Government assistance to help the insurance industry get to a better place, dedicated information portals, and incentivising producers to be able to help themselves – these were the main messages the Prime Minister’s drought coordinator, Major General Stephen Day, took away from his meeting with growers in the Warwick region.
Some 18 primary producers from sectors ranging from horticulture and orcharding to dairy and beef industries gathered at Jamie and Cynthia McDonald’s property, Wingarra last week for the opportunity of reaching Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, through the coordinator-general.
While the retired army veteran has helped plan and negotiate the transfer of security responsibility from coalition forces to the government of Iraq, the scope of expectations from the people present was wide enough to keep him occupied for a considerable time.
They ranged from predicting when drought was starting to predicting when it might end, all of which he used to refine his understanding from his latest visit to a drought area.
The message of confusion by some over where to go to find information and how to access help resonated strongly with General Day, who said the second most valuable commodity after water in a drought was information.
Having already established that there was no coherent one-stop shop, he advised that an online Farm Hub should be established by the federal government by the end of the year.
Despite not convincing the federal government, he agreed with people on the ground at Warwick that web-based systems weren’t always appropriate for farming communities and that town hall-style meetings would be useful.
“I believe it’s the missing part,” he said. “The federal government has given $1m to 81 local councils, which is wonderful, but I think each council needs someone on their staff who wakes up in the morning and thinks about drought.”
He commended the Southern Downs Regional Council for their initiative in employing a drought coordinator, and said while there was an extraordinary range of programs already available from different levels of government, from businesses and services, and from banks, the challenge was getting all that in an easily accessible, more coherent package for farmers and their communities.
Orchardist Duncan Ferrier put forward the case for broad-based income protection, saying that if incomes were assured, banks would have more confidence in supporting producers and their plans.
“Multi-peril crop insurance got a nasty name – I prefer to talk about it this way,” he said.
Along with fellow orchardist, John Pratt, they said the horticulture industry had trouble accessing assistance that was set up for broadacre farming.
General Day said he would take back the message that those present wanted the federal government to consider what role it had in helping kickstart income protection.
Incentivising good business practices in good times as well as bad ones was a clear message, as were concerns about profiteering in the fodder market and the quality of the hay available.
Vegetable grower, Tim Carnell, said both could be addressed if people were incentivised to build big hay sheds, leaving no opportunity for profiteering.
Mr Carnell and his wife Felicity, who have seven properties over a 40km spread, which they hope spreads their risk to hail and addresses water security, gave a clear message of facilitating the ability for people to help themselves rather than accessing grants and loan support.
He said accelerated depreciation would allow farmers to manage better, and painted a picture for growers who have to deal with volatile cash fluctuations.
“We had a good season and tomato prices were high but we had a tax bill we couldn’t jump over,” he said.
“Farm management deposits are good but they lock your money up.
“A business like ours relies on cash, to buy seeds and so on, and you need to be fluid about how you manage your money. FMDs are no benefit for us.”
Cow and goat dairy farmers, Bevan and Judy Warriner, suggested that each level of government find a tax relief strategy they could implement – rate reductions, vehicle registrations and GST were the examples they gave – to reduce pressure in times when people are most cash-strapped.
Fodder, hay in particular, was the other main issue raised, both the access, the quality and the price.
Related reading: Gatton fodder suppliers under pressure
Loaded with feeling, there were a number of examples given of nasty surprises and of stockpiling, along with repeated requests for regulation and control for when the situation gets beyond the normal ups and downs of trading.
General Day cautioned against recycling anecdotes, saying he needed firsthand examples of profiteering.
He also said the experience of moving hay interstate had not been done in Australia in a large-scale way before.
At the end of the morning he said what attendees had told him was consistent with what he’d heard across Australia.
“I’m determined to leave a system at national level that tells government an area might be starting to enter drought, so the government and the community can get ahead of the game,” he said.