows.

After a drought in 1996, the Limons had to spend $17,000 to feed stock. The drought followed into 1997, it returned in 2000 and has remained since 2000. Consequently, they've had to borrow money to pay for expenses such as wages for sheep shearers and feed for animals.

At one stage they had to truck all of their cattle eight hours away, where they grazed for two years.

"I didn't think they'd ever come home," Joan says.

"It's been very hard. We've been able to get government assistance and drought support, which has kept food on our tables over the past few years. We usually grow our own feed for stock, but drought has made that hard and unless we get some good rain soon, our current crop will fail again."

Right now hired hands are busy on Sunnybrook shearing sheep, and the Limons are nervously awaiting final figures on wool production. Video Watch dogs herding sheep and workers shearing wool »

But early indications aren't positive.

"This season looks like we'll get around 40 bales of wool; in normal times it's a 100. Because of drought the sheep don't grow as much wool, and it's of lower quality, such as breaks and tenderness in the fibers. The lambing percentage is also low as ewes aren't in good condition to give birth," Joan says. Audio Slideshow: Max and Joan Limon talk about living with the drought »

Such on-going drought conditions and its consequences on rural areas have inevitably led to health issues, New South Wales Farmers' Association president Jock Laurie says.

"We know that the industry is under enormous emotional pressure and we are getting a lot more cases of depression," Laurie says.

"An added problem is that the diagnosis of mental illness is difficult in farming communities, as family members often don't recognize it. And sometimes health services in rural areas are scarce ... all in all it's a major health problem in rural Australia."

Joan agrees with Laurie's summation, saying there have been a lot of suicides in rural areas.

"Max and I have been depressed before. Who wouldn't be," she asks. "Going out day after day and dealing with dying stock, the dust and the heat, with no rain to grow any grass ..."

Yet while the situation's grim, farmers aren't without hope, Laurie argues. He says many farmers are addressing water efficiency issues by reducing evaporation losses, limiting stock numbers, trying to protect health of ground soils, and improving the ability to save summer rainfalls to put into their winter crops.

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And on Sunnybrook, the Limons are installing a wind farm to give them some respite -- ironic given that wind is one of the farmers' biggest enemies.

"During drought, winds contribute greatly to evaporation rates by taking the water out of the soil," Joan explains. "So if we can make some income out of it and make a positive out of a negative, that'd be great."

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