Why it pays to bank on agriculture - even in a drought

Why it pays to bank on agriculture - even in a drought

Agribusiness
Rabobank's southern Queensland and northern NSW regional manager, Brad James, says borrowers are generally handling the difficult conditions remarkably well.

Rabobank's southern Queensland and northern NSW regional manager, Brad James, says borrowers are generally handling the difficult conditions remarkably well.

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Agri-bankers see their customers emerging from the current big dry with extra management skills and more financially alert than after the Millennium drought.

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For many long-suffering farmers, seasonal conditions are now far worse than the bad years of the Millennium drought, yet despite all that hardship, the farm sector is generally coping with the challenges far better than a decade ago.

In fact, agribusiness bankers feel most producers will probably emerge from the current big dry with a lot of valuable management learnings and more financially in tune with their business than when the last drought was finally drowned 10 years ago.

Farmers have been more proactive about thinking ahead to manage their risks, also seizing potential cash flow opportunities, and consulting closely with their bankers, partners and neighbours.

Clearly things are tough, and we need a lot of rain, but the way farmers are conducting themselves and working around the challenges is quite impressive - Steve Hannan, Westpac

"Compared to the 2000s there's been much more readiness for this drought period, and farmers have been more responsive as it has progressed," said Westpac's national agribusiness general manager, Steve Hannan.

"I think they've really invested more effort in understanding their business from end to end to help make more strategic management decisions.

Planning ahead pays

Mr Hannan said experiences from the Millennium drought and lessons from the more disciplined borrowing environment which followed the global financial crisis in 2009 had cultivated a healthier agribusiness sector commitment to "sitting down and having a robust discussion about forward planning".

"That may mean more discussion with your banker, a business partner, or within your family," he said.

"Clearly things are tough, and we need a lot of rain, but the way farmers are conducting themselves and working around the challenges is quite impressive.

"More proactive collaboration seems evident across the whole industry - and not just between farmers and their bankers or stock agents.

"People are sharing practical information to deal with the season, helping each other in groups, or as individuals looking out for their neighbours and providing fresh eyes on a problem."

Westpac's national agribusiness general manager, Steve Hannan, believes farmers are paying closer attention to their own business basics and looking out for their neighbours.

Westpac's national agribusiness general manager, Steve Hannan, believes farmers are paying closer attention to their own business basics and looking out for their neighbours.

Rural Australia was also far more aware of mental health risks, the warning signs and about adopting simple strategies to hopefully avoid sliding into psychological black holes.

Good business structures

While nothing would beat a drought and improve agriculture's prospects better than rain, one of the next best options was having good business frameworks and the financial acumen to back up generations of intuitive decision making and farming skills.

Mr Hannan said that extra layer of governance was evident in farm businesses these days, providing structures to help make decisions to ride out tough times or calculate potential investment risks.

"There's definitely a heightened level of awareness of the impact of agriculture's vagaries and the value in doing proactive modelling for potential market or seasonal situations," observed Rabobank's southern Queensland and northern NSW regional manager, Brad James.

Loan delinquency or repayment default issues had "not really been on the radar" in his territory, despite having a customer base spread across one of eastern Australia's hardest hit drought zones - from Rockhampton to the western Maranoa and south to Grafton and Armidale.

"In fact, I'd say across the board our borrowers are generally handling the conditions in great shape - our level of at-risk loans is quite low," he said.

While Rabo's lending criteria and policies had not greatly altered in the past decade, the bank encouraged much more communication and co-operation with customers and closer oversight of business' trading prospects and ambitions.

Don't wait to speak up

"Everybody needs to be on the same page, proactively assessing what's ahead, not waiting until you're well down the track," Mr James said.

"It's partly a consequence of the way climatic conditions have been going lately, but also because of the increased prudential oversight being required of lenders by regulators today.

"There's no room for a long and casual approach when it comes to lending to agriculture - it requires intense concentration."

Rabobank now conducted much more modelling work, internally and with customers, to provide roadmaps for possible situations.

"It's important we consider what to do if it still hasn't rained in six months, or the opportunities and costs ahead if it has rained," he said.

Dry lessons for better years  

Mr James was confident many of the drought-driven cost cutting and efficiency maximisation strategies farmers had adopted, would also continue to pay dividends well after the drought had broken.

He noted how the sugar industry's recent run of really lean market years had forced management changes and input application efficiencies which pruned up to 15 per cent from canegrowers costs - changes which still assisted their balance sheet.

Rabobank has also been promoting financial literacy workshops in the bush to encourage more familiarity with banking processes and good business planning fundamentals across the community, including skill sets which can help handle in drought.

Initiated by the bank's farm community-focused client councils, the workshops in Biloela, Roma and Texas in Queensland and North Star in northern NSW were pitched at 20- to 35-year-olds, basically to encourage more familiarity with everything from balance sheets and cash flow monitoring to enhancing overall commercial business skills in rural areas.

"It's not a marketing initiative scouting for new customers, it's about encouraging greater financial literacy in agricultural areas."

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