• 'Struggle Street' participants Barry, Rosey and children. (SBS)
Australians should be empathetic to the drought-induced plight of some farmers for one simple reason – food production is unlike any other industry.
By
Yasmin Noone

23 Sep 2019 - 11:11 AM  UPDATED 10 Oct 2019 - 9:36 AM

When you’re a drought-stricken farmer, selling your 100-year-old family farm due to failing finances may feel like you’re sacrificing a limb.

Farming couple, Barry and Rosey live in Deniliquin in the southwest of the Riverina, NSW. The area once had a reputation as the food bowl of Australia, but as viewers see on SBS’s new series of Struggle Street, life on the land in this dry part of the country is proving to be a challenge.

Barry and Rosey haven’t seen decent rainfall on their dairy farm in four years. They’ve got no access to surface water and rely on bore water, which can be a problem when the bore breaks down. . “Without the bore, it’s the equivalent to being pushed over the edge of a cliff where you have to just make another decision,” Barry says during the series.

“My wife would love to me to make the decision [to say] that’s it [and sell the farm]. The sad thing is I can’t make that decision. … I’m still struggling with the idea – that thought of not milking cows.”

“My wife would love to me to make the decision [to say] that’s it [and sell the farm]. The sad thing is I can’t make that decision. … I’m still struggling with the idea – that thought of not milking cows.”

In an effort to keep the farm functioning and costs low, the couple have laid off their employees and now work day and night to care for their herd and two small children.

Throw in low prices for the couple’s milk product against the competing costs of grain, repairs, land tax and other bills, and the couple’s drought-ridden circumstances have whipped up a perfect storm.

“In a year like this when it’s not raining at all, [this all] couldn’t happen to us at a worse time.”

Do farmers need more help?

According to the NSW Department of Primary Industries, this drought doesn’t look like it’s ending anytime soon. The most recent NSW seasonal update classifies more areas within the state as ‘drought affected’, with at least 97 per cent of NSW now categorised as being in drought.

What’s worse is that the official climate forecast released by the Bureau of Meteorology in June continues to indicate that NSW farmers will most likely experience dry conditions this spring.

So what’s being done to help farmers like Barry and Rosey across the country? The federal government currently offers farmers access to drought and rural support services.

Eligible drought-affected farmers can get Farm Household Allowance for up to four years. Included in this allowance may be a financial assessment worth up to $1,500 of the farm business, a rural financial counsellor, a health care card and up to $4,000 worth of access to training and skills development.

Government loans worth up to $2 million are available for farmers and farm business owners in financial need. The loans are fee-free but come with a 3.11 per cent variable interest rate.

Rebates for on-farm water infrastructure expenses are also being offered.

The three-year scheme, worth $50 million, provides eligible farmers with 25 per cent of the cost of expenses or up to a maximum amount agreed by the implementing state.

But if farmers are still suffering, do they need more help?

Rachael Lenehan, 35, runs cattle and sheep on a 500-acre property in Murringo, NSW. Lenehan believes that even when farmers are at the point of asking for assistance, their request is often long overdue. 

“Farmers wouldn’t ask for assistance or a handout if they didn’t really need it,” Lenehan tells SBS. “Sometimes pride gets in the way of common sense. You often see that with farmers, especially from the males, because they like to think they are the providers for the families. I think it takes a lot of courage to come forward and say ‘we are in trouble here’.”

Every farmer’s situation is different because the soil across each part of this great country is so variable. While many farmers are living on struggle street, some are doing better than others.

Although Lenehan just put out her last bale of hay and may need to start buying cattle feed, her farm’s bottom line is still looking okay. Her insurance plan is a full-time photography business that she runs in addition to the farm.

“If I ever reached a point where I had to ask for assistance to keep the farm going, it would shatter my heart."

“If I ever reached a point where I had to ask for assistance to keep the farm going, it would shatter my heart. I would feel like a failure. As a farmer I feel like Mother Nature owns us. At the end of the day, if she doesn’t rain I’m helpless to her.”

Rural Aid counsellor, Zoe Cox offers support to some of the most drought-affected farmers from Lithgow to Mudgee to Cowra to Dubbo. Cox says although farming success is variable across the country, additional assistance is an imperative. It may not be in the form of a handout. It could be a funded education plan to help farmers learn modern methods of regenerative farming. Either way, she says, farmers desperately need solutions.

“I have one female farmer who wears the same clothes all week to avoid regular washes and save water,” says Cox. “There are situations where people aren't eating properly because all of their money is going into pay for the cost of the feed.”

“I have one female farmer who wears the same clothes all week to avoid regular washes and save water."

Cox also tells SBS of a farmer she recently counselled who picked up 25 dead ewes to pick up across the paddock. “You naturally see stock die on the farm but not to that level. What’s happening is heartbreaking.”

The counsellor urges all Australians to be empathetic to the drought-induced plight of some farmers for one simple reason – food production is unlike any other industry. “We have to remember where we get our food from as a nation. When we consider that, it should be a no brainer that we want to support the people who produce what we consume.

“How we go about farming might need to be looked at but the farmers who actually carry that out need to be looked after and protected.”

Season 3 of Struggle Street airs on Wednesdays at 8.30pm on SBS. The four-part documentary series continues weekly on Wednesdays. Episodes will stream at SBS On Demand after broadcast.

Catch up on episode one:

These videos were produced in partnership with SBS and the University of Sydney’s Matilda Centre for Research in Mental Health and Substance Use, Social Policy Research Centre, and Charles Sturt University.

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