Road Trip….Anyone?

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I spent this last weekend in Walgett and Lightning Ridge, listening to and meeting with Minister for Agriculture, Barnaby Joyce, his staff, Brent Finlay (NFF), Fiona Simson (NSWFA), landholders, small business owners, local government representatives, LLS personnel and concerned community members. Every person at those meetings wanted to find a solution to the current crisis besetting agriculture in ever-increasing areas of Australia.

Much of the discussion has been reported in all sorts of media so there is no need for me to repeat that, but what has not been overly evident in these reports was the support of and assistance requests for, small business operators who also rely on the weather for their income; contractors and other small operators who rely on a functioning agricultural sector to maintain their enterprises.

Also discussed was the loss of reliable staff, who have already or are about to, lose their jobs as businesses (in and out of town) cut back on expenses. Most of these people will leave town to find other employment and once gone, they will never return. Various workable and achievable suggestions were put forward e.g. a return of the Regional Employment and Development Scheme (The RED Scheme).

News reports appearing now concerning the Federal Treasurer, Joe Hockey’s response, are not looking positive for Barnaby’s approach to Cabinet on our behalf and comparisons with the SPC debate only serve to imply that farmers also have multi-million dollar backing. The statistics for agriculture are that debt has increased exponentially, not profit. My workplace agreement doesn’t include leave, let alone leave loading.

Mr. Hockey is quoted as saying “We’re all very aware of what’s happening in regional and rural Australia…” With all due respect sir, you do not. From personal experience, when you are removed from the situation it does not have the same impact on your psyche. You have not seen the suffering or felt the reality nor have you met with the human face of what is “happening in regional and rural Australia”.

I invite you and your colleagues to do just that. Come “out here” and meet the people you are suggesting should get off the merry-go-round, to shape up or ship out. Come and listen to the measures that land managers put in place to prepare for this drought. Come and tell them what you believe to be an acceptable level of preparedness. Leave your air-conditioned office and come and tell us in person about the “swings and roundabouts” of the Australian climate.

The Federal Government defines Exceptional Circumstances as “rare and severe events outside those a farmer could normally be expected to manage using responsible farm management strategies. Specifically, they are events that occur on average once every 20 to 25 years and have an impact on income for a prolonged period (greater than 12 months).”

This drought has surpassed any on record, in many areas, let alone the 20 to 25 year average and “greater than 12 months” is a dim memory.

Politics is a numbers game and this debate in Cabinet will be no different. So if you are wondering what you can do to help, I have a suggestion; put pen to paper, fingers on the keyboard or dial a number on your phone and call any politician whose contact details you can find.

Then make sure every person you know does the same.

Something’s got to give

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It is conflicting and confronting to watch the scenes of devastation caused by too much water in the Philippines as I contemplate writing about drought in NSW. It’s also a reminder that there is always someone suffering to a greater degree and that discussion about how best to cope with drought, whilst I still have water on tap, food in the fridge (with electricity to drive it) and a roof over my head, seems churlish in the extreme.

My rationale for continuing is based in the knowledge that members of CWA of NSW will, personally and through our affiliation with the Associated Country Women of the World (ACWW), be offering financial, emotional and spiritual assistance to the people of the Philippines. The new World President of ACWW, Ruth Shanks (a Past NSW President) will no doubt be active in the dissemination of aid from societies across the globe.

Disasters come in varied forms; some horrendously swift with deadly consequences and others are slow and insidious. Drought takes the latter form and invades relentlessly, day by day. One of our members penned the following to me recently; Our situation is very similar to others – feeding for 9 months now and no significant rain for 20 months. We had feed on hand in drought readiness but that only goes so far and this is a long drought. We would have sold much earlier (cattle) but the market was swamped due to the effect of Labor’s live cattle trade policy with Indonesia. We have now sold three quarters of our herd including breeding stock at record low prices. Queensland is helping their farmers and communities; we must be a sub-species in NSW!!!”

If the Government is going down the path of preparedness and being proactive rather than reactive their new policies should have been implemented prior to the current situation, or the old system kept in place until the details of the new, were finalised. Incentives to provide on-farm storage are useless at present, unless they come fully stocked with feed and the deferral of Special Conservation Scheme loans just increases the final amount to pay unless interest charges are also suspended.

There are those who do not believe in drought assistance and I know many farmers who would agree; pride, however comes second to starving stock.The majority of landholders would much prefer to be self sufficient and if income had kept pace with cost of production we would be able to do that. Of course the consequential increase to the cost of a loaf of bread or a steak for dinner would have consumer groups (probably rightly) up in arms. There lies the dilemma.

How “prepared” do farmers need to be; what time frame will be considered acceptable when we are deciding how much feed to keep on hand? How much money should be tied up, in storing feed, that could be used for other improvements like no till machinery to conserve moisture, fencing and increasing watering points to allow for rotational grazing which combined with sowing native perennials will increase groundcover to help store moisture .

There are some in the wider community seeking more holistic methods in the production of food and fibre whilst steadfastly refusing to provide support and at the same time demanding cheaper food. Something or someone has to give and I’m pretty sure it won’t be the weather.

Efficiency, economies of scale, sustainable management practices are some of the catchcries we’ve heard over the last few decades, but they only work for so long, eventually increasing costs encroach on those gains too.

Resilience, eternal optimism and the ability to take risks have long been defining characteristics of Australian farmers, but those traits and their spirit, is evaporating as quickly as the water in the farm dam on a 40° day.