National Geographic : 2009 Apr
contributing to the food shortage being felt across the globe. Australia, which has served as a food bowl to the world, is searching for a future. Whatever that future may be, Whelan knows the rice-growing town of Coleambally will never play the same role. And so a er the meeting breaks up, a fellow farmer sidles up to him and asks, "Well, what do ya think, mate?" e question is one that will continue to pre- occupy Coleambally for some time to come. At one point, residents actually tossed in the towel and o ered to sell the entire town and its water supply to the commonwealth for $2.4 billion. A few days later, they rescinded the o er, digging in their heels and insisting the town will remain a vital food provider. e wrangle will continue, in Coleambally and throughout Australia. But some have arrived, however reluctantly, at a point of acceptance. A year a er the reporting for this story began, dairy farmer Malcolm Adlington sold o the rest of his cattle and now drives a minibus for a living. The citrus grower Mick Punturiero uprooted half of his orchard and acknowledges that he will probably be unable to continue farming. And on this night in Coleambally, Frank Whelan makes a decision as well. "Oh," he replies to his fellow rice farmer with a sad smile, "I think I ll go home and retire." j Droughts, market uctuations, wrangles with the government, and, yes, incessant sniping by environmentalists that rice requires enormous quantities of water and therefore has no right- ful place on this semiarid continent---Whelan remembers Coleambally prospering through all the adversity. He remembers town gatherings when the news was almost always good, because the irrigation water was always there. Today the mood is di erent as Whelan sits in the local bowling hall with 200 fellow farm- ers. For four hours they listen as a panel of experts say there will be no irrigation water for Coleambally for the foreseeable future. They are suggesting new economic avenues for the town---things that have nothing to do with rice. A number of farmers voice their outrage. ey blame the bureaucrats. ey blame the environ- mentalists. ey blame New South Wales. But Whelan says nothing. He just sits there, his pale eyes blinking, occasionally rubbing his wrinkled forehead with a hand that includes two ngers mangled by a farm equipment accident. He has seen this coming. With the onset of the drought, he compacted his soil with a pad- foot roller to minimize leakage. He began to cut o some of his acreage from water. en still more acreage. All the while, the lifelong farmer watched as national production of rice dropped from more than a million tons a year to 21,000, "It hurts," says Frank Eddy, to destroy his own healthy peach trees, but the drought and reduced allocations have forced him to cull thousands of older trees on his orchards near Shepparton, Victoria.