Inside story of a town in drought
"LOOK! Look at this!"
Farmer Sarah Edmonds is running across the road holding out her phone. "This is what I'm talking about!"
She shows me the screen. It's a comment from some deranged animal rights activist abusing her for, well, owning animals.
I'd been talking to Sarah because a few days earlier she had written a Facebook post that had been shared by 22,000 people - which is quite a feat given that's approximately 22 times the entire population of the nearest town.
The previous night the waitress at the local Chinese had announced our presence on the Merriwa Connect Facebook page. And an hour later I was standing in a converted shipping container where a former IT expert was growing barley in a plastic tray.
That's the first thing you notice about people in the country these days: They're so, well … un-country. The clichéd image of the laconic and leathery farmer leaning on a fence post and chewing on hayseed is no more - if indeed it ever existed in the first place.
On a road trip through dry and dusty NSW - which is now 100 per cent in drought - the thing that stands out even more than the scorched hills and plains is how hooked everyone is on their smartphones - which is ironic given that the only thing out here that's harder to find than rain is reception.
Sarah Edmonds is fed up with trolls, Matthew Grace uses a drone to digitally map his pig farm and Cassandra McLaren has started a Facebook group to source outfits for the kids' school formals.
When Studio 10's urbane roving reporter David Robinson asks if we can get a shot of her at her computer she asks him why. Everything she does is on her phone. It never leaves her hand.
That's the real story of the drought that is crippling NSW and much of Queensland, and one that has been struggling to get out. Yes it's bad - the worst in more than a century in some parts - but it's not a random climatological bogeyman that has sprung up on our poor unsuspecting country folk. In fact the only people it appears to have taken by surprise are those living in the city.
Out in the bush most farmers have been preparing for it slowly, solidly. Stocking up on grain supplies, putting money aside, offloading stock where they can for what they can.
The image of the flint-eyed farmer wandering around the paddock putting bullets in the heads of skeletal animals is equally fallacious. For a farmer to kill an animal is extremely rare, even in times of drought, and only happens in the most extraordinary circumstances.
Most farmers pride themselves on being prepared enough so that they rarely if ever have to. Indeed, those on the land even use the term "good farmer" as a sort of code for one who manages to avoid having to resort to such desperate measures.
And, strangely enough, that is the story that most farmers want told. Yes, times are tough, but they will get through them. They don't want pity, they just want practical assistance - and often they're too proud to even ask for that.
They've seen it coming, they've been through it before and they'll get through it again. Not one I spoke to contemplated giving up or leaving the land. Most even smile as they all repeat the same mantra: "It has to rain one day," they say.
Even more bizarre is talk that is starting to emerge of "survivor guilt". Usually reserved for people who walk away from deadly plane crashes, it is now being applied to farmers who are weathering the drought thanks to pre-planning and world's best practices but actually feel bad about it because some of their neighbours aren't so lucky.
One farmer outside Tamworth I speak to who runs sheep, cattle and grain is almost apologetic that he hasn't been devastated. I'm welcome to come out, he says, but he's sorry if his story isn't dire enough.
"Don't worry," he says should I choose not to, "I won't be offended."
If anything, the ones who are really in trouble are those who depend on the farmers for their own livelihoods. One cafe owner in Merriwa in the Upper Hunter has had his business slashed in half in just a few months. As a result his staff have had their hours cut in half, which means half as much money in their pocket at the end of the week.
Few workers or businesses can survive that - the cafe down the street has already had to close two days a week. If things don't change he will have to close his doors. Even when the farms get up and running again, he will be gone.
Already you can feel the silence creeping in. When we roll into Merriwa there is not a soul on the street, even though it is just after 6pm. The only pub in town has just three blokes sitting in it.
Even so, the footy team is still practising on the field next to the dry creek bed and the obligatory Chinese restaurant is open until 8pm.
And the one thing you never hear out in the country, even when the night is deathly still, is a word of complaint.
When the sun comes up the town comes to life again. Farmers, tradies, ambos, truckies, teachers and the receptionist from the local vet all converge on a new cafe that's opened, against all odds. The coffee is as good as any in the city and it serves smashed avocado on toast. It's almost like it's taking the piss.
On the street we meet a truckie who's been on the road for months, carting hay from South Australia to Dubbo and anywhere else that needs it, which is everywhere else. He's covered in fluoro and grease and a handlebar moustache that would put Merv to shame and he literally hasn't seen home for three weeks. Naturally I am desperate to get him on the record but he doesn't want to talk on camera because he hasn't had his teeth fixed.
Forget the stoic farmer staring at the sky, I curse to myself, this is real country pride.