The east of Australia is in the grip of drought. Parts of the states of New South Wales and Victoria received virtually no rain at all over the Australian winter, and that lack of rain came after more than a year of much-dryer-than-average conditions.

Farmers across the country are struggling to grow crops and feed their animals.

"The grind of a drought gets to you. You get a 50 kilometre per hour wind blowing in your face all day and there's a bit of dust mixed through it and you've still got to feed your stock and that ... It's just the fact that you're out there every day and things are going backwards not forwards," says sheep and cattle farmer Wayne Dunford.

If you want to be in agriculture then you've got to take the good and the bad times ... Why subsidise farming but not tourism or manufacturing or restaurants?

John Freebairn, Melbourne-based economist

Agriculture contributes three percent to Australia's gross domestic product (GDP). The industry is worth more $40bn a year and directly employs 300,000 people. It also has a unique place in the Australian psyche - and in politics.

"This is a way of life that is important to Australia's future. And as a result of that I think that means there's a special responsibility here," says Prime Minister Scott Morrison. "I'll make sure that way of life continues to be preserved."

The way colonial settlers moved into a rugged land to produce crops and graze animals is part of Australia's history and has become part of its self-identity. Even though most Australians live in cities, they have a strong affinity with what's known as "the bush"; and have sympathy for those growing their food there.

Linda Botterill is a political scientist who has worked in the offices of two government ministers for agriculture. She says the political attachment to farming is rooted in Australians' cultural affinity with those who work the land.

"Drought makes great television. And in Australia - visually - our droughts are really confronting. So, people in the city who don't necessarily understand the economics of agriculture - who have this deep cultural sympathy for farmers - want their governments to act."

Australia's national and state governments have just announced an aid package worth almost $2bn for farmers hit by drought. But what used to be an uncontroversial government expenditure is now, for the first time, attracting critical eyes.

Disapproving economists say that aid packages unlike any in other industries distort the agriculture industry. They also claim subsidies keep inefficient farms alive artificially and discourage necessary prudence and innovation.

"If you want to be in agriculture, then you've got to take the good and the bad times," says Melbourne-based economist John Freebairn.

"I feel sympathy for them. But ... farmers voluntarily choose farming ... From the perspective of individual farmers and of the nation, we would want them to be involved in farming if, on average, the money they make during the good times will carry them through the bad times. If the farmer can't do that, and the country can't do that, then we're better off shifting those people to some other activity," he says.

"Why subsidise farming but not tourism or manufacturing or restaurants? ... You're really taking resources away from one side of the economy ... to subsidise the agricultural sector. Why would you want a bigger agricultural sector and a smaller services and manufacturing sector?"

As eastern Australia is in the grip of drought, what is the best solution for the country and its farmers?

Talk to Al Jazeera travelled to inland New South Wales to talk to farmers about how bad this drought has been and to those who are now questioning financial help for farmers.

Source: Al Jazeera