Days of Rain Break Australian Drought

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AN early winter rainstorm has broken the five-month drought in much of Australia's farm country. The rain, which fell for three consecutive days starting June 7, will allow farmers to proceed with normal fall plantings of wheat. Many farmers, however, have already shifted to less-thirsty crops such as barley and oats. The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) estimated June 11 that Australia's wheat harvest will be 11.9 million tons, down from 15 million tons last year.

The rain will also help the wool producers by allowing fodder to be replenished. "Now there's a chance to get quite a body of feed up," says Howard Moxham, executive director of the New South Wales Farmers Association.

Wool producers have been cheered to see the price of wool rise A$1 (US$1.28) a bale in recent weeks. In economic terms, however, the price is now on a par with prices 10 years ago.

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Although the late rain will help wheat, some farmers planning to switch to canola beans will probably have to wait another year since canola requires early sowing. "The late rain has eliminated a number of options," says Doug Miell, market analyst for the Australian Grains Council in Canberra. ABARE, however, expects farmers in South Australia and Western Australia to increase canola bean plantings, resulting in a 39 percent rise in production. ABARE also predicts a move to cotton, which is enjoying hig h

prices.

Although rain fell heavily in New South Wales, parts of Victoria, and South Australia, farmers in Western Australia - the largest grain-producing state - still need moisture. "The rain is late there," Mr. Miell says.

Despite the rain, many farmers face hard times. Wheat prices are below the cost of production for some farmers. Mr. Moxham says some farmers are betting with their crops. "They feel the price can only go up," he says.

The rain helps calm fears that Australia might suffer from a prolonged drought because of changes in the weather pattern. Farmers hope for more rain in two or three weeks.

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