FARM production remains in a state of flux for many agricultural communities and in growing regions throughout the nation as dry weather lingers and finishing rains abstain.
Mixed fortunes also abound in different farming locations in various states - but most producers remain optimistic of a solid finish and haven’t yet hit the panic button calling out for any form of federal government intervention.
Fairfax Agricultural Media spoke to rural MPs from different agricultural reliant electorates in varying jurisdictions about the seasonal conditions their producers are experiencing in their political backyards.
Some of them have farmers who are facing serious extended dry spells that have decimated crops and have now virtually abandoned any hope of a good season’s ending.
In contrast, others are looking forward to a positive return with good commodity prices underpinning fiscal fortunes and still have an eye on the skies, waiting in hope.
Marginal in Maranoa
Queensland Nationals MP David Littleproud represents the sparse farming electorate of Maranoa covering the south-western half of the state bordering with NSW and is facing one of the toughest seasonal predicaments of anyone in Canberra.
“Right across Maranoa is experiencing very dry conditions with some areas entering their seventh year of drought,” he said.
“It's important to remember it's not just the farmers impacted by drought, but those small businesses in the affected towns.”
Mr Littleproud hasn’t taken any direct representation as yet from the state’s farming groups calling for any government intervention, or direct policy response from federal Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce.
But he has been talking to Mr Joyce and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull about the value of policy measures like fencing to help control wild dogs and weed control programs, which were introduced by the Coalition in recent years, to help mitigate compound social and economic impacts of prolonged drought periods.
“We've made a significant investment in building resilience in these communities through the potential of our $4 billion Regional Investment Corporation, $12 million spend on dog fencing and the Building Better Regions Fund program,” he said.
“It can't be underestimated either the importance of the free trade agreements we've secured either, which means that when the rain returns, we see greater returns for our producers and more money flowing into our towns.”
Hit and miss in Durack out West
In Western Australia, O’Connor MP and Katanning grain and sheep farmer Rick Wilson said his region had about two inches of rain over the last few days so the southern Wheatbelt should be “headed for a burster”.
But in WA’s northern Wheatbelt, iin the huge electorate of Durack represented by Liberal MP Melissa Price, areas around the coastal port town of Geraldton in traditional grain producing regions are looking dire but government assistance remains a way off.
Ms Price said it had been a “hit and miss” season this year, with some parts of her electorate, around places like Dowerin, Tammin or Quairading in the central Wheatbelt looking at getting close to breaking even.
But she said areas like Northampton – closer to Geraldton - had been hit hard by a lack of quality rainfall early in the season and a number of “disaster stories” existed, further east.
“The areas that, I believe, would be in most danger if another bad year was to hit would be those northern agricultural regions like Northampton and Chapman Valley,” she said given they’ve experienced some good runs in recent years.
“We have been monitoring the season closely, to see if there is a need for drought relief packages, etc.
“Because of the late rain, we don’t believe too many farmers will be eligible and the uptake of concessional loans for farmers in Western Australia is traditionally quite low anyway.”
“Total write-off” in NSW at Parkes
Experienced farmer and NSW Nationals MP for Parkes Mark Coulton said right across his large agricultural electorate “prospects are very poor”.
“West of the Newell Highway many farmers are experiencing complete crop failure and in other areas the yields are greatly reduced,” he said.
“A combination of the past six weeks of frost and unusually high temperatures has really nailed the lid on these crops.”
Adding insult to injury, Mr Coulton said some farmers had suffered four bad seasons in the past five years.
“This time last year the southern half of my electorate the Macquarie Valley and Lachlan Valley were underwater and experiencing crop losses through flooding but in that Walgett area, out of five years, this is their fourth failure,” he said.
“They had quite substantial crops last year but the three years prior to that were badly effected by drought and this year is virtually a total write off.”
Mr Coulton said across the board in his electorate the seasonal impacts would be variable for farmers and farming communities.
“In some areas they’ve had a run of good seasons and prices for grain and livestock have been pretty good so some will handle it better than others but it’ll be a tough run for those in more marginal areas like Walgett,” he said.
Mr Coulton said he hadn’t fielded any contact personally or his office from farm groups calling out for government aid due to the dry conditions.
“At this stage the farmers are copping it,” he said.
