Fears for farming future as drought deepens

Liz Bell

LOCAL farmers fear for the future of farming communities around Gippsland, as the drought continues to erode confidence in the industry and young people turn their backs on the land as a career.

At a drought information session in Briagolong last Wednesday, farmers told of their hardship and the continued battle to make the industry attractive to the next generation.

Briagolong farmer Barry Noble said as many farmers in Wellington Shire neared retirement, their children were seeing their struggles and losing interest.

“The problem is not enough young farmers want to fill their parents’ spots, so we will lose all that experience,” he said.

“Farming is not something you can just pick up – it takes years to learn and lots of experience to get it right.

“But because of the length of the drought and the hardship they see, young people don’t want to be part of it.”

Barry’s son Stephen said the ongoing drought spelled doom for regional areas, with traditional farming families being the backbone of regional towns, their sporting clubs and social networks.

“Young farming men and women fill the sports clubs, their kids fill the schools and they buy from local businesses,” he said.

While he is one of the few younger generation farmers holding on to hope that there is a future in raising livestock, Stephen said he was concerned smaller family farms were being forced to sell out to corporations.

“I’m working hard to learn what I can so that my wife and I can make a go of farming, but I see farming communities that are changing because families are no longer there to create strong communities,” he said.

“In Nambrok, for example, corporations have the money to buy up family farms, and the result is less kids in schools, and there is a flow-on effect.

“And in Briagolong, the general store is for sale, the cafĂ© has closed and the antique store is closed – communities all over are suffering.”

Stephen, who has had to retain his off-farm job, said his plan was always to take over his father’s farm on his retirement and work it full time, but that was looking less and less likely because of drought pressures.

“My wife and I have decided to make a life out of farming with the idea a few years ago that I would be able to work the farm full time, but now we have to rethink that,” he said.

“I’m 36, but I’ll probably be in my mid-40s before I’m in a position to do that, and that’s not an attractive position to be in.”

Stephen said he had already invested a lot of money into trying to establish himself as a farmer, but was now “really wondering why we bothered”.

Victorian rural assistance commissioner Peter Tuohey headed the drought information session, and said getting more young people interested in farming and supporting them to stay in the industry was essential to the future of farming in Gippsland.

He urged farmers to take advantage of the many drought grants and subsidies available, and to be prepared to “change” and learn new farm management practices.

“If I managed my farm the way my father did 40 years ago, I wouldn’t be in business,” he said.

“Things have changed, the weather has changed, farming has changed, costs have changed and expenses have changed; we have to manage those changes.”

More than a dozen farmers attended the information session, telling their own stories of heartache and mounting debt, and pleading for more targeted assistance.

Several called for the need for easier access to mental health support, bravely telling of the stress of facing the rising costs of trying to maintain stock and pastures with empty dams and dusty paddocks with no grass.

“We’ve all been affected in some way,” one farmer said.

Another spoke of the psychological toll of watching crops fail for three consecutive years, and seeing the rain in neighbouring towns that doesn’t come as far as Briagolong.

Others suggested help for smaller farms, which often did not meet the stringent criteria for grants and subsidies.

Mr Tuohey, who farms dry land north of the state, told farmers that while there was an obvious need for immediate assistance, the focus also needed to be on “future proofing” the industry to attract the next generation of farmers.

He urged farmers to investigate the assistance available, and said the eligibility criteria for some grants and loans had changed recently.

“Be willing to utilise the help available to improve drought resistance and stock management, and that will help today, as well as help into the future,” he said.

“We have to change the way we do things, simple things like improving infrastructure and containing stock to reduce energy input and reserve feed and water.”

Mr Tuohey also encouraged farmers to investigate crops that were more efficient and drought resistant.

“I look out at paddocks in some areas that are bare, with no ground cover,” he said.

“I encourage farmers to look at planting things like Moby barley, which gives exceptional growth and is a good stock food.

“The department (of agriculture) has good advice.

“There is information out there.”

Maffra-based rural financial counsellor Jenny Mason said the take-up of the recent round of drought grants was “disappointing”, despite new interest-free periods for loans.

“There are now two-year interest free loans available, and we want farmers to take them up,” she said.

“We are here to help them, but people have been slow to apply.

“We want to get the message out that these interest-free loans will help farmers drought-proof and improve.”

Farmer Peter Young, who hosted the session on his Briagolong farm, said farmers had been knocked so badly by the drought that the massive costs of restocking when it eventually rained were continually mounting.

He said the current grants were “welcomed”, but that a more efficient application system was needed, such as a database where information already provided by farmers was stored.

“Farmers are struggling and many don’t have the time to fill in endless applications forms each time they apply for something,” he said.

Mr Tuohey said help was available to apply for assistance, which would help with the “immediate burden and the long term”.

For more information about available support and assistance and to apply, visit agriculture.vic.gov.au/dryseasons.

For information regarding rural financial counselling services, phone 1300 045 747.