Drought stories of success, not charity

Published: October 2018 | By: Richard Taylor

Support for farmers battling drought is heart-warming – but Monaro sheep and cattle producer Richard Taylor warns it’s vital to keep the message positive.


Monaro livestock producer Richard Taylor is concerned that all the publicity about farmers suffering in the drought may damage the industry.

Droughts are emotionally and financially stressful. They always result in tough stories. Unfortunately the toughest stories currently being held up as the norm misrepresent a lot of what’s happening. They portray a very negative image of agriculture and that could have repercussions.

In the early 2000s when we also ran into dry years the stories were similar and intakes to the agricultural colleges plummeted with numbers only just recovering. But if young people receive all these negative messages why would they sign up for a career in agriculture? We should be careful what we portray as normal otherwise we’re selling agriculture short. 

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There have also been stories of farmers shooting their stock. That causes more negative perceptions about agriculture. I’m not saying it’s not happening but it would be unusual and it’s not the situation most people are in. Most farmers, while finding the situation difficult, are doing a good job looking after their animals and that’s due to a combination of factors. 
 
The past five or six years have been good for agriculture in terms of commodity prices so people are in a better financial situation, but also we learned a lot during the Millennium Drought. Certainly the Monaro area where I farm – very much a livestock area – is well set up with grain storage, silos, augers and grain trailers. 

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We’ve learned how to feed our stock in confined situations and reduce the impact on pastures. It has become the norm, whereas 20 years ago only the minority were set up to cope with these situations. 
 
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Of course there are uncertainties, we don’t know when the drought will end – if feed prices will keep rising or what stock prices will do – but through a Monaro farming group [Monaro Farming Systems] we use CSIRO farming simulations that help us understand the potential consequences of decisions going forward and provide us with a range of outcomes. We know that the worst thing we can do is decide to feed, then realise halfway through that we can’t finance it, so have to bail out. 

Another problem with the current coverage and appeals for cash is that it could affect agricultural investment and those of us wanting to sell our product overseas. We want to be seen as reliable suppliers of high-quality produce and we very much are that, we’re outstanding, but those on the other side of the world reading our media aren’t getting that message. They believe we have droughts that cripple us and decimate our herds and that soon we’re going to have no sheep left.

Meanwhile, others who are really doing it tough are overlooked – the contractors, service providers and suppliers are often more affected than the farmers. If you’re a harvesting contractor in northern NSW who needs to make repayments on four harvesters and have no crop to harvest, you’re in a tough position, especially since you probably don’t have the advantage of a strong balance sheet behind you as some farmers do. 

While drought relief and subsidies are a great boost to individuals experiencing drought, the industry as a whole needs to think very carefully about expecting taxpayers to come to their aid when drought inevitably strikes.
 
The fact the community wants to get behind farmers is fantastic and people who need help should get it, but my concern is that farmers must expect to encounter drought and be set up to cope with it. I don’t say we should never seek assistance but we do need to be careful. 

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If the message we send to the community is that we can’t stand on our own two feet they’ll say: “Well if we’ve got to bail you out at times, then we have a right to have a say in how you run things.” 

We’d do better channelling this community support to lobby politicians and get some good policy outcomes. In the Monaro area, which is grasslands, the native vegetation regulations have a big impact on our operations, while having strong, competitive export markets in agriculture keeps the domestic supermarkets honest. We’re price-takers so that competitive trading environment is critical.

Similarly, now that everyone realises the cost of transporting hay, it opens the door to discuss Inland Rail and transport options. Normally we farmers find it hard to get conversation going about our industry because we’re so distant from our consumers. The fact that everyone now is discussing farming is a great opportunity and has brought us a lot closer to the community. 

The point is we want our message to be positive because most of agriculture is positive. It’s a terrific industry and it’s a pity if it’s not represented that way.   
 
*These are Richard's personal views. If you would like to be ‘On my soapbox’ in a future issue of The Farmer, email: thefarmer@mediumrarecontent.com or write to: The Farmer, Suite 53/26-32 Pirrama Rd, Pyrmont, NSW 2009. If your topic is chosen, a journalist will be in touch.

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