Already the world's driest inhabited continent, Australia is getting drier as rare back-to-back droughts raise the prospect of a near-permanently parched landscape.

For months the east coast has basked in the warmest, friendliest autumn weather on record. Day after day, Sydney temperatures have risen to around 77 degrees, with clear blue skies throwing television weather reporters into paroxysms of superlatives.

It is a different story inland, where the same weather has farmers struggling to survive.

"It costs about $100 [US$75] an acre to plant a crop. So for 1,000 acres that's $100,000. You do that the first year. That's a hundred grand check written. No income," said Mal Peters, a grazier and president of the New South Wales Farmers' Association.

"Second year, a hundred grand written. No income. Third year, check written, no income. Fourth year -- and some of these guys have 3,000 acres -- you're getting a bit skinny on your cash flow," he said. "Can you imagine rocking up to work for three years without getting a check?"

Drought conditions in southeastern Australia have again reached a critical point for winter crops, with the first to be planted, oilseed canola, all but written off.

After years of drought, the question is being asked: Has Australia become just too dry to sustain a $22.6 billion-a-year farm export industry, one of the largest in the world?

Roger Stone, a climatologist with the Queensland Department of Primary Industries, suggested drought could become the normal state of affairs in eastern Australia as the country seemed headed toward near-permanent El Nino climatic conditions.

Triggered by abnormal sea temperatures, the El Nino effect is blamed for Australia's severe 2002 drought, which slashed crops and caused a liquidation of the nation's livestock. In the late 1990s, another El Nino caused famine and deaths among Papua New Guinea highlanders and forest fires that choked Southeast Asia.

"It's an insidious downward trend," Stone said of rainfall in Australia's farming heartland in the eastern and southern regions. "We're worried that the trend might continue. . . . Many climate models suggest a near-El Nino mean state . . . could be the norm for the future."

Big tropical depressions that in past decades regularly formed off Australia's eastern coast to bring good rainfall to farmland had been reduced to one or two a year as conditions steered rain to Australia's northwest, he said.

This year, Australia's northern summer monsoons also failed.

Stone blames long-term climate change and global warming for diverting rain from eastern and southern growing fields to the Northern Territory and northwest Western Australia.

The federal government has spent more than $500 million on direct drought assistance to farmers, and Prime Minister John Howard has held out the prospect of more aid.

Disillusioned by eroding profit margins, isolation and drought, Australian farmers have been leaving the land for decades.

Many of the country's 15,000 crop farms, 14,000 mixed livestock-crop farms, 12,000 sheep farms, 20,000 beef cattle spreads and 8,000 sheep-beef farms have been sold to larger concerns.

That is a contrast with the big drought of 1890 to 1900, which caused a major retreat and reassessment by farmers, said Mick Keogh, executive director of the Australian Farm Institute, a research and policy group. This time, although the number of farms again is declining, total farm acreage has stayed steady because farms are getting bigger.

Improved technology is also giving hope to a stoic band of rural optimists.

In the past, dry weather during the six-week wheat-planting window left farmers with little choice but to plant in dust in the hope that rain would fall.

Today, Australian farmers are not plowing up everything in sight but using minimum-till technology that allows a rapid response to rainfall; they drive tractors guided with pin-point precision by satellite navigation; they are using integrated pest management systems; and some industries are using biotechnology.

Farmers are also surviving drought by working off-farm jobs, where possible, and selling off parts of their holdings.

Stone sees the key to drought survival in better water management and in the breeding of more drought-resistant crops. He mentioned drought-tolerant "stay-green sorghum" and "stay-green wheat," both recently bred in Queensland.

Bill Finlayson inspecting an empty dam on his farm 500 miles northwest of Sydney during the 2002 drought.A farmer touches the floor of a dried-up dam on his property about 200 miles west of Sydney near Cooma, New South Wales, in July 2004.