“Of course every circumstance is different and some are still marketing last year’s grain but if it continues, and the prospects of summer crop diminish, then it’ll be a tougher time.
“By saying that, I’m not saying there’s no concern out there but at this stage I haven’t (had calls for assistance) but obviously people will be taking stock and it’ll be disappointing for many who early on were looking at the prospects of a good crop but they’ve really gone south, in the past could of weeks.
“But we’ll be keeping a close eye on it.”
Mr Coulton said Mr Joyce would be “well aware” of the dry conditions because he also had a farm property impacted in his neighbouring New England electorate and hadn’t bothered taking seed and fertiliser out of the shed to plant a crop.
“Many farmers are on low interest loans and many have taken the opportunity to store grain and gain the tax advantages of purchasing those new assets and those who had a big crop last year will have the Farm Management Deposits they can access which were increased to $800,000 by this government,” he said.
“Not everyone is in that same position and those who’ve expanded may have bigger debts which will be more of a concern, depending on what they’d done over the past three or four years.
“But at the moment there’s just an air of disappointment that the fate of this crop is pretty well sealed and there’s no coming back now.
“I’ve just been over to the coast and it’s hard to believe the cyclone had that area under water because around Graton, Casino and Tenterfield and in those places it’s pretty crook.
“I understand the southern part of NSW and Victoria is pretty good but when I go down to the Lachlan Valley, there’s nothing there.
“From my observation the Liverpool Plains will be in for a tough time as well - but the farmers here are a pretty resilient bunch.”
Small Business Minister and NSW Riverina Nationals MP Michael McCormack said a lot of farmers planted canola instead of wheat, due to higher prices this year.
But a prolonged dry spell in his electorate and the state’s central-west had meant seed pods had failed to fill out, late in the canola growing season.
Mr McCormack said some of the wheat crop was also struggling and many crops were “beyond hope” but some could be “salvaged” if rain arrived soon.
Mr McCormack said he’d not spoken to Mr Joyce yet about any kind of government response due to the extended dry spell - but stressed the Deputy Prime Minister was “well aware” of the situation, especially given the experience of his own farm business.
“We’ve spoken about it and the Nationals have also had talks among ourselves and we’re well-aware the season looks pretty grim in some areas,” he said.
Victorian variation in Mallee
Central Victorian farmer and Mallee MP Andrew Broad said this season was a case of 2001 “all over again”.
“The year 2000 we had really good year with six inches of rain in September or October which put good subsoil moisture in and helped finish the crops off,” he said.
“Then in 2001 it was also a really good year and the rains didn’t come to finish the season off but it stayed pretty cool so we got pretty good crops.
“The Wimmera (southern Mallee) looks magnificent and it’s still drawing on last year’s subsoil moisture.
“If we get a fairly good finish and fluke some showers we’ll have an average to above average year then all we’ll need is some more money for road funding.”
But Mr Broad said the northern Mallee was looking at an average year with some of the crops in that region startin to tip prematurely.
“The warmer weather took some of the shine off them so it really depends on what the finish is from now no and if we can get some more rain,” he said.
“September is not that good for finishing rain which often comes in October but we’re still in with a good chance and people are cutting hay so it’s not doom and gloom.
“But we are mindful that it is drier when you head into NSW and drier periods tend to go from the north to the south.
“We’re still running on last year’s subsoil moisture and provided it stays cool we’ll get home ok but next year could be a dry year.”
Asked if he’d had any calls coveting government assistance from farming groups in Victoria, Mr Broad said “heck no - it’s not a situation like that”.
“We have to be careful that we don’t all into the trap - and I’m not just saying this because I’m a politician but even the farmer in me - of just because you get a drier finish to the year, that you run out looking for a handout from the government,” he said.
“What we’ve got to do is really get our head around drought management practices like agronomy management or input insurance because we’ve had some pretty good years.
“Just because we’ve had a dry finish to the year and so maybe we’re going to run to the government for help, isn’t good industry leadership for me.”
Mr Broad said he understood the season was “pretty variable across the country”.
“I’m trying to buy some young ewes out of NSW myself because I know the season there has shut up a lot quicker – but overall I think there’s still good reason for a fair bit of optimism,” he said.
“In the Wimmera we have canola crops that are taller than the fence and in some places they’re dropping hay when in some years you wouldn’t even make hay.
