Farmers in the face of drought and economic disadvantage

Agriculture in Australia has been in crisis for many years, yet it seems the sleepwalking in the midst of it may be over. The realities of the NSW drought is sinking in, and we are staring at the bottom of the barrel. On Wednesday, NSW has been officially declared 100% in drought. According to a SBS The Feed story, 60% of Queensland is in drought. This video shows 1,300 thirsty cows swarming a water truck, as the region suffers from what experts call potentially the worst drought in 400 years. Their owner says they have to haul in 25,000 gallons of water a day for survival. Dairy farmers on the Darling Downs say the drought, on top of the dollar a litre milk, could mean the end of a dairy industry in Queensland.  

Last Monday Channel 9s Today show started its week long coverage and tour of Australia's most drought affected areas in NSW. On Sunday Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced extra emergency cash payments for eligible farmers, but will it be enough?

A Toowoomba dairy farmer said that $12,000 won't make a difference. Ashley Gamble and Wendy Ellis have already borrowed huge amounts of cash from the bank as they struggle to feed 1500 dairy cows and keep them alive in the Darling Downs area of Queensland. Now they’re on the verge of losing the entire farm. See the video above.

Ashley told 9News: “To be honest, that’s absolutely nothing. $12,000 doesn’t even buy a load of grain.”

He has completely run out of feed for his stock. “We ring two to three hundred people every day and we get the same answers. They don’t have any or have sold it all,” he said. 

“How do we keep going? What do we do with our cows? We don’t have answers for this” he said.  

 

Milked Dry: why dairy farmers are walking off the land

On Wednesday, the ABC aired a 7 minute story about a dairy farmer who loves his cows, but have decided to sell it all. It's not just drought-afflicted farmers who are doing it tough. In the dairy industry, the combination of low milk prices, high feed costs and a poor season are forcing many to consider walking away from farms that, in some cases, have been in the family for generations. The farmer in the story says: "it's just getting harder and harder to make a living from it." A survey shows he is not the only dairy farmer who are planning to leave the industry.

 

Why the push for 'get big or get out' and export?

A few years ago, politicians and industry leaders shifted their focus almost exclusively on export and 'get big or get out' in agriculture. In the process small-scale local food economies and artisan food producers were neglected. The choices for farmers were: go big, get out or diversify. The decision to support this stance is now coming home to roost for political leaders and the agriculture sector. Dairy farmers have over-invested in large herds and expensive equipment like rotating dairies since mid 2014, when there were expectations in the industry to cash in on the Chinese market. Many dairy farmers now face losing family farms and everything on it, despite the drought, because the large-scale dairying doesn't seem to be a viable business anymore.

The new government allowance doesn't fix the fact that many farmers have not been getting a fair price for many years. Even if the drought ends soon, which seem unlikely, farmers' problems are not over by a long shot.

If a governing body doesn't put Australian farmers in need first, should it be in power? A true blue Australian government would take care of farmers who are the backbone of this country; with fair agriculture policies that doesn't disrupt natural demand and supply of food. It is Australia's small-scale farmers who have traditionally been the backbone of this country. Artisan food is what small-scale farmers excel at, but unfair over-the-top regulations prohibit the majority from entering that niche market. Farmers have told us it is simply impossible for them to diversify with raw  

milk cheese. Raw drinking milk (RDM) from cows is illegal for human consumption in Australia. Four Australian states allow regulated RDM from goats for human consumption though.

Australian raw milk supporters have observed an almost universal reaction when approaching politicians: intense fear. Why are politicians afraid of raw milk activists? Is it possible that they fear the small farm movement centred around raw milk and raw milk cheese in local communities? Is it possible that politicians have big business in their ears, saying they do not want to loose market control?

When there is frequent import and export of food, it is easier to control who receives the benefits; the farmer or the middleman. Is it possible that politicians and industry are scared of high-value products like raw dairy, because the farmer-to-consumer relationship shifts the financial prosperity, and grows local food economies fast?

In recent years, there have been significant investment to manage food as a commodity, and to keep it moving across borders. It was a shock to the raw milk movement to learn about the recent $68,000 grant given to four South Australian cheesemakers to "help raw milk cheese producers crack the luxury food market overseas". Why is there a persistent push to export our most valued produce? Why should Australians be satisfied with sometimes inferior quality imported produce if we can get that same product here? This is a dysfunctional food system... this is not normal.

 

Why fear raw dairy? What are the fears behind the exports and imports that disrupt natural demand and supply?  

It may be a healing experience for heartbroken farmers and consumers, who have been puzzled by these strange dynamics in agriculture, to see things from a different perspective. They may get more clarity on what may potentially be driving these strange behaviours. Many raw milk supporters know that high-quality raw dairy can be a low-risk food.  

