Drought NSW: Toowoomba photographer to raise awareness
"I'VE done something to my wrist, I really need to get an X-ray when I get to Scone," says Edwina Robertson over a squelchy out-bush mobile connection.
"Are you sure you want to do an interview right now?"
"Yes, yes, it's OK, this is important."
Speaking from a roadside pullover in the drought-smashed northern Hunter Valley sheep and cattle belt, Toowoomba wedding photographer Edwina Robertson is on a mission.
She has been driving all over northern rural NSW to bring to social media compelling, empathetic images of the reality that people on the land are facing in one of the worst droughts in eastern Australia in many decades, via her Facebook page One Bucket.
It's powerful stuff, and her posts are not afraid of saying the hard words that need to be said around policy and getting adequate support for the people and animals doing it so terribly tough out there.
Her path has taken her through the central NSW localities of Tamworth, Coonabarabran, Cassilis, Condobolin, Mudgee and down into Scone, at the northern reaches of the Hunter Valley, and she will then start heading north again, most likely through areas west of Dubbo and towards home through Narrabri and Moree.
"I haven't really decided yet, it's all day by day at this stage," Edwina said.
"I'm trying to get as many stories as I can, and as efficiently as I can. At the end of the day, when everyone's got a story, it doesn't really matter where you're sharing from, so long as the stories are getting out there."
Her commitment to raising awareness and encouraging people to support drought assistance groups like Rural Aid and Drought Angels is such that she is foregoing a planned trip to the US so that she can continue to help farmers get their stories out there until Toowoomba's wedding season re-starts in September.
"It's quite overwhelming doing this. It doesn't matter what stories you get to, you can't help but feel for these people. I'll keep going as long as I can."
She said she wants people living in cities to fully grasp how bad this drought is, by presenting people's reality.
When speaking to Rural Weekly, Edwina was about to visit Belltrees, a property at Moonan Flats, east of Scone.
"They ran out of water before they ran out of feed, so they had to de-stock," she said.
"They ran out of water at the end of last year actually, so it's really bad there."
It's a story recurring across drought-impacted regions.
Recurring stories of water running out, of destocking, of sourcing and buying feed.
"I think we have had worse droughts in history, but I don't think we've had droughts as widespread, and that's what brings the difficulty," she said.
"People can't agist their livestock, sourcing feed is much harder and more expensive, so it adds a new dimension to the drought."
In some cases, farmers are spending up to $100,000 per month on stockfeed, with $16,000 monthly appearing to be about average.
"You don't get over that sort of expense in a hurry.
Edwina has witnessed where people have bet in favour of themselves and retained stock on farm, and the expense of feeding them, expecting winter rain, which has not arrived.
"NSW is in the space where western Queensland was three or four years ago," Edwina said.
"While western Queensland is still in drought, they have been through that really hard emotional and financial stage of destocking and making really tough decisions. That's where NSW is now, at that critical point."
Based on what she has seen, she feels this drought will disrupt the nation's economy in the long term.
"Even if it rains tomorrow and it's good soaking rain, the toll on farming families and rural communities - it will be years to get over this."
The journey has included some profound insights around the growing desperation for farmers living in drought.
"I think seeing particularly kids. You know, any kid that lives in the bush grows up quickly, and they become grounded very early, but with the stress and the hardship for parents and family that really gets to kids," she said.
"I've seen heaps of kids get really upset at seeing all the dead stock, dead sheep, dead lambs, dead calves: their little brains aren't developed enough to really make sense of why.
"I know they know it's because it's dry and there's been no rain, but they aren't capable of really taking that on, all that emotion.
"Everyone who had young kids said to me 'I'm really feeling for my kids right now'."
That emotional trauma was being compounded by the necessity for children to take on added responsibilities, at times beyond their years.
"I visited one family with four kids - seven, six, four and 18 months old - and the dad goes out shearing to have an off-farm income and the mum feeds the stock every day and looks after the kids," she said.
"When the seven- and six-year-old are off at school, you've got the four-year-old driving the ute for the mum to shovel cotton seed off the back.
"That's a big responsibility, it's safety, what if the mum falls off? That four-year-old is not capable of helping in an emergency situation.
"But that's the only option they have. They can't afford off-farm help. Even the seven- and six-year-old are rotating days off school to cover at home and help, so these kids don't have any choice but to be missing out on school.
"It really hits at the core of how difficult it is for a lot of these families. I've heard stories of people running out of water and bathing in dirty dam water.
"Even adults: on the surface they are stoic, but underneath there is so much pain and vulnerability and stress."
Edwina said there was simply not enough in the way of access to mental health services for people living with such high stress factors.
"People are having to find their own coping mechanisms to get through this. And this isn't a couple of weeks or a month. Some of these people have been in severe drought for 18 months."
On her return, Edwina said she will be assisting Drought Angels, which delivers assistance like buying hay.
"They are inundated with calls and need the help at the moment."