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Today the mood is different as Whelan sits in the local bowling hall with 200 fellow farmers. 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. They blame the bureaucrats. They blame the environmentalists. They 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 fingers mangled by a farm equipment accident.

He has seen this coming. With the onset of the drought, he compacted his soil with a padfoot roller to minimize leakage. He began to cut off some of his acreage from water. Then 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, 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 after the meeting breaks up, a fellow farmer sidles up to him and asks, "Well, what do ya think, mate?"

The question is one that will continue to preoccupy Coleambally for some time to come. At one point, residents actually tossed in the towel and offered to sell the entire town and its water supply to the commonwealth for $2.4 billion. A few days later, they rescinded the offer, digging in their heels and insisting the town will remain a vital food provider.

The wrangle will continue, in Coleambally and throughout Australia. But some have arrived, however reluctantly, at a point of acceptance. A year after the reporting for this story began, dairy farmer Malcolm Adlington sold off 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." 

Robert Draper is a contributing writer for National Geographic. Amy Toensing's photographs of Tonga appeared in the November 2007 issue.
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