It is possible that those who want food to be a commodity sold in a market, have seen and learnt from what happened every time raw dairy access was achieved in a country. Raw dairy became the fastest growing sector in the dairy industry. Local commerce between farmers and consumers exploded. Local wealth and resilience grew fast. Prosperity and excitement were the consequence.  

Agriculture Victoria is currently doing research to expand its $2 million Artisanal Agriculture and Premium Foods program. It is possible that these producers may too be herded and diverted towards export. Local food economies will be disadvantaged if this happens. It is possible that government and industry are afraid of local food economies developing in Australia, that may cut out big business from a profit pie. This article explores some of the reasons why farmers are suiciding: they don't have a direct relationship with a consumer who cares about their product, and there is a middleman who takes the profit and benefits away from the farmer. It is possible that 'get big or get out' and export are strategies to increase opportunities for big business to profit and keep the economic engine global, not local; born out of fear of being financially disadvantaged by the growing momentum of the local food movement. Also, if farmers can’t turn a profit, more farms may be repossessed by the bank eventually.

Current prohibition of regulated raw milk from cows in Australia may be entirely a business decision, not a food safety one. Raw drinking milk is a local food first that can create local prosperity when regulated fairly.

AdobeStock_77078605 drought small.jpg

 

A poem from a drought-stricken farmer to the Australian Prime Minister

This poem has gone viral after NSW farmer Joanna Collett posted it on the Prime Minister's facebook page:

G’day Mr Turnbull, I trust that you are fine,
Sorry to be bothering you, but there’s something on my mind
I listened to a bloke last week; he had a bit to say
You lot may have heard of him? He delivers all that hay?

He spoke of countless hours and the distances they drive
Feeding starving stock, to keep bush hopes alive
They do not get assistance from your tax funded hat
They do it on their own, all off their own bat

I’m not politically minded and I don’t have any clout
And I know you’ve done a tour, to learn about the drought
But there’s just some burning questions, that have left us feeling beat
Why did we fund a foreign land, to learn to cut up meat?

And what about those soccer boys, who went and got all lost
You pulled out all the bloody stops, plain just showing off
You’ve bigger problems here at home, there’s drought up to our necks
So what does your mob go and do ? Give them big fat cheques!

Don’t they have a government to deal with all this stuff?
Why should it be up to us, what’s with all your fuss?
Should we not be reigning in and look after our own
Have you never heard the phrase “charity starts at home”?

I realise there’s many things, that need an allocation
And I also can appreciate, complex trade relations
I’m not sure if you realise, but if our stock all die,
There won’t be any trade you see, your deals will all run dry

As a rule we’re not a whinging lot, our requests are but a few
Most of us who work the land, are tested, tried and true
We respect that we are guardians, and sustain it for the kids
But I often have to wonder, what future will it bring?

I guess all that I’m wondering, is “where’s the Aussie aid”?
Wrapped up in a swag of tape, only then to be repaid ! 
There’s Aussie blokes and chicks out there, putting you to shame
Helping fellow Australians, in their time of pain

I’m just a simple farmer, grazier, wife and mum
And even though we’re feeding stock, we’re better off than some
I’ve never had to shoot a cow, who could no longer stand
But many have before me, and I pray, I’m not dealt that hand

So will you take another look; admit that we’re in strife ?
And do more than bloody empathise, before another farmer takes their life ?
I’d like to think you’ll do what’s right and put Australia first
And help your own damn country, before this drought gets any worse

Joanna Collett
Wee Waa NSW

 

Who has been helping Australian farmers through the drought?

Up until recently, the only ones really helping farmers, without saddling them up with more debt via loans, were the public and other farmers. Many compassionate organisations like Buy A Bale and the Burrumbuttock Hay Runners have been fundraising and carting vast amounts of hay and groceries to farmers in need. Farmers may be asset rich, but they are cash poor. They are vulnerable because they have many challenges to make farming profitable. One wrong decision and they can easily spiral towards bankruptcy. Around the time of the Royal Banking commission, several stories surfaced showing how easy it can be to loose the entire farm. It can be a slippery slope to ruin, when farmers borrow from the bank.

Another drought-stricken farmer, Jason Maloney, recently made an emotional plea to the public and has almost reached his target of crowdfunding $300,000. The public supplied the money to feed his animals and those of others in his community. Unfortunately for Jason, he has now realised that about $90,000 of that will go to the government, because it is classified as income tax. The money lost could have been spent on 13 more truckloads of hay to feed hungry and starving animals. See the video and turn up the volume.

 

A Current Affair:  Country in Crisis

On Thursday the 2nd of August, A Current Affair aired a three part story about the drought crisis, which we realise now is much worse than originally thought. 

