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Pressure mounts on Tasmanian Government to declare drought, as more farmers seek counselling

by Sallese Gibson, Monday January 11, 2016 - 18:46 EDT
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Farmland at Oatlands in Tasmania's midlands is suffering for lack of rain. - ABC

There has been a big spike in the number of farmers seeking counselling amid worsening dry conditions in Tasmania, a rural depression support group has said.

Rural Alive and Well (RAW) chief executive officer Danial Rochford said dwindling feed, a sharp rise in hay prices and a lack of agriculture jobs have put those on the land under immense strain.

He said RAW counsellors were seeing 50 per cent more farmers than they were 12 months ago.

"That's certainly an alarming trend and one we are very concerned about," he said.

"A lot of social concern — distress — I think would be the better word to use as a result of dry conditions, fodder prices."

The State Government in November announced a $2.2 million package to help farmers deal with the dry conditions but has been reluctant to use the term "drought".

Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association president Wayne Johnston believed it was a discussion that needed to be had.

"It's been a prolonged period of dryness," he said.

"It looks like we're not going to get any rain in the next week or so that's anything of significance.

"(Farmers are) starting to use the 'd' word."

"I had somebody say to me... that it was 1982, 1983 (since it was this dry). I'm sure there were years since then that have been bad in areas, but across the state I really don't know."

'Everything just fizzles up'

Richard Bowden, who runs a mixed farming operation in Bothwell, said the conditions were the driest in 30 years.

"The conditions at the moment are extremely difficult," he said.

"The sub-soil moisture was completely depleted so as soon as we get some hot, dry winds everything just fizzles up - there's nothing to retain vegetation.

"We are lucky we've got irrigation ... people without irrigation are doing it very tough. They're either hand feeding or selling stock."

Bothwell farmer Di Fowler said those signing up for new irrigation schemes across the state would be in a particularly difficult position.

"The irrigation schemes haven't had time to actually do much," she said.

"People who are doing new developments it means that they're financially more vulnerable.

"They've got loans and that sort of thing to cover themselves and to have dry seasons in that sort of situation makes things a lot more difficult for them."

The Bureau of Meteorology's drought report for May to December 2015 indicated nearly half of Tasmania was experiencing either "serious" or "severe" rainfall deficiencies.

The TFGA will this week meet with Primary Industries Minister Jeremy Rockliff to discuss the situation.

"I don't know what the protocols are for declaration of a drought period," Mr Johnston said.

"This week and into next week, we'll hopefully sit down with the Minister and have a bit of a discussion about that.

"Whether it be... a freight subsidy coming into the state for grain and pellets, cattle pellets, sheep pellets, that'd be one form.

"We just need to sit down and have a plan for this going forward."

'Not yet at the point of drought'

But the Minister is confident the state it not in drought.

"While conditions are very dry as a result of below average rainfall, we are not yet at the point of drought," he said.

"We keep a very close eye on all factors affecting farmers.

"We will continue to monitor the social and economic impact and work with all industry stakeholders to respond to the dry conditions and consider further actions and support as necessary."

Mr Rockliff said the Government was committed to supporting farming families through the dry conditions.

"I empathise with their frustrations," he said.

"This season has been extremely challenging.

"Before summer, we announced $2.27 million worth of initiatives to help farmers and the industry to ensure they were best placed to respond to short- and long-term challenges."

"This included $2.2 million to extend the subsidy for new irrigation electricity connections, $44,000 for a Feed and Fodder Register and an additional $30,000 to extend Rural Alive and Well outreach services on King Island.

"We have also modernised our water management framework by providing additional water for irrigation from our water catchments."

Mr Rockliff said he was in regular contact with the Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce.

The State Opposition wants the Government to establish a taskforce, to provide support for struggling farmers.

Opposition spokeswoman Madeleine Ogilvie did not think enough was being done.

"Let's see some action, let's see (the Government) talking to the farmers and accepting that there's a problem," she said.

"Unless that dialogue commences immediately, we're going to run into trouble.


© ABC 2016

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