GONE WEST? Wurtulla resident and Mount Ascot Merino sheep stud owner Reuben Brumpton fears for the future of graziers in western Queensland.
GONE WEST? Wurtulla resident and Mount Ascot Merino sheep stud owner Reuben Brumpton fears for the future of graziers in western Queensland. Emily Ditchburn

When our future starts to dry up

REUBEN Brumpton fears for the future of his children and grandchildren.

Like him, they have built their lives and those of their families on the land.

Red dust runs in Mr Brumpton's veins. Raised in a bark hut, he is the descendant of pioneers in the Roma and Mitchell areas.

He reckons he knows every farming family in western Queensland and with about 300 relatives at last count, there's a good chance he does.

Mr Brumpton established Mount Ascot Merino Stud, near Mitchell, in 1956 after making a name for himself as a first-rate wool classer at age 18.

The stud proved an even more successful venture, earning more than 11,000 prize ribbons.

Following a heart attack 17 years ago, Mr Brumpton left the bush behind to move to the Sunshine Coast. Running the property was left to his youngest son, Nigel.

But the 85-year-old Wurtulla resident's mind is never far from his former home.

"We are the forgotten people," he said.

"Ninety per cent of people in the city don't have a clue what's going on."

It was not just the drought that was devastating western Queensland graziers, Mr Brumpton said, but also the plague proportions of feral pigs, wild dogs, and kangaroos devouring feed.

"This year, after spending some $4 million on fences for protection in recent years, we have still lost up to 60% of our stud rams with wild dogs and pigs," he said.

"This is the first time we've put off a ram sale in 39 years. It's a disaster.

"Everyone has run out of feed. It's critical."

After suffering so much and with so little hope for relief soon, the legendary strength of our farmers is beginning to crumble.

Mr Brumpton said he knew of five farmers and graziers from the Maranoa district who had committed suicide since June last year.

One of the most recent was a grazier near Roma in January whose cattle had gone down with pregnancy toxaemia, a disease that occurs when the breakdown products of fat, called ketones, build up in the brain and become toxic as a result of limited feed.

"He had to go and shoot 400 cattle and he only had 700," Mr Brumpton said.

"He shot them, and then he went inside and shot himself."

Almost 70% of Queensland is in the grip of drought, with 23 local government areas and part of four others officially drought-declared as of January 28.

When times are tough, the quintessential Australian value of mateship comes to the fore.

For 11 years, Aussie Helpers has shared cups of tea and often tears with struggling farmers.

The group delivers supplies to farmers and provides a support line.

Founder Brian Egan said he had never seen farmers so desperate.

"In all the years we've been operating, this is the first time people are actually ringing up and asking for help," he said.

"A lot of these people are breaking down on the phone. Some of the stories are shocking."

"We're flat out. We're seven days a week, working 12- and 14-hour days."

Drive west of the Coast for just half a day, and the lush mountains and beaches quickly give way to a land of red dust and endless horizons.

But the men and women of the land are being brought to their knees by what many are calling the worst drought since European arrival.

The effects of the drought are still hitting close to home through families such as Mr Egan's.

Families that have farmed their land for as many as six generations were walking away with nothing, unable to afford the cost of feed for their stock or borrow from the banks, Mr Egan said.

He estimated the charity, which does not receive gov

ernment funding, took 10 calls a day from farmers requesting "serious help", with many more phoning the charity's 1300 number just to find someone willing to listen.

"We've given over 1000 tonne of hay to help keep stock alive," he said. "They're in Third World conditions. Some of these people don't have water in their homes."

Mr Egan said farmers and graziers have committed suicide "because everyone has forgotten about them".

Mr Egan was very nearly one of them. The drought forced the war veteran to walk away from his farm in 1999, with the "black dog" nipping at his heels.

He ended up spending a year at Greenslopes Private Hospital in Brisbane after twice attempting suicide and battling "almost catatonic" clinical depression.

"People in the city just don't understand, and honestly it's so severe, it's frightening," he said. "People make a big deal about Gallipoli. Now five or six generations of their relatives are being left and hung out to dry.

"I feel really ashamed.

"We shouldn't be treating people like this."

Mr Egan was scathing of Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey's suggestion on Monday during an interview on ABC Radio that Australian farmers needed to adjust to regular "swings and roundabouts" in agriculture.

"You can't budget for three years' drought," he said.

Krystle Johnston is preparing for her third mercy trip to farming families out west.

The 22-year-old's father, Stan Johnston, of Craiglea Thoroughbred Studs in Kenilworth, was inspired to deliver hay after hearing a young girl near Prairie, who was struggling to feed her pony, share her story on the radio.

For more information on Aussie Helpers or to make a donation, go to http://aussiehelpers.org.au.

For more on Hay for Ponies, email Stan Johnston at craigleastud@bigpond.com.au.

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