Some parts of Australia have had no rain in six years and are now run out of water. Part two shows a large ship docked containing 33,000 tons of imported grain (wheat and barley) from WA. It says there were five ships scheduled to dock in a row at Brisbane at the time, and it took four to five days to unload. Most of the load was going to Darling Downs, a famed wheat growing region of

Australia, now drought stricken. 80 Trucks a day loaded the haul and took it west where feedlots (beef, pig and dairy cows) awaited it. If this drought persists, and Australia cannot produce its own grain anymore, how will this affect feedlots?  

Research and experiments show we cannot continue to grow vast crops of monoculture with agrochemicals and expect the soil to return a profit

indefinitely. Can we really rely on imported grain from other countries to feed livestock here when other countries are also facing weather extremes?

In part three of Country in Crisis, Tracy Grimshaw explores what could happen if we run out of feed: there will be no hay left to freight. According to weather forecasting, there is a 50 per cent chance that this drought won't break before next March - April 2019. If this happens it will be dire and border on disaster. There is already doubt if Victoria's hay supply will last until December.

The drought is currently creating a huge market for grain with prices going through the roof. According to this article, Grain Producers South Australia director Garry Hansen said farmers who normally sold to export markets were now selling domestically. With new markets and high prices for grain, livestock producers are struggling to find affordable feed, with increased demand putting pressure on supply.  

 Here are the direct links to the entire A Current Affair story:

  1. Country in Crisis - Part One or alternate link

  2. Country in Crisis - Part Two or alternate link

  3. Country in Crisis - Part Three or alternate link

Periodic total crop wipeout or long term Regenerative Farming?

"Seasons come, seasons go." "Hearts get broken."

The Current Affair story illustrates the fickleness of modern farming and the uncertain path we are still on. We cannot predict how long we can afford to ignore the calls to farm regeneratively. Even if it rains again, it will not insulate crops against future fluctuating weather extremes.

If we manage to get out of this drought, this country is going to have to start regenerative farming programs en masse. We may have to move away from growing monocultures and supplying grain to feedlots, to pasture-based farming for feeding livestock. Australia will have to learn how to grow local resilience first. We cannot rely on imported feed, nor let feed imports in times of need become the norm, because it will ruin our own local economies eventually. 

Both research and soil scientists show that monocultures, tilling and some modern agrochemical use will continue to deteriorate the fertility of our soil, because it has a detrimental effect on the soil microbes. 

U.K farmers have already been given their first targets and incentives with a bill to protect and restore the soil. British ministers like Michael Gove and George Eustice support regenerative and pasture-based farming. New Zealand has recently welcomed a new University course leading to a diploma in organic agri-food production. Countries like Germany has taken drastic steps by developing a full farming strategy with the aim of promoting environmentally-friendly, organic crop production methods. Biodiversity will be encouraged. The use of controversial glyphosate may be stopped soon.  

Here are some of the myths that stand in the way of much needed change:  3 Big Myths about Modern Agriculture. If Australian politicians are still of the opinion that 'we have to feed the world'  with large-scale industrial agriculture, or still speak with 'get big or get out' platitudes, surely they will realise their mistake soon enough if Australian soil become so depleted - with the help of the drought - that it cannot support life anymore.     

Some soil scientists show that grassland really need the right kind of aerobic soil microbes, agrochemical-free farming, rotational grazing and high diversity of plant species, to create soil fertility and remineralised forage. The soil functions when there is abundant beneficial soil microbes, like mycorrhizal fungi.

Mycorrhizal fungi .jpg

A recent study shows what some leading soil scientists already know and see in action: "Microbes within soil improve the ability of plants to absorb nutrients and resist drought, disease, and pests." They help to grow more nutrient-dense and lush forage for the animals. The pastures are high in omega-3s, with minerals and trace elements in the right proportions thanks to the nutrient cycling between soil microbes and plants. This creates both healthy robust plants and animals. Regenerated farmland, with high diversity of green plant species (also called cover crops) are more hydrated and resistant to drought and bushfire. There are many case studies and plenty of research to show how regenerative farming works. 

Tend to the soil microbiome and degraded landscapes become viable againThese are the essential risk reduction strategies to create a more sustainable future.  

 
“The amount of rain you get is irrelevant. What’s important is how much moisture can penetrate your soil and how much your soil can hold due to organic matter and biology.” - regenerative farmer Gabe Brown

Spending Australian taxpayer money wisely?

Australian tax payers work long hours to support this country, but who is enjoying the benefits from the fruit of our labor? 

