Australia

Australia's drought crisis: Sikh farmers fight to save their crops

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On the New South Wales mid north coast, time is running out for a group of farmers from the Sikh community to save their crops.

The devastating effects of Australia's unprecedented drought are spreading further through the eastern states, with coastal farmers now suffering as well.

Coffs Harbour on the NSW mid north coast is famous for the Big Banana. But it has in fact been the home of the country's berry production since the turn of the century, supplying 80 per cent of Australia's total output of blueberries.

The paddocks in the region look lush with green vegetation, but that belies the impact of the drought.

Crops in Coffs Harbour are wilting under drought conditions.
Crops in Coffs Harbour are wilting under drought conditions.
SBS

Communities are reeling from the country's worst drought in more than 50 years. 

A farmer for 37 years, Sid Sidhu says this dry spell is among the worst he has experienced.

"It's very hard at the moment. Everything looks green on top, but when you dig down deeper it's very dry underneath.”

A costly drought

Sid Sidhu could lose up to half a million dollars in his blueberry investment - which includes 26,000 blueberry plants - due to the drought.

He and his sons are making better return on their cucumbers, which are grown in hydroponic houses and don't rely on natural rainfall or soil. But their water supply is severely depleted.

"We're suffering right now,” Mr Sidhu told SBS News.

“We're starting to already cut water. We're starting to think about pruning our berries so we can conserve some water.

“If we don't get rain in the next month or six weeks, we're going to run out of water. Full stop."

A strong Sikh community

The Sidhu's are one of 150 farming families of Sikh faith in the town of Woolgoolga. This community has bolstered the local and national economy since the early 1900s.

Gurmesh Singh is a third generation farmer, with 200 acres of blueberries and macadamias across three farms.

But his blueberries are not growing to their full potential during the fruit's seasonal peak. And with minimal rain and limited access to runoff water, it may prove too difficult to turn a profit.

Devastating drought affecting coastal farms
Gurmesh Singh says farmers across the NSW mid north are rapidly running out of water.
SBS/Omar Dabbagh

"We've got enough water at the moment for irrigation, but if we start to see a really dry spring, we might see those supplies start to dwindle,” Mr Singh told SBS News.

“August and September are usually fairly dry months for this area. We do start to see some rain and storm activity towards October and November. If we don't get that activity this year, we might be in for a really dry summer.”

Last vestiges of banana farms on Coffs Coast

Michael Singh's 30 acres are home to one of just a dozen banana farms left on the Coffs Coast.

The drought has hit him hard. Michael Singh expects to lose up to 40 per cent of his return this season.

"The last couple of years we've actually gone through a bit of bad weather, dry weather, and the plant's under stress," he said.

Devastating drought affecting coastal farms
Michael Singh says while bananas are a resilient fruit, they will be unable to thrive unless there is natural rainfall.
SBS News

Unlike blueberry growers, banana farmers don't have as many options to deal with the dry weather. While the bananas can survive with irrigation, they won't thrive unless there is natural rainfall. And if the drought continues, the impact on crops would be felt for seasons to come.

"We can't really do much," Michael Singh said.

"So it's gonna get setback for starters, and then we can't look after the plant the way we should so the quality's going to drop. And you'll see it on the fruit."

There is a shortage of skilled labour across the Coffs Coast. Farmers are desperate for government incentives to entice locals to work for them, as well as some practical solutions.

"That would include licences for more on-farm storage," Gurmesh Singh explained.

“[It would] allow us to collect more of the runoff on our own properties, so at the moment there is a limit of how much water we're allowed to keep."

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Readers seeking mental health support can contact:

Lifeline 13 11 14

beyondblue 1300 22 4636

Farmer Assitance Hotline 132 316

How can I help?

Farmers seeking drought assistance can contact these organisations:

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