HE has lived on this land at Halton for all of his 65 years, but Peter Lawrence is striding across a paddock he barely recognises.
The kikuyu pasture that usually swishes around his legs and feeds his beef cattle has shrivelled into yellowing stubs, starved of rain.
"I'd probably have to go back to - as bad as this - 81, '82," Mr Lawrence says, squinting at the sunburnt and stripped hills that cradle his farm. "So a fair while."
Peter Lawrence can normally rely on the Allyn River, which fringes his 130-hectare property, Combwell. But these are not normal times.
The river fed by the Barrington Tops has shrunk to a string of pools and a rocky bed, the water sopped up by hot days and westerly winds.
What's more, of the seven dams on his property, four are dry.
"I can't get over that the water's gone," Mr Lawrence says. "I've never seen it go that fast before. It's just the evaporation level, it's extraordinary."
As water levels have dropped in the long drought, so have Mr Lawrence's stock numbers.
"I've gone from 90 breeders to 40," he says.
To feed his remaining cattle, Mr Lawrence has recently had to buy 36 large bales of hay, each one costing $400.
"Most of my feeding process is, 'sell cattle and buy hay to save what I've got left'," he explains. "It's almost got to the stage of having to talk to the bank manager [about a loan]. I don't want to get to that stage."
Peter Lawrence approaches 10 Black Angus cows and 10 calves resting in the shade of gums in the parched paddock. These cattle are part of his future. But that future can't be assured.
"Further down the track, if the drought continues, then they've probably got to go too," he says.
"You just can't continue to drought feed, it just bleeds everything. You start running up debts, things like that, and then you've got nothing left. You can lose your farm. A lot of people do. A lot of people have."
With the drought affecting the entire region and livestock saleyards and abattoirs shutting over the Christmas break, Hunter Local Land Services has urged farmers to plan for the new year.
"We recognise there's some hard decisions involved, particularly when people are trying to maintain their core breeding herds," says Hunter LLS General Manager Brett Miners.
If feed and water can't be assured, Mr Miners says, he strongly encourages producers to "make those tough decisions" about destocking.
In those circumstances, "You just sell and look after yourself, sell and look after your animals, and don't get caught. Don't leave yourself without options."
Mr Miners says there has been a "steady stream" of producers contacting the Hunter LLS officers and accessing drought-related help. He understands that "for many, they've never had to do this before, and it can be quite confronting for their self-esteem".
"But these are such exceptional circumstances, it's okay to reach out," he says.
To Peter Lawrence, now is not the time to destock. He says there are price fluctuations in the saleyards market, and the abattoirs are booked up.
"So even if you book cattle in today, you're looking at the middle of February, or early February, before you can get them in," he says.
Peter Lawrence's Christmas wish is for decent rain, but the skies above him remain frustratingly, defiantly blue. According to the forecasts, nothing hopeful is on the horizon until February.
"We need at least 100 millimetres of rain, then a week's fine weather, and another 100 mil just to get things started," Mr Lawrence says.
"These droughts often sort out the people who are not particularly skilled farmers, but we're losing good farmers in this drought. It's just beaten them."
Lately, this lifetime farmer has questioned what he's doing - "I certainly get up some mornings and just feel sick of it" - but even in the midst of drought, Peter Lawrence is determined to keep going.
He may have reached what many consider retirement age, but Peter Lawrence won't think about that.
After all, this land is not just his workplace. It represents more than what he does; it's who he is.
"Always been on the land, all my life, and ...", Mr Lawrence says, before stopping and scanning the dry paddocks. "Yeah."
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