MICHAEL PASCOE. Billions wasted on drought aid that’s not helping those who need it most.

Sep 3, 2018

Wealthy people are stuffing their kitchen cupboards with donated goods and their sheds with free hay while animal welfare is being ignored and low-paid rural workers go without favours.

That’s according to an old schoolmate, a farmer who is furious about what’s happening with drought aid, both the government initiatives and the well-meaning charity of individuals and corporations.

And he’s none too pleased with how little some farmers know about something as basic as how much feed an animal actually requires.

He tracked me down to deliver an earful because he felt he had to tell somebody how unfair and wasteful the various schemes were.

His were the views of one farmer, albeit a particularly savvy farmer, but they came ahead of the Productivity Commission chairman saying billions of dollars had been wasted on programs that don’t help farmers  and the former head of the Commonwealth Environment Water Office blasting as illegal the proposal of “Special Drought Envoy” Barnaby Joyce to divert environmental flows to farmers.

My farmer mate’s words also rang loudly as I had spent a week visiting a coffee shop where an impromptu collection basket had been set up where the tip jar had been.

The little sign announced the staff were donating all tips to help farmers in drought. People on coffee shop hospitality industry wages were forgoing money as media and politicians cranked up publicity for those doing it hard on the land.

And drought-struck farmers are indeed doing it hard – as are the low-wage rural workers who aren’t getting special deals from the government and hadn’t had the opportunity of big incomes in previous years or substantial sums tucked away in farm management deposits (FMDs).

That annoys my farmer informant. He reckons it’s just not fair. He’s appalled that there is no means testing for billion-dollar government schemes, especially when there’s no requirement for farmers to use the money in FMDs before getting further assistance and when the attempts to help are doing harm to other farmers.

(FMDs allow rural producers to average out their income for tax purposes over good and bad seasons.)

He says he’s seen donated goods and hay being snapped up by farmers who could afford to buy it, that the distribution of donated goods is opaque.

He’s saddened that well-meaning charities are forcing up the price of hay, sometimes paying above the odds, and that the New South Wales government’s freight subsidy was immediately arbitraged into higher prices.

It also worries him that farmers who simply aren’t good at their businesses or have marginal operations are being kept going by well-meaning city folk and poll-driven politicians.

“If it rains now, it will be two to three months before you have feed,” he says. “You have to know how much feed you have and how much a beast actually needs to work out how many head you can carry until it comes in. A lot of farmers simply don’t understand that.

“If you don’t have the feed, you simply can’t carry the stock, you shouldn’t carry the stock.”

Like all the good farmers I’ve ever known, he genuinely cares for his stock.

He’s especially riled to hear of someone buying cattle because they’re cheap and “if half are lost before the drought breaks, it won’t matter because the survivors will be worth so much more”. There’s an animal welfare issue there.

On his own property, as he has in previous droughts, he’s been selling down to stay within the limits of what he can support. His is mainly a trading and finishing-off operation. He normally carries about 200 head but he’s down to 60 now because he has enough feed left for just that many for the three months or so that will take to prepare them for market.

After that, without significant rain, he’ll close up shop and wait.

He said the arrival of charities spending other people’s money had sent the price of hay in Victoria from $140 a tonne as high as $400. That’s great for those in the hay business, but it distorts the market and is unsustainable.

By its nature, charity fodder runs out. People become tired of open-ended giving as they realise there are fundamental, longer-term issues they are not helping.

Charity is not a reliable resource in the event of prolonged drought. No farmer should rely on it.

By being encouraged to gamble on weather instead of managing stock and feed ratios, the usual outcome of gambling tends to ensue.

And now the forecasts are suggesting an El Nino event will mean the east coast dry won’t be breaking any time soon.

There’s also the negative impact of prudent farmers seeing the gamblers being rewarded.

“I was speaking to a young farmer this week who had spent $40,000 out of his own pocket last year on hay and fodder conservation – he said he’d been a mug, he should have had a holiday in Europe and bought a new car instead, because the people who hadn’t been investing were being given money and hay.”

As for the government subsidising farmers in a drought to build sheds and silos to store hay and grain that they don’t have, my mate thought the absurdity was self-evident.

There’s no shortage of absurdity. People transporting water melons for stock when the melons are only 10 per cent dry nutrients. They’re not worth the effort. People thinking oranges at $350 a tonne are cheaper than hay when oranges have only 20 per cent dry nutrients.

It’s in our better nature, our mythology, to identify and sympathise with the people of the land. We want to help. We’re encouraged to do so by media playing the usual games of appealing to our emotions.

But farming is a hard and risky business that increasingly requires skilled, hard-headed, knowledgable management and long-term policies to handle our changing climate, not prayers, hope, sudden political largesse before elections and fickle charity.

This article was published by The New Daily on the 31st of August 2018. It was written by contributing editor Michael Pascoe. 

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