SOUTHERN Cross farmer Clint Della Bosca has a message for those who suggest producers hit by recurring drought should pack it in: “We are viable – we just need genuine support,” he says.
Farmers in the Western Australian Wheatbelt region are hurting from the compound impacts of several tough seasons, and Mr Della Bosca’s frustrations centre on an attitude he believes stems from a false premise that he and his farming neighbours are trying to produce crops in a region that’s fallen victim to climate change.
Instead of missing out on income from cropping due to irregular low rainfall events, the new norm is to make a return one in every five seasons. But Mr Della Bosca says the eastern Wheatbelt has experienced extended periods of dry weather before and the regular rainfall patterns will return again.
Rather than abandoning farmers and supporting banks that are looking to foreclose on struggling properties considered “unviable”, he says State and federal governments must step in with a strong supporting "bridge".
His farm sits on the fringe of the extreme area, with his back fence being the last one that defines a farm on the pathway into Kalgoorlie. Mr Della Bosca said historical rainfall records suggest there were periods in the early 1900s and during the 1930s which were much drier than the past decade.
He said during those times, the banks also told his ancestors that they wouldn’t be given finance to carry on farming, but then it rained again and production flourished once more and the region thrived.
“I’d have hoped after about 100 years farming in this area we’d be a bit smarter by now and realise we’re going through a dry spell and need some genuine support – it’s not all about climate change,” he said.
“We’re being treated like it’s never going to rain again but we all know it will. Why not give the farmers out here the support they need to deal with this dry period and help get them through it?
“If we walk off the land here at Southern Cross now, where’s the defence for other farmers 100kms away, when the banks and bureaucrats come after them too?
“Things will turn around; they have so before.”
Mr Della Bosca has also been working with the Muntagin Farming Alliance over the past 12 months in trying to highlight issues with short and long-term farm viability and find solutions.
The Alliance has also aligned with the national Rural Debt Roundtable Working Group chaired by Rowell Walton. The Roundtable is proposing development of an Australian Reconstruction and Development Board (ARDB) to provide low interest loans to help farmers battling with escalating debt.
That movement helped bring about the package of concessional loans introduced under the former Labor federal government’s Farm Finance Package (FFP). Introduced in April last year, the $420 million scheme has been subject to ongoing political and bureaucratic delays.
Mr Della Bosca said he was unsurprised to hear that just one application had been received in Western Australia for the 4.5 per cent interest loans. Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce has threatened to redirect WA’s $50 million FFP share towards east coast farmers needing more urgent drought support, if there’s no uptake in the West.
Mr Della Bosca also slammed the $5000-$10,000 State government grants announced by WA Agriculture Minister Ken Baston last week to assist farm businesses in the Yilgarn, Westonia and surrounding Wheatbelt shires struggling with drought and debt-related issues. He said the money was intended for “independent assessment” of those farm businesses to help consider their futures.
But that’s just a polite way of trying to convince those farmers to move out of the industry because other experts consider them unviable, Mr Della Bosca said.
“There’s a real groundswell of resentment starting to take off out here,” he said.
“The Agriculture Department thinks this should just be grazing land and we shouldn’t even plant crops anymore.”
Mr Della Bosca said about 100 to 150 farm businesses State-wide were trying to convince their banks to lend them funds to plant crops this season, “but the banks aren’t opening up their cheque books”.
He said the WA government was deliberately making the eligibility criteria for FFP concessional loans “too hard and too tight” so the money can’t be distributed to support those who need it most.
“We could apply for the $200,000 but we won’t get it – the criteria’s just too tight,” he said.
“Even if we applied and met all of the criteria, the banks still have to sign off on the application at the end of the process, so you’re just dead in the water anyway.”
Mr Della Bosca said high ranking officials at the WA Agriculture Department were at fault, for making the eligibility criteria too tight because they didn’t believe giving farmers carry-over finance was the answer to their woes.
“But we are viable,” he said.
Farmers in the area were given a welcome boost after O’Connor Liberal MP Rick Wilson met with Mr Della Bosca and others on a recent visit to Southern Cross. Mr Wilson said he understood the frustration expressed by the farmers from the Yilgarn area who haven’t received the same recognition as their eastern states counterparts by being offered drought assistance packages.
“A run of 10 average or below-average seasons would test the patience of a saint,” he said.
“As a farmer I understand the sense of hopelessness and despair when the weather turns against you, but I also share the optimism that the next bumper season is just around the corner.”
Mr Wilson attended a meeting of concerned locals and said he “heard the message loud and clear that the people of Southern Cross feel that the drought policy is eastern States-centric”.
Last week, a spokesperson for Mr Baston said the government was unconcerned about the low application rate for concessional loans in WA, given the process formally opened on January 20.
The spokesperson said it was too early to pre-empt the interest level in the loans and stressed that delays in setting up the scheme, after it was announced last April, were attributed to having three federal ministers since then, as well as the WA government having to establish a lending facility.