This week’s visit by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Agriculture Minister David Littleproud and their Cabinet colleagues buoyed drought-stricken farmers in New South Wales and Queensland.
Not because of the ‘celebrity factor’ of welcoming VIPs to town, but rather it was a sign that ‘Canberra’ had recognised their plight and was listening.
Australia is a place of drought and flooding rains. Farmers know only too well, that dealing with the seasonal cards they are dealt, is part and parcel of their vocation. Even if that ‘hand’ is ‘rough’ for a number of years in a row.
Drought – is certainly not a new phenomenon. Think back to the infamous widespread ‘big dries’ of the mid-sixties and early eighties. However, there is no doubt that farmers are operating in an increasingly variable, even erratic climate. Some farmers who are considered to be in ‘drought’ have received average rainfall – just not at the usual and most beneficial time.
Farmers, ever agile, are well advanced in adapting to this increased variation. In some grain growing regions, growers have increased their water use efficiency by 50-100 per cent. Australia’s cotton growers produce more crop per drop than any other cotton producing country Rice also is the most efficient rice grown in the world per megalitre of water.
Farmers are planting more hardy, more drought tolerant crop varieties – whether that be wheat or wine grapes. The broadscale transition to no or reduced tillage cropping has also increased water use efficiency and bolstered soil health.
I shake my head at uninformed barbs suggesting that farmers need to do more to adapt to a changing climate.
The NFF and our network of member organisations have endorsed a clear climate change policy. The NFF policy recognises that climate change poses a significant challenge for Australian farmers. The policy states that as a nation, we must act to ensure that our economy is well placed to cost efficiently reduce our national greenhouse gas emissions profile. I challenge those stone throwers to demonstrate a more adaptive lot than the ag sector! All of the farmers I speak to have no doubt the climate is getting hotter and drier, they say this because they are dealing with it every day of their working life.
The question “what do drought-affected farmers need?” is fraught and complex.
Many Governments, state and federal, with the very best of intentions, have tried but are yet to achieve the optimal policy outcome – that is that Australian farmers are better prepared and more resilient to what we know is a part of the landscape in Australia.
This week, I valued the opportunity to talk through the many options with the Prime Minister and Minister Littleproud. The National Farmers’ Federation’s believes drought support must focus on risk management and preparedness; support during drought and assistance to enable rapid recovery. Practically, we support a focus on objectively defining ‘drought’; continued investment in long term climate modelling and the development of ever-more accurate predictive indicators.
It is an absolute must that drought policy and support programs be streamlined across federal and state jurisdictions – while at the same time being flexible enough to allow for regional variations in both climate and production systems. What an East Gippsland dairy farmer needs will likely be very different to what help a southern Queensland sheep producer requires.
A major impediment to the success of past and present drought support frameworks has been the amount of red tape and ‘hoops’ farmers have to jump through in order to qualify for relief. A mountain of ‘bureaucratic’ paperwork is the last thing a farmer needs when they have to (reluctantly I have to say) put their hand up for help and are already under immense pressure.
We’d like to see Government, in consultation with the farm sector, determine what is the exact objective of drought support and ensure that this remains the central focus of all eligibility, criteria and assessment process. Only a framework that is fair and equitable will have longevity.
Also, hugely important is the wellbeing of our farming families. Access to financial planning services that will enable farmers to pragmatically address their financial positions and ideally plan for the not-so-rainy days. We know mental health services in our regional towns is lacking - this needs to be considered when thinking about drought support.
All in all, there is no one silver bullet, no quick fix. The farmers the Prime Minister visited with, did not profess to have all the answers. Instead, they told their personal story. With those stories in mind, the Prime Minister returns to Canberra with, I am sure, a much better understanding of the current hardship before many of our farmers.
And, despite the trying times, the pictures of the PM’s ‘drought tour’, show smiles still on the faces of the farming families of Trangie, Narromine, Blackall, Charleville and Boulia. That, I tell you, is the resilience, that we have heard so much about, shining through!