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Aussie Farmers Welcome First Rain in a Year

MONSOON-TYPE rains that swept through the eastern half of New South Wales and Queensland Feb. 8-9 have broken a year-long drought and raised farmers' expectations.

Some meteorologists also say the heavy rain indicates that the global weather phenomenon, El Nino, is beginning to break up.

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"It's really timely," says Chris Brown of the New South Wales Farmers' Association. The rain will help the April sowing of the winter wheat crop and will help the summer sorghum crop. In addition, it will provide pasture growth for livestock.

A good summer sorghum crop will help feedlot operators who have had to buy wheat grown in South Australia to fatten up their cattle. Wheat costs them $200 (Australian; US$150) per ton; sorghum costs $150 per ton.

"The rains will put a cap on grain prices for people in the livestock feeding industry," observes Alex Nicol of the Australian Wheat Board.

Some farm areas received up to eight inches of rain. Despite initial flooding, Mr. Nicol says wheat growers will have their best start in three years.

"It would be giving farmers some confidence," Nicol says. The rains, he notes, will allow farmers to demand $150 to $160 per ton for wheat next year, compared with $125 per ton last July. This would be above the break-even point for most farmers.

Higher prices are expected because of tighter world supplies and heavy demand from the former Soviet Union; domestic demand for Australian wheat is likely to remain flat. A good growing season would allow more farmers to enjoy the higher prices.

Although the soaking rain helped thousands of farmers, the western part of New South Wales remained bone dry.

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"West of the Darling River there is a heap of grazing that needs some water," Mr. Brown says. In addition, most of the northern part of Australia, where sugar is grown, is experiencing a rainy season that is lighter than normal.

If the drought is in fact dissipating, it might indicate an early end to the El Nino weather phenomenon which has been affecting weather patterns around the world. The El Nino effect is a complex interaction of ocean currents, air pressures, and temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, which every few years alters the world's weather.

Because of El Nino, meteorologists say, Australia has had a drought for the past year, normally arid areas of South America have had rain, and the southern half of the United States has been drenched.

Trevor Casey, a senior meteorologist at the National Climate Center in Melbourne, says one of the first signs of a break in El Nino is rainfall in eastern Australia. "Even though the current El Nino is at a mature stage, it appears we're getting a break in the dry conditions," he says.

Robert Allen, a research scientist at the Atmospheric Research Division of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Melbourne, says he too is noticing signs that El Nino is weakening.

But Andris Auliciems, director of Queensland University's Applied Climate Research unit, says it is too early to predict El Nis demise. He says the rainfall last week was related to a wave of air which normally sweeps over Australia from the Indian Ocean at this time of year.

"At the moment we see no change," says Dr. Auliciems, who was one of the first scientists to recognize the current El Nino. He is advising farmers to wait another month before making planting decisions.

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