Looking for that CBH dime

Looking for that CBH dime


Opinion
Bill Crabtree.

Bill Crabtree.

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KEN Wilson was right to suggest things are tough in the bush.

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KEN Wilson was right to suggest things are tough in the bush.

Times are hard, right here, right now!

WA farmers are again experiencing similar weather to the dirty 30's. I have plotted the last 13 years and it shows that seven of these years have had a decile 1-2 rainfall for April to September inclusive, in our grain growing regions, bar just a few pockets.

This is outstanding weather, for all the wrong reasons.

Amazingly, our farmers have survived well to this point.

They are smart and have mostly adopted the best farming technology possible.

These include; no-till, herbicides, liming, stubble retention, liquid N, dry sowing, precise placement, cautious grazing, efficient machinery, GPS tools and judicious use of fertilisers.

Consequently, they have not experienced the devastation of the dust bowl, not yet anyway.

However, there is real pain, and sustained pain will cause mental issues if hope is not clearly visible soon.

It reminds me of John Williamson's song Galleries of Pink Galahs' where he sings; "Boy leaves home to make a crust, fathers' dreams reduced to dust, but he must go on."

As a real farmer myself, in a dry region, I know that it takes a lot of courage and heart to put a crop in the ground dry.

I admire all farmers that have a go and put their money on the line each year in low rainfall areas.

As a person who believes in free markets I am not keen on big government interference or hand-outs.

This often creates mischief! Smart opportunists get more than their fair share and the needy can get slim pickings, while the taxpayer picks up the bill.

I can't see how crop insurance can help in the private model.

If it made money then it would work and we would have it already.

But, for it to work the premiums would have to be high, too high, or we would have to force people in safe farming areas to fork out insurance that they might not want.

As a consultant, I have had about half a dozen clients retire early from farming in the last two years.

It seems they probably did the right thing.

Interestingly, none of them have handed the baton of farming on, with both its risks and opportunities.

These farms are now leased or have been purchased.

These youngish retired farmers have walked away without any shares of significance from CBH.

Some of them feel that they have missed an opportunity and I can sympathise with this thought.

The CBH issue is of no great concern to me personally, as I am content to farm for a while yet.

With CBH remaining as it is, I will get benefits, like; my grain handling costs will remain low, grain handling is straightforward and I will likely get a loyalty payment.

But the issue, for the wider community, is about fairness. Is it fair for a farmer to work his whole life building an efficient co-operative, a bit like Wesfarmers, and then walk away with nothing at the end and with no son to pick up the residual benefit?

Apparently, there are about 450 WA farmers (10 per cent) in the Wheatbelt this year who will not receive their normal carry-on finance.

Many farmers have seen their equity drop from 80pc to 50pc over the last three seasons.

Is it fair for them to walk off their land with almost nothing, even though they have fought the good farming fight bravely and in exceptional circumstances?

I am sure we all have friends in this category, sadly!

It is interesting to have contact with farmers who have, all their life, been conservative and thought that CBH should never be sold.

Now that they are out of farming, they feel a bit left out, wondering what to do, is it fair, do they just let their $2 share go?

If we were in their position would we consider that to be fair?

It is interesting to note that the CBH Board is now dominated by board members, who think, steady as she goes!

I have enjoyed watching SBS's four-part series of "the dust bowl" which occurred in the USA's Great Plains in the 1930s.

It was a tragic decade where climate changed.

Lucky it has changed back! Tremendous clouds of dust would roll in and last for many hours, for day after day, and almost no rain would fall.

Many farmers just walked off their land with nothing, some even died from dust pneumonia.

Some managed to look around the house and find a dime to buy a loaf of bread that kept them alive to farm another day.

The question I would like to ask the rural community is; could that dime be our CBH?

And, if so, is it time to take that dime downtown and swap it for a loaf of bread for those who are hungry?

Sadly, if this year in WA is to be another dry one, or a modest one, or a late start and early finish, or with serious frost, then a similar significant portion of our farmers might have to leave their farms as did in the dust bowl.

This would further crash the equity of those remaining. It's a scary thought.

I am aware that the SA farmers made a mistake by selling their State's grain handler as a single unit.

This new monopoly, which induced a premium at the time, has caused hardships, as I have learnt on my study tours. We would not want to copy their approach?

However, today, I just wanted to raise the issue of fairness and the thought of giving your mate a fair go, for a fair share of the family's birth right, for which he is probably rightly entitled to.

I say this with the backdrop that competition is coming with Bunge at Bunbury and others at James Point and Albany.

The value of CBH will inevitably fall as tonnages erode from CBH.

It seems to me that the time is right to capture value from several supply chains about to start competing for business. An injection of non-government funds would buffer everyone from a potential tragedy and allow a smooth transition to retirement and allow the neighbour the strength to expand at a fair price - this would reduce pressure from foreign investment.

BILL CRABTREE - M.Sci., Morawa farmer, consultant, author and McKell Medallist.

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