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When Steve Dalitz woke up in his pastures, once ravaged by drought, soaked and swollen from the rain, it was a sight the Victorian farmer hadn’t seen in years.

It was early one morning in April this year and 74mm had fallen in just 24 hours. It rained more than the region had experienced in all of 2019.

By May, the paddocks would be somewhat restored, with lush grass reaching up to the boots and offering a reward to a very depleted herd of dairy cows.

It was a bittersweet moment for Mr Dalitz and his family, who were forced to leave the land in the middle of last year after the crippling drought and the political baggage of the dairy industry nearly broke them.
Steve Dalitz (lower right) with his family.
Steve Dalitz (lower right) with his family. (Photo credit: Steve Dalitz)

For the family of five, the slow recovery came too late.

Earlier this month, Dalitz fired 35 years as a dairy farmer after selling part of the family’s 468-acre farm.

“The sale of the farm will eliminate our debt … we will have some debt left,” he told before pausing.

“It seems like a waste. Basically, we worked 35 years and ended up with a house.”

Selling part of the farm ends a devastating five and a half years for the family, where financial strains caused by dairy companies, price wars for $ 1 milk and government policy on water proved too great.

“Hindsight is a great thing,” he said.

“We thought about overcoming the drought, but the drought lasted two years instead of one.

“We should have sold the cattle and sold the hay.

“But the cows were more than a source of money for me.

“Dairy cows are a little different … you see them twice a day.

“They were my grandfather’s herd and we turned them into a pretty good stallion herd.”

Then and Now: Steve Dalitz documents the drought of the past few years against this year's lush green.
Then and Now: Steve Dalitz documents the drought of the past few years against this year’s lush green. (Photo credit: Steve Dalitz)

He said that during the first year of the drought, the family went into survival mode and returned to milk the cows once a day.

When he finally sold his shares, he was again affected by the drought.

Outside of a drought, dairy cows were worth about $ 2,500 each, but in a drought their value had plummeted by about $ 1,000.

Even the price of water was proving too high.

Before the drought, a megaliter of water sold for $ 100. During the drought, he said, the price rose to around $ 800 a megaliter.

But during the drought, the cost increased from $ 70,000 to $ 550,000 to irrigate the paddocks.

‘I’m not being ungrateful’

The Dalitzes were one of hundreds of Australian farming families who saw first-hand the good agricultural help provided to those who lived on the land.

And while you will always be grateful for donations and kindness from strangers during major drought appeals, it would simply never be enough to restore what so many lost.

Dairy cows lining up for a milking.
Dairy cows lining up for a milking. (Photo credit: Steve Dalitz)

“At the time, most of the drought relief had probably helped more mentally than financially,” he said, referring to baskets and poignant hand-drawn messages from local schools.

“It didn’t really help us much, it did help us mentally. It’s kind of the same as those hay runs … we got hay and got 10 bales that keep our cows running for two days.

“It was great what people were doing, but it really didn’t help … I’m not being ungrateful.”

To illustrate his point, he said that a farmer he worked with this year could not afford his medicine or gas to go to work.

He was eating Weet-Bix at all three of his meals just to survive.

In Dalitz’s view, government aid “was misdirected” with millions of dollars wasted.

He said that instead of financial advice more pressure should have been put on the sale of Coles milk for $ 1 a liter.

“That was the price of milk in 1984 … but Coles executives don’t have 1984 salaries,” he said.

As the tough months continued, he took other jobs on nearby farms to help supplement his income.

He spent the last 12 months traveling around Gippsland and the Western District tending farms to give other dairy farmers a break.

Dalitz fired 35 years as a dairy farmer after selling part of the family's 468-acre farm in October.
Dalitz fired 35 years as a dairy farmer after selling part of the family’s 468-acre farm in October. (Photo credit: Steve Dalitz)

He documented his travels through his Facebook page, sharing the daily experiences of his new normal job on earth.

“My legs hurt, my back hurts because it’s been a long time since I milked 270 cows for six milkings in a row. But there is (sic) good pain,” he wrote in July of last year.

For comparison, during the drought before he started working on the farm, he milked fewer than 60 cows once a day for months.

“I really enjoyed it, but I always wanted to come home all the time. Being a dairy family, they are used to being together,” he said.

The harsh closures in Victoria meant no more vacations.

He picked up more work nearby, but as the health crisis worsened, that work ended as well.

During his 12-month period, he worked on more than 20 farms.

Relief from Australia's devastating drought came 12 months too late for the Dalitzes.
Relief from Australia’s devastating drought came 12 months too late for the Dalitzes. (Photo credit: Steve Dalitz)

These days, the family remains at home in a subdivided block of their land with the changing of the weather also changing their fortunes.

Mr. Dalitz now makes a living selling hay and has gone back to school to become a counselor.
“If we had this 12 months earlier, we would have survived,” he said.

“Sometimes you look back and I could have done the same and worked for someone else.

“That’s what I’m enjoying now, I’m doing what I love but I don’t have the financial stress.

“This year we have had an absolutely brilliant system … financially we are really good. It is the best it has been in 10 years.”

Contact reporter Kate Kachor at [email protected]

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