SYDNEY — THIS is the time of year when New South Wales' farmers are getting ready to plant next season's wheat crop. However, there has been so little rainfall over the past three to four months that a lot of farmers are not even going to make the effort. Sheep farmers, already facing a disastrous year because of low wool prices, are now trying to sell their stock since there is so little grass. And dairy farmers are buying hay and alfalfa, to try to keep milk production up.
``The dry conditions are adding tremendously to the financially precarious position that agriculture finds itself in,'' says Howard Moxham of the New South Wales Farmers' Association.
Despite the dry conditions, which extend from New South Wales to South Australia and into parts of Western Australia, it may be too early to write off next season's harvest.
``Some people say if it rains by Anzac Day - the 25th of April - they will be all right,'' says Laurie Eakin of the Australian Grains Council. But he adds there are early estimates of the wheat harvest falling 30 to 35 percent next year. In New South Wales the drought, combined with the low price of wheat, could reduce the next harvest by nearly 50 percent.
``Farmers are either shifting to other grains or not planting,'' Mr. Eakin says.
The dry conditions have also kept firemen busy fighting bush fires around the state.
``It's one of the three or four worst seasons in thirty years,'' says Bob Richmond of the Department of Bush Fire Services in Rosehill, New South Wales.
Despite the dry season, Sydney's reservoirs have plenty of water, according to the New South Wales Water Board. The Warragamba reservoir system holds nearly four years of Sydney's water supplies.
Long-range weather forecasters are divided about the reason for the drought and its duration.
Bill Kininmonth, superintendent of the National Climate Center in Melbourne, says the autumn rains should arrive soon. He notes that in the northern part of Australia it has been extremely wet this season. The rising air currents, caused by moist tropical air, have caused dry conditions in the southern half of Australia. This condition is now changing, he says.
But Andris Auliciems, director of Queensland University's Applied Climate Research unit, believes the dry conditions may be part of a larger weather pattern involving El Nino, a complex ocean current, sea temperature, and wind phenomenon in the Pacific.
Long-range weather scientists monitor the barometric pressure differences between Darwin in the Northern Territory and the island of Tahiti in the middle of the Pacific. They say the pressures affect currents and water temperatures. When the water temperature is warmer in Tahiti than in Darwin, the wind circulation patterns shift toward Tahiti, carrying potential rain clouds away from Australia.
``Since November and December we've seen some fairly ominous signs of El Nino,'' says Dr. Auliciems. He now believes there is a 70 percent probability of the El Nino effect taking place. ``In the next month we will know what will happen.''
Robert Allen, a research scientist at the Atmospheric Research Division of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, says he has seen no signs of the El Nino effect.
``We have the situation of knowing the key things to look for and not seeing them at the moment.'' Instead, he says, the dry weather is related to the variability in the weather pattern.
Droughts occur about every seven to nine years in Australia. The last major drought was in 1982-83, when the country lost A$3 billion (US$3.8 billion) in crops.