“On balance our area is going OK but we don’t want another day like last Friday when it was 37 degrees in the northern Mallee and Mildura and we experienced hot winds but if we can get a cool mild finish, we’ll have a pretty good year.
“I’m going back to my place tomorrow because we have 600 young lambs that we’re going to shear and we’ll try and turn them off before Christmas because I can see we certainly don’t have as much feed in the paddocks to carry the livestock through, as we did last year.
“I may even be on the hand piece tomorrow - we’re one shearer down.”
Good season in Barker, in SA
In South Australia, Barker Liberal MP Tony Pasin said there was “a fair variation” across his electorate which measured about 64,000 square kilometres, sharing a border with Victoria in the state’s south-east.
“In general terms the season has been good to this stage,” he said.
“Certainly, the mid to lower south-east of South Australia has had significant rainfall, while other areas of the electorate are enjoying an average to good season up to this point but will of course need the critical spring rains.
“The exception is the northern Mallee which has missed out on rain-fall.
“Travelling through there last week it seems to me much of that country will fail.
“There might be some opportunity to recover some seeds – but that country is now too far past the point of recovery, especially after last week when we had a strong wind and evaporation event which would have been the final nail in the coffin for much of that country.”
Mr Pasin said the southern Mallee segment of Barker was “quite good” and on balance it was a good season to this point, in his electorate.
“There will be a need for spring rains in northern areas of the electorate, and the southern areas are managing significant water loads that are draining off country so that’s the variation,” he said.
Mr Pasin said he hadn’t taken any requests from farmers or farm groups for government assistance to address any concerns about diminished seasonal conditions.
“We continue to be receiving and communicating with our dairy farmers but that has more to do with commodity prices rather than the seasonal conditions,” he said.
“The northern Mallee country experiences these types of conditions frequently and I expect we’ll be approached at some point - but it hasn’t happened yet.
“That’s unlike three or four years ago where the upper south east was particularly dry in some pretty reliable country and we were getting a constant stream of inquiries about drought relief and other things but we’re not getting that at this stage, in my electorate.
“The northern Mallee also had such as good season last year, so we’re not experiencing that accumulative effect.”
Mr Pasin said speaking to farmers directly, they’d expressed disappointment with how the season had panned out individually - but there was a “sense of pragmatism rather than one of hopelessness”.
“The sense overall is that the yields may be down but the prices are up for grains so that will offer some respite,” he said.
Tip top for Top End farmers and pastoralists
In the NT, Labor MP Warren Snowden’s electorate of Lingiari covers almost the entire Territory and farming conditions have suffered some dry but overall it’s positive.
Mr Snowden held talks today with the Northern Territory Farmers Association and other sources like pastoralists to get an accurate picture of the seasonal conditions.
He said farmers are saying they’ve had a very good season, which has been unusually hot and dry, meaning the mango growing season was shorter but they’ve also produced a good high quality crop which experienced no problems with pests like geese.
“Grape fruits and melons all did well - some of the vegetable farmers took a bit of a hit - but largely there has been a very positive view expressed by the NT Farmers and the pastoralists have been the same,” he said.
“They’ve had a very good season with early rains that lasted up until April and the dry season in the top end hasn’t had an impact really.
“In the southern part of the Territory, because the weather has been warmer, there have been fewer frosts so there’s still good fodder but the risk that arises out of that is the potential of fuel for bush fires.
“But overall, the season in terms of fodder for the cattle industry has been very good, even though it’s been very hot.”
Mr Snowden said if the prices weren’t any good, like for cattle, the farmers and pastoralists would have certainly said so.
He said there was no talk of any need for government assistance but the lack of rain in the centre of the Territory was problem.
“We just need to know we can get some rain, into the summer, to set up good pastures for next year,” he said.
Mr Snowden said there were no other pressing issues for agriculture in the region but the cattle sector remained concerned about marketing issues, especially selling live cattle to Indonesia, and were keeping a close watch on the impact of imported meat entering the market, via India.
“Those things in the market are hard for us to direct or control but what we do know is we have a high quality product that’s going for a good price,” he said.
“I’m sure if there was an issue around production and prices we’d know about it but people are feeling quite confident up here and we know we’ve got a developing agricultural sector that’s producing several hundred million dollars of product every year and it’s very high quality.”