TOOWOOMBA-based John Darby has contract harvested in Spring Ridge for 45 years but never has his future been so uncertain.
While the drought conditions of New South Wales were thrust into the metropolitan limelight last year resulting in increased financial support for those on the land, contract farmers have been forgotten.
Spring Ridge is normally a fertile cropping district but with no moisture for growers to plant into, Mr Darby has missed three straight harvests.
His other serviceable districts, including Collarenebri and Walgett, have gone years without high producing crops.
Now as his main income dries up, Mr Darby has been forced to sell his truck and get behind the wheel himself.
“I drive one truck trying to make a bit of an income and I’ve got one other driver,” he said.
“There was three drivers but I got rid of one truck and one driver.
I’m nearly 70, I’m getting too old to drive, but I’ve got to. It’s the only thing I can do.”
Drought support for contract farmers and small business was a hot topic during a special forum with federal drought envoy Barnaby Joyce at Spring Ridge last Wednesday.
The meeting, organised by Royal Hotel publican Tom Archer, delivered a number of ideas for financial support including free registration for heavy vehicles, interest rate rebates for exisiting equipment loans in drought-declared areas and income tax relief for workers in regional areas.
Mr Darby said it was no longer a matter of months for some people, a solution was needed now.
“We are the link down under the farmer,” he said.
“We just keep borrowing more money and more money to survive. Interest rate subsidies would help us and cheaper vehicle and truck registrations. I’ve got three headers that are worth probably about 1.2 million.
“I was with a regional bank manager in Queensland for 20 years and he said, ‘your debt levels got so high because you can’t pay the payments on that header so I’ve got to put you up the line to my manager who is in Brisbane’.
“Talking to him is like talking to the post behind you, it’s pretty hard.”
Goondiwindi based contract harvester and cotton picker Robert Privitera usually services the southern Queensland district and further down into Bonshaw but is also struggling to find work.
“Obviously if farmers don’t get crop we are directly affected,” he said.
“We are services to agriculture, no agriculture, no income for us.
“I don’t think we get much representation because we can go to another area but if you do your infringing and someone else will miss out.”
While he couldn’t give a guaranteed answer to the queries of Spring Ridge residents, Barnaby Joyce noted a number of suggestions to put forth to state and federal governments after his visits.
Among them were concessional registrations, introduction of primary producer number plates, farm management deposits for anyone reliant on agriculture and recalculation of the farm household allowance so not to be a “social security package” but rather a drought package.
Mr Joyce encouraged those on the land to use the current season to learn and prepare for the next challenge.
“One thing people can do in drought is you’ve got a lot of spare time so if you’re not feeding or if the stock have gone, get the water infrastructure right,” he said.
“You want to come out of drought in a better position then what you were.”
IMPACTS ON SMALL BUSINESS
The impacts of drought are also flowing through to small businesses.
Chris Holland and his son Andrew operate Spring Ridge Engineering and 15 years ago would have had 30 people working in their shed.
Now about four staff work for the company after they stood down an employee last year due to a lack of jobs.
“When farmers are using their gear because there is moisture there to use it there are wild operators and we thrive on that because they need it fixed quick and they come to us,” Andrew Holland said.
“It’s very slow because no one is using anything and now farmers have got enough time to fix things themselves because there is nothing to do.”
Mr Holland said establishing water infrastructure, like the Ord River Irrigation Scheme, was a pivotal long-term solution that would benefit all of industry.
“If we are going to spend money why don’t we actually make it so we are drought proof,” he said.
“There is no point throwing money at things you can’t fix unless we actually have a solution.
“When rain does come the farmers will get the first bit and then we are still down the bottom end because we are waiting for something to break.”
The concerns of small business owners and contractors often falls on the ears of publican Tom Archer.
“I think in the next two or three months we are going to start losing these contactor fellas,” he said.
“They have got no where else to go to, they have got no financial assistance, they can’t sell their machinery and they have got no earning.
“What’s concerning us is the break down of the community. If these guys move on we end up with cheaper housing in the community and with cheaper housing you are bringing social problems with that.
“It’s been so good the last couple of years to see a lot of these kids come back with families of their own and this is where they want to live and we want to keep the town good for that reason.”
Mr Archer had spoken to a local farmer and father who was struggling to put food on his table.
“He has got four headers and he has got his own truck and that’s his off season income with the truck,” he said.
“Talking to him today, he is up to the stage where he can’t put groceries on the table for his kids and cannot get any government assistance anywhere.
“He is ready to walk and when you get up to the stage where you can’t feed your children, that’s dire.”
He told Mr Joyce rural and regional based small business needed to be treated separately to metropolitan based ones.