THE drought is far from over in some parts of Queensland and its impacts are felt right through the community.
Sunshine Coast Daily editor-in-chief Jenna Cairney spends time with families in Outback Queensland to discover the true extent of the drought.
PARCHED OUTBACK YEARNING FOR SOME RAIN
SOMETIMES Rachael Webster can feel the moisture in the air, she breathes in and can smell the rain.
She looks along the vast, dusty horizon - you can see for miles at her family's 17,400ha property - and she can see the clouds gathering, moving and missing the thirsty Mt Victoria.
"The country just needs a good drink," she says. Three ecstatic children - Joe (10), Dominic (7) and Lucy (5) Faggotter - bound out of the family cottage with dogs Jess, Boo and Molly in tow to greet you as you pull up.
They push and pull you to their new bedrooms and the school room, showing off stories, pictures and craft. They are stoked with the presents Longreach School of Distance Educationparent liaison officer Deanne Jones has brought them.
But as they rip open packs of pens, pencils, rulers and erasers, Joe mutters. "Christmas wasn't very merry for us this year."
"Joe, yes it was," Rachael sympathetically tries to quieten him.
No it wasn't, Poppy died."
Rachael softly changes the subject.
Deanne's taken the Daily to meet the Faggotter family to show what life is like on a Longreach property, about one hour from town.
Rachael's almost apologetic about a barely visible sprinkling of green, half of which is a weed the sheep won't eat.
The family did get a little rain and Rachael reckons there is a bit of green pick on about a third of the property. But it's quick grass and most of it will brown off and die by the end of the week.
Before the drought Mt Victoria was home to about 10,000 sheep and 200 to 300 head of cattle who would graze on pastures like Mitchell grass.
This year, it has no subsoil moisture, a tiny strip of temporary green pick, just 3000 merino sheep for wool, no cattle, and kangaroos almost at plague proportion.
"We sometimes muster wild goats too," Joe says.
"This isn't the worst feeding period. Once we were feeding every day after school."
They have some breeders on agistment so they can restock when conditions improve.
They are nervous about what will happen as we head into winter, and shortly before Christmas Rachael's father-in-law died - aged 76. The Faggotters have been on that land for 45 years and the horror combination of dry conditions and "baking heat" means it's the worst they've seen it.
They've stopped feeding now and just have to leave the sheep to forage. "They're good do-ers in dry times," Rachael says.
"At first we were feeding because we hoped and planned that it was going to be okay but it's a massive and expensive undertaking.
"We've just opened the place up so the sheep can wander wherever.
We try not to disturb them and we haven't joined any ewes in a long time.
Hopefully we won't have to sell anymore. The last (seasonal) rain we had was in mid-February so hopefully we'll get some rain before winter. Sometimes there's winter rain but you can usually count on one hand."
They've been managing okay with their finances but coming into a third year of dry times could push the family.
"We are conscious of our spending but at the end of the day we are still eating and you are doing well if you are still able to feed everyone and everyone is in a school uniform."
"You worry you aren't giving them all the attention.
They need more time.
"It's the best school in Queensland. They give a lot of support. But it's hard three different children with different learning styles."
Dad Allen Faggotter was schooled via distance education too, though back when he was at school it was by phone. Allen did have work away doing helicopter mustering and Rachael would look after the property with the kids after school.
The kids (and sometimes dogs) bundle into their yellow four-wheel drive and can sit with the iPad using learning apps. When the drought hit, it was busy at home and the need dried up.
"We use the iPad for a lot of things, like voice recognition and dictation," Rachael says.
We've been doing a lot on phonetics which there are good."
There's no TV at Mt Victoria but the kids find plenty to fill their time. They build Lego, ride motorbikes, muster goats and get to watch an occasional DVD.
The future is unknown for the family. Boarding school may stretch the finances too thin if things don't improve. As to how the family continues to push through in it tough times - it's about being optimistic and resilient, Rachael says.
"You sign up for it and you have to expect the weather isn't always going to be favourable - though this time is a bit different.
"That lack of control is very stressful but there's joy everywhere and we just try to take the simple things and make them special."
NICOLLE NURSING THE FAMILY THROUGH
A COMMON catchphrase in the bush is "Don't worry about us, the family down the road is doing it much tougher".
Nicolle Alexander, who is surrounded by her three blonde-haired girls - Maisie (9), Alice (6) and Georgia (5) in their dancing gear at the Longreach Qantas café, shares another bush catchphrase.
