Cost of floods more than just financial

“The farmers will be happy with all this rain about, wouldn’t they?” a Melbourne friend asked me recently.

It was an innocent remark, but it highlights what an uphill battle the farming sector faces in spreading the message that the flooding across eastern Australia will create serious problems in terms of rural mental health.

Already, there have been reports of at least two farmer suicides in the wake of the devastating rain events of the past six weeks.

Yet it is clear our urban cousins are unlikely to comprehend the full damage of the deluge.

Compare the situation to the drought, where city dwellers were faced with confronting images of cracked dry dam beds and desolate paddocks devoid of a blade of grass.

This time round, once the immediate threat of the floodwaters, and the dramatic photo opportunity, pass we are left with a scene looking very close to the rural idyll – creeks running healthily, green paddocks and fat animals.

It would be hard for the untrained eye to pick the situation as being as dire as it was in the long dry days of 2006-07.

In many ways, however, 2010 has been even crueller. In the drought, farmers had an indication early on that the season was not going favourably and reined in inputs, whereas this year, there have been plenty of trips to the local merchandise store for fertiliser and chemical.

There’s also the psychological damage done by seeing a year that could potentially have wiped the slate clean on close to a decade’s worth of drought-induced debt ruined by too much of a good thing.

With this in mind, all within the agricultural sector need to make sure the seriousness of the issue is highlighted right across Australia.

There’s an impatience with the farming sector in metropolitan centres and even among those living in regional and rural towns that the farming sector is too quick to come with its hand out in hard times.

While the truth of the matter is that assistance programs such as exceptional circumstance (EC) payments is a drop in the ocean compared to the aid given to other Australian industries, such as manufacturing, that is the perception.

The fight is now to explain to the wider public just how difficult the 2010 harvest rain will make it for grain producers, both financially and emotionally.

On another front, all those who know farmers, or those in rural-based businesses, need to take a bit of time out to ensure their friends and families are handling the reality of having a potential bumper year turn into a mouldy disaster in front of their eyes.

Grain based businesses are aware of the stresses growers are under, and those that are specifically training staff to deal with farmers under severe strain are to be applauded.

Meanwhile, all of us can follow the advice from websites such as Beyond Blue and Lifeline and ensure everyone gets through this difficult period as best as possible.

Lifeline – 131 114 www.lifeline.org.au

Beyond Blue - 1300 22 4636 www.beyondblue.org.au

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READER COMMENTS

roma
20/12/2010 12:48:47 PM

The continuous flooding following years of drought exacerbates the despair of our farmers. Full Stop. Why is it so hard for the rest of the population to accept this? Because the Big Dailies don't find the topic sexy enough. However, when food prices and scarcity becomes the new normal, it will be front page news.
ME Again
21/12/2010 5:53:51 AM

Whilst depression and financial stress are no laughing matters, will giving money to farmers - creating a culture of welfarism - solve the problem, or just paper over the crack? You can't buy self respect. The issue is long term, genuine viability, which several years of drought, and now floods have tested. Once upon a time (in the good old days?) drought and flood woiuld force people off their farms: now we have EC to prolong the pain. And Roma - the food won't run out, unless no one buys these farms, and no one continues to produce...as that starts to happen, prices will go up, and it will be a great place to be.

That's a very good point there ME Again - I wholeheartedly agree that nothing could be worse within the ag sector than fostering a welfare mentality.

We only have to look at the 'mailbox farmer' of Europe and North America to see what happens when policy lessens the need for individual producers to stand on their own two feet.

However, there are a range of initiatives, rather than straight handouts, that could be of enormous benefit to growers having production difficulties, such as access to multi-peril insurance and other risk management tools.

You could argue that current EC laws in the drought years have perhaps favoured those with an unnecessarily high-risk approach, but this flooding is another matter again - unfortunately it just can't be planned for in any meaningful way.

