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Hunter Valley farmers question NSW Government's drought strategy amid worsening dry conditions

Cecilia Connell, Monday January 29, 2018 - 07:59 EDT
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Paddocks near Denman in the NSW Upper Hunter Valley show the impact of dry times. - ABC

It has been more than a year since farmers in the New South Wales Upper Hunter Valley have received a decent drop of rain.

and cattle producers have , as once green pastures become a barren wasteland.

According to Bureau of Meteorology mapping, some pockets of the Upper Hunter are experiencing a one in 20-year rainfall deficiency.



, landholders are sceptical about the ; a process that in the past triggered the release of certain assistance measures, including transport subsidies.

A $300 million drought strategy was announced in 2015 to replace traditional drought declarations, designed to provide a raft of options to better prepare farm businesses for tough times long-term.



More red tape than ever, farmers say

Many Hunter Valley farmers insist they have done all they can to drought-proof their properties and must now cut through more red tape to receive financial support.

Paula Stevenson has run a cattle property in the Bunnan district for 20 years and said it had become a daily struggle to keep cattle alive.

"It's very depressing to go out to a paddock and find that there's yet another cow who's died," she said.

"Even though we instituted lots of drought-proofing measures over the years, it hasn't helped us this particular season.

"You have to battle on because otherwise your livelihood is down the drain.

"We've never seen it this bad before. We're in a parlous state."

Vets work around the clock to provide help

Some producers have had to destroy stock that are too weak to move.



Hunter Local Land Services district veterinarian Jane Bennett said staff were working around the clock to provide assistance.

"We're getting people who are selling entire herds and flocks because there's just no water available for animals anymore," she said.

"We are certainly supporting the RSPCA with some welfare cases around the area, but the vast majority of people have made appropriate decisions at the right time."

Richard Bell is a beef producer in one of the worst-affected areas at Moonan Flat, and is frustrated with the Government's apparent lack of support.

"They're certainly not helping us by calling it a dry time, when it's quite obvious that it is a drought," he said.

"You don't need to be a rocket scientist to work it out, it's a very basic thing — a flood is a flood, a fire is a fire and a drought is a drought.

"I know there are some low-interest loans, but anyone I've talked to who's tried to apply for them, you've got so many hoops to jump through and more or less have to be on your knees to become a beneficiary of one.

"The State Government's sort of put this flag up that they're helping us, but they're not."



Cattle saleyards bursting at the seams

The situation is playing out at the region's livestock markets as producers offload stock at record high levels.

Scone stock-and-station agent Jim MacCallum said the numbers had more than doubled.

"The market is still quite strong. We've got buyers here from Victoria. There's even been some cows going to Tasmania — these cattle are going to get sent to three or four states," he said.

"Scone averages about 1,500 cattle a week, so it's well over double. We're bursting at the seams.

"There's going to be long-term repercussions in this area because to get back in [to the market] is going to be financially really significant, but it's been taken out of people's hands because they've run out of water."

Mr MacCallum's father, Peter, has been a stock and station agent in the Upper Hunter for more than 50 years.

He said the situation had become dire.

"I've lived here my whole life and it's as bad now as I've ever seen it," he said.

"People don't want to lose their core breeders that they've built up over a lot of years and they're desperate to try and keep hold of them.

"Agistment is very, very difficult to find. We're seeing people getting themselves into a very, very low place."



Help is at hand, Government says

Department of Primary Industries Rural Assistance Authority director John Newcombe said finance was available to help landholders.

"Of the $300 million drought package that was announced by the Government in 2015, $250 million of that relates to the Farm Innovation Fund," he said.

"That's a long-term, low-interest rate loan that's available for farmers.

"That's to put in place permanent infrastructure on the farm to help farmers overcome risk such as drought and look, we've had some extremely positive feedback in relation to those loans.

"In the 2016/17 financial year, we approved $53 million worth of loans to over 300 people, and so far this financial year, $30 million worth of loans have been approved to in excess of 200 farming businesses."

Range of plans to help

State Nationals Member for the Upper Hunter Michael Johnsen insisted there were a range of measures in place to help farmers on an ongoing basis.

"There is no such thing as a drought declaration anymore, and the focus for quite a number of years now has been on resilience, both at an individual farm level and a broader level," he said.

"I think it's probably unfair to say that we're not a friend of the farmer.

"There are a number of aspects through the Department of Primary Industries and other agencies within the NSW Government — indeed the Federal Government — that can assist, but if people aren't contacting the Local Land Services, then they're not going to know about it.

"I'll be meeting with the Primary Industries Minister and I'll be giving him a briefing on what the conditions are like here in the Upper Hunter."


- ABC

© ABC 2018

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