In a recent story on Skynews the presenter said that more money is being spent on foreign aid for farmers in other countries, than on drought relief for Australians. Agriculture has been in crisis for a number of years; think the dairy crisis. Yet in recent years, little has been done by those who control how taxpayer money is spent, or what policies are implemented. Changes should have been made long ago to help local farmers put food on their own tables, feed the animals and prevent the loss of the family farm, when banks are standing by to take receivership. During the Royal Banking Commission we've heard stories that some bank repossessed farms were sold far under market value, and often to overseas buyers. Who is really benefitting from the hard work of the Australian farmer and tax payer? There seems to be alliances at work that most Australian taxpayers do not understand... but we see the results it generates.

According to the video report, Australia is spending the following on foreign aid for overseas farmers:

Afghanistan: $15.5m

Bangladesh: $4.6m

Bhutan: $200,000

Cambodia: $24,5m

Cook Islands: $900,000

Fiji: $3.4m

Indonesia: $45.4m

Kiribati: $1.1m

Laos: $6.8m

Middle East/North Africa: $3.8m

Mongolia: $200,000

Myanmar: $7.2m

Nepal: $3m

North Pacific: $100,000

Pakistan: $8.3m

Papua New Guinea: $17.8m

The Philippines: $4.9m

Samoa: $1.1m

Solomon Islands: $6m

Sri Lanka: $400,000

Sub-Saharan Africa: $17.9m

Timon Leste (East Timor) $10.8m

Tonga: $1.3m

Tuvalu: $200,000

Vietnam: $21.1m

 

According to the Skynews report, NSW now don't have a single bale of locally-sourced hay left. State government has announced that it will inject a few million more to assist farmers in the face of increasing climate variability. But will it be deployed in a way that actually helps? Will the financial assistance be accessible, without farmers getting entangled or locked up in red tape, like we have seen recently with similar loan schemes from the government to farmers? Turn up the volume to listen.

ABC television's Q&A recently had Agriculture Minister David Littleproud, Shadow Minister for Agriculture Joel Fitzgibbon, President of the National Farmers' Federation Fiona Simson, former mayor of Lismore Jenny Dowell and panelist Matt Sorenson, on the panel to answer uncomfortable questions. Members from the audience wanted to know why there is so much welfare for other countries, and so little for our own. Watch the highlights here:

Too Little Too Late

Bring back tariffs

Young farmer's struggling

Climate change

Future proofing farms

Drought Aid

or watch the entire 1:05:49 episode here.

Radio broadcaster Alan Jones recently read a letter on air from a farmer who is selling his entire herd of milking cows. It said that farmers don't want handouts because they have too much self-esteem; they only want a fair price for the food they produce. Alan is calling for the government to declare the drought a national disaster.

Alan Jones called the recent  $190 million financial help for farmers a disgrace.  He also criticised the $444 million recently given to a small company for so-called 'reef restoration'. How is the reef ever going to recover while politicians don't take into account the effect of chemical fertiliser that run off farms, and via rivers make their way into the ocean; killing marine reefs?

Financial assistance and rain alone cannot save farmers, create food security, or a sustainable future. Our capitalist food system doesn't just need to be reformed, it must be transformed. It's not only the food system, but the entire way that production and distribution are carried out. Dick Smith recently made an announcement explaining why he is closing Dick Smith Foods, blaming 'extreme corporate capitalism'. Watching the video was a real eye opener. In this video an Australian farmer shows that it has become unprofitable to farm under the current food system; many farmers don't receive a fair price for their produce. We cannot afford to keep buying cheaper foods at supermarkets who compete with each other to lower the prices. This process is bleeding our farmers and our economy dry. Another recent article showed that dairy processor Murray Goulburn had nearly $170 million sitting in the bank just months after saying it had no money to pay farmers extra for their milk and the business had to be sold to Saputo Inc. In this video, Sally Fallon Morell from the Weston A. Price Foundation talks about the push to get rid of small farms and why we should support them. Farmers and consumers have to accept the stark realities in the global corporate climate and adapt to the crises they leave behind, as best they can.

 

Drought through the lens of farmer's daughter Zara King

16 Year-old Zara King from New South Wales started to take images of the destruction on her family's sheep and cattle farm since the rain stopped. After school, she takes photos of the dying animals and the relentless weather conditions that is holding the family ransom. The price of stock is falling. There is dust everywhere and the trees are dying. Grain prices goes up. In the community, families and marriages break up. Suicides happen. Everyone in farming families give a hand, and all are exhausted from hand feeding the starving animals.

This video shows what is going to happen to NSW farmers if this drought continues and farmers are forced off their land. Will the next farm owner, who potentially lives in another country, be able to farm the land responsibly, regeneratively and put nutrient-dense food on Australian consumers' tables?   

Go to Zara's Instagram page for some more images, here are a few:


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