Posted by moderator: Gregor Heard on 21/12/2010 8:31:25 AM
Peter T
21/12/2010 9:23:09 AM

Two issues stand out like the proverbial here. 1 Farmers have simply not been receiving a large enough share of the the $$ that a consumer pays for food products.This is what has caused rapidly declining viability and financial and mental resilience, wet years or dry years. 2 The lack of open minded thinking and fortitude by sucessive governments of ALL colours towards the numerous multi peril insurance schemes that have been put forward by farm groups for DECADES. A farming friend from Washington State said the following to me in an email only yesterday after I sent him some photos of the current Australian situation "Does your country have a safety net to support farmer in such disaster? The US Dept. of Ag is implementing an insurance program that puts a safety net both for yield and price. I believe in the next farm program direct payment will be gone." We follow the US blindly into so many dubious ventures, here is a chance redeem ourselves by following them into something really good !
ME Again
21/12/2010 12:51:33 PM

Peter T - don't confuse assistance with welfare. The reason that the EU and USA can have an "all risks insurance policy" for farmers is that they have massive farm sectors, all of which are compulsory participants in the program. And yes, it is subsidised. But it's the volume of business and the spread of risk that makes the subsidy relatively efficient: in Australia, given the risks and variablity of outcomes, all risks insurance would be over the top expensive, and would wipe out the now assured profit.
Bourke
21/12/2010 4:27:54 PM

Before anything can be improved for our farmers the whole food supply chain needs to be transformed. These harsh climatic conditions highlight what policy is missing... Food security is an issue whether it is acknowledged or not. And having a successful and sustainable farming and rural communities is definitely a step in the right direction but they can't be without the support and understanding of the cities. The divide needs to end!
Geez Looeez...
22/12/2010 6:05:35 PM

All very well to deride the "hand-outs" farmers receive (in some cases) in the form of EC assistance but where is the transparency of farm gate to retail prices? For the uninitiated and ignorant, interest rate subsidies are vital to more than just a few farmers: they are the mainstay of many small businesses in otherwise destitute towns. Businesses who rely on farmers spending those borrowed dollars while fertilizer & chemical giants jack their prices up irrespective of the high dollar. We currently have a govt that is focussed on ridding itself of private landholders. This gov't encourages the increase of interest rates to attract foreign investment - thereby making their books look a little better. This gov't encourages the high exchange rate - devaluing the produce Australian farmers offer for sale. There has been NO EC assistance for many shires; this is now to the detriment of these shires as without a current EC declaration, they do NOT qualify for emergency / disaster relief. So before you accuse the farmers of being "propped" up by gov't handouts - get your facts straight. Not ALL farmers have been in receipt of gov't money.
SmS
22/12/2010 6:07:45 PM

So, in order to deal with the billions of lost dollars, we will provide Lifeline numbers? Please.... this is a disaster of never before experienced proportions. I don't think Lifeline will keep the bank from my door.
Bluey
23/12/2010 7:34:05 AM

Gregor, I don't feel the EC support was nearly enough for rural communities suffering through a severe ten year drought event. We survived well for four years and it was only then we began needing assistence. What price a healthy rural Australia producing food and population? Unfortunately the real issues were lost in the Climate Change fiasco - suddenly farming was going to be unviable anyway and a carbon tax would save the planet. And to compare farming conditions here to those in the EEC or US is ludicrous. They harvest eight ton crops EVERY year. They cut silage EVERY year. In Switzerland this year fertilizer cost approximately $400 t. Their heavy yielding wheat crop returned $450 t although being rain affected with low falling numbers. We've been on our property for 90 years and my wife and I have just spent 10 years raising our family through our best working years. We have certainly produced more for Australia than we've taken - it's now time for new insurance policies and soft commodity regulations so future generations don't have to suffer the mental, financial and physical exhaustion whole communities have had to suffer.
kevin
27/12/2010 3:09:51 PM

As Farmer since i was a child and working for the last 33 yrs I can well understand why some on the land would commit or contemplate suicide.I have been a long term suffer in silence for 28 of those years with depression and bipolar disorder.I well know the contempt that less understanding people have of these problems and also the lack of proper oversight of many medicos in this area. For the life of me i cannot understand why the city press would suggest that floods wont cause mental problems.However bad these climate events might be nothing compares to the ill advised torment caused by bureaucrates who think they know best for the farmers with out compassionately consaulting them or even the nefarious actions of the finance industry and the banks in the way they treat country people. Rural industries of any form can never and have never been able to cope with climate extremes and high bank charges and interest rates.By any understanding a return on investment by the banks is out and out theft. There is scant need for both charges and high interest rates.This particularly in the area of rural investment.This creates undue and unnecessary stress and hardship.
Deej
2/01/2011 3:22:51 PM

Now hear this, now hear this - Governments at levels here's your shot at redemption. Step up to the plate and show us what you are made of. This weather event and your response will show if you are fair dinkum about looking after one of our most valuable assetts - the farming families of this nation!!
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Grain of TruthRural Press grains writer Gregor Heard on the big issues facing the broadacre farmers today.

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