From: Reuters
Published January 7, 2008 01:29 AM

Heavy rains flood drought-hit Australian farmers

By Michael Perry

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Heavy rains and flooding in northeast Australia have been both a blessing and a curse for drought-hit farmers, but more rain is needed to break a seven-year drought.

Farm officials say a series of storms have delivered heavy, but sporadic, rain in two of Australia's largest agricultural states, Queensland and New South Wales.

Some farmers who planted big summer sorghum crops have benefited, and some irrigators who had been facing zero water supplies have seen their water rations restored to 100 percent.

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But others are still staring at bone dry paddocks, while some farmers already on government drought assistance are now applying for flood aid after rivers burst banks causing millions of dollars worth of damage to crops, livestock and infrastructure.

"We are a long way from getting out of the drought," Lyndon Pfeffer, grains president of farm group AgForce Queensland, said on Monday.

"The main cropping area has certainly missed out. It is still a bit sporadic, it is still just storm rain, general rains have not given everybody a good soaking," he said.

Pfeffer said good rains had fallen in northeast Queensland's sugar growing region and in the west of the state.

"Overall things are promising but there are still pockets light on and looking for rain," he said.

Further south in New South Wales hundreds of farms in the west of the state and along the north coast have been flooded.

The NSW state government has declared the coastal region a natural disaster area, with an estimated A$20 million in damages.

"I think it is fantastic to get the rain," said Jock Laurie, president of the NSW Farmers Federation. "Unfortunately there is always a few people affected when you get flooding."

Laurie said the recent rains had helped grain farmers in Queensland and NSW plant a large sorghum summer crop and would assist wheat farmers who will plant in winter.

"There has been a big sorghum crop put in and the sorghum crop is looking good," he said. "The rain we have now will start to put a moisture profile back in the ground for the winter (wheat) crop -- something they didn't have last year."

"If you can get a bit more rain and get some water in the storages it will really help out the rice and cotton industry and the irrigation industries," said Laurie.

The New South Wales state government said last November that drought had slashed the state's forecast winter crop by 40 percent to 2.82 million tons. The winter crop is mainly wheat, although barley, canola and other crops are grown.

The drought has hit New South Wales harder than anywhere else in Australia, with total crop failures commonplace in the west. Normally the state produces over 8 million tons of winter crops, and about 30 percent of Australia's total wheat crop.

On October 30 the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics cut its forecast of Australia's total wheat crop by 22 percent to 12.1 million tons. The crop is less than half the 25.4 million tons produced in 2005/06.

Meteorologists believe the worst of the storm weather may be over as a former cyclone failed to reintensify in far north Queensland and floodwaters receded in the state's southeast, but more rain and flooding was forecast.

"It's just a tropical low and it's likely at this stage to be weakening to a rain depression," said Bureau of Meteorology forecaster Ivor Blockley.

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