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The Forgotten Drought

Skye Manson, Monday November 4, 2013 - 15:33 EDT
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Assistance measures have been announced for drought affected farmers in north west NSW - ABC

The daily grind of the feed run is getting pretty tired and painful for farmers in north-west New South Wales.

Chances are if you live on a farm near Bourke, Brewarrina, Goodooga, Lightning Ridge, Walgett or other surrounding parts you've probably spent a lot of time over the last 18 months in the ute, feeding stock.

Over the course of the year, some of those farmers will have watched from the window of that ute as grain crops shoot to head and then die because of no rain.

In the Walgett Shire there hasn't been a good soaking of rain for 12 months; records show it's the driest year ever. Even drier that the famous 10-year drought.

As that ute rattles through the dry paddocks with grain pouring out of the feed cart - tonnes and tonnes of it each day - it's hard not to think of the cost.

Robert Turnbull farms north of Lightning Ridge.

He's up at 5 o'clock each morning and doesn't get in until 9 o'clock each night.

He says its costing him, mentally, physically and financially.

"Every week that this goes on, it's just costing us so much more money," he said.

"We've got to go and borrow money to buy loads of grain and loads of hay, it's very expensive. Just the distance that we have to travel to cart grain and hay home. At this stage we are feeding out around 10 tonnes of grain a day, it could be costing about $3,000 a day. We can't sorta keep going for much longer."

A fortnight ago a delegation of government officials travelled to the area and say they were shocked about the severity of the drought.

Farmers feel like no-one really knows how bad it is.

They gathered at people's farms in order to tell the officials face-to-face that they need financial assistance now, including things like low interest rate loans, transport subsidies and family assistance support.

But if the governments, both state and federal, were to provide this kind of assistance, it would be a backward step on the current thinking around drought reform and drought assistance.

This year the NSW Government scrapped its drought declaration scheme, which in the past would have triggered a whole range of financial support payments to struggling farmers.

It was a reactive approach to drought and now governments and farmers are trying to be proactive.

They are focused on providing money for projects that prepare farms for drought.

Yesterday the NSW Primary Industry Minister Katrina Hodgkinson announced a suite of support measures to help farmers prepare for drought.

But she admits landholders in those areas are caught in a difficult bureaucratic situation.

"One of the problems that we foresaw when we were discussing this with the former Labor government, was what if we haven't got time before the next drought to really get drought preparedness up and established," she said.

"That's where we find ourselves now."

"We need need to be assisting people and I do recognise that they are in a dire situation."

Ms Hodgkinson says immediate financial assistance many farmers are seeking are the responsibility of the Commonwealth Government.

She will be passing on farmers requests for emergency assistance when she meets with the Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce today.
Lightning Ridge farmer Rob Turnbull says even if it rains this summer, the debt from this drought will continue to well into the next year.

"If we get enough moisture in the ground to start off our sowing program for 2014," he said.

"We need every little duck to line up so that we can get through to harvest at this time next year.

"Between now and then we will have no income what-so-ever."

"It'll just all be expenses once again."

"And if we miss out on a crop this year, I don't know what's going to happen to this whole area."

Mr Turnbull says his situation is proof the Governments new approach to drought assistance won't always work.

"I went into this drought with over 1,000 tonnes of grain on hand, some in silos; and we dug pits and buried grain," he said.

"We had 12 to 1,300 bales of hay. But how long is a piece of string? We've burnt all of that up and a lot more. People are just desperate. They are physically and financially exhausted."


© ABC 2013

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