"What's the definition of a prosperous grazier? One that's married to a teacher or a nurse," she chuckles.
The Alexander family lives an hour and half north-east of Longreach, on a 20,000ha merino sheep and shorthorn cattle property called Willoughby.
Nicolle works one day a week as a nurse, helps out on the property, which is owned by her husband's family when required and is responsible for education of the three girls who that are still at home - her eldest Lilly (13) has just left home for boarding school.
"How on earth do you manage to work as a nurse as well as all that?" the Daily asks her.
"Driving to work that one day a week is the best time of the week," she laughs.
Nicolle is originally from Brisbane and she says she used to miss "real coffee, the beach and the movies" when she first moved to the area.
The family have been struggling in the face of drought, but Nicolle still insists they've been "lucky".
"We had reasonable rain before Christmas but we had off-loaded a lot of stock rather than feeding when it got really dry… so now we have grass but no stock.
"We normally breed up, that will take a three-year cycle to return.
"We'll need to see come March before any long term plan is made.
"Rather than get stock with no feed. We were hand feeding everything down to the kids' horses. We had to give away two horses.
"We only have six so that's a reasonable percentage.
"We've gone from having about 200 breeders to 70."
Nicolle has been in town overnight for the Longreach School of Distance Education's swimming carnival, as well as the girls' dance classes. She stays to talk to us for hours and we notice driving through town later that afternoon, she's stopped at the pool for the kids to have a swim before the long, dusty drive home.
They try to stay at the school quarters when they come into town.
"Tourism is doing quite well here, so the motels can charge $100 a person a night.
"There only used to be four or five families who would stay at the quarters, but now there's a waiting list."
Four old school rooms were linked with a dining room, kitchen and amenities and the Longreach School of Distance Education P and C added a deck to the facility where families are able to stay for $10 a night.
SPONSOR CALL GOES OUT TO HELP OUTBACK KIDS
WHEN times are tough, a trip to town is the first thing that gets scratched off outback families' agenda.
In the vast surrounds of Longreach, where the average property size is about 20,000 hectares and it can take hours on substandard, dusty roads to get to the nearest shop, it inevitably means an overnight stay.
Accommodation costs, petrol and even cash for a sausage roll and cup of tea, might seem like a trivial expense.
But when you've been paying for feed for your cattle or sheep for two or three years, significantly destocked and have been watching the never-ending horizon for rain that seems as though it will never arrive - your bank account is as dry as the cracked dirt beneath your boots.
There is no cash flow.
Unfortunately, not being able to afford a trip to town means families whose children study via distance education are majorly missing out.
Mums and dads aren't able to come in for essential annual training to ensure they can adequately home school their children.
Children aren't given that essential one week of the year to socialise with other children. Tough times are impacting country kids' right to a decent education.
Longreach School of Distance Education's parent liaison officer Deanne Jones reckons this year, all the school would need is $30,000 to ensure the 100 or so pupils and their parents can attend a week of essential learning.
Queensland Racing along with the Sunshine Coast Turf Club are calling on our community to help give these outback kids the education they need with a sponsorship scheme called "Sponsor a Bush School Room".
Peter Boyce, chairman of the Queensland Thoroughbred Racing Board chairman Peter Boyce said he'd been touched by the plight of country kids and he was confident the public would help to raise money for the program.
Stan Johnston, the owner of Sunshine Coast thoroughbred stud Craiglea, has been helping drought-stricken farming families for a couple of years now and ran an adopt-a-bush family project before Christmas, which saw hundreds of families who are doing it tough, managed to have a bit of relief at Christmas due to the generous packages that were sent out west.
But the drought hasn't broken and families are still struggling.
The beauty about Sponsor a Bush School Room is that it gives donors the opportunity to connect directly with families.
Mr Johnston said the Adopt a Family campaign he ran at Christmas had been a real eye-opener.
"The kids wrote back to every family who donated," he said.
"Many of the families are still in contact and are even taking holidays at each other's places, they've struck up such a rapport. "It's quite incredible when a coastal or city family gets to know a country family - their struggles are pretty different but they can relate on so many levels."
To donate to Sponsor a Bush School Room, contact Stan at Craiglea Stud on craigleastud@big pond.com.au so the children can write to you and tell you how the money is being used.
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