Hot debate: was the NSW government right to cancel drought declarations 

Published: January 2019 | Edited by: Joanna Webber.

The drought declaration policy was scrapped by the NSW government in 2013 but not everyone is convinced. Two Central West farmers weigh in but not everyone thinks this was the right decision.

DURING one of the driest times on record, many NSW farmers would like to see the drought declaration policy reinstated.

The policy, which triggered emergency cash and subsidies to support farmers and maintain farming households in periods of extended drought, was scrapped by the NSW government in 2013 and replaced with a new system of interest-free loans.

While the state government no longer ‘declares’ drought, it has introduced support measures, including an annual subsidy of up to $20,000 for the transport of fodder, water and stock.

The NSW Department of Primary Industries’ Combined Drought Indicator (CDI) uses rainfall, soil moisture, plant growth and drought direction data to indicate five phases of drought. An area’s CDI drought status is one of the mechanisms that can trigger access to government drought-relief measures – but this support is not automatic.

While some view drought as a natural disaster and want to see the drought declaration policy reinstated, others argue declaring drought doesn’t help farmers improve their self-reliance or better manage variable climate conditions.

We invited two Central West farmers to share their views…

“Drought is a part of the landscape that we operate our businesses under and we need to get better at doing that.” 

Simon Goddard, prime lamb and cattle producer at Coolah in Central West NSW and former chair of his local NSW Farmers branch, explains why a drought declaration policy doesn’t help in the long run.

We live in a variable climate and drought is a recurring dry time within that climate. It’s not a natural disaster and can’t be distinguished by a line on a map. The government needs to support farmers, but rather than offering drought subsidies and rebates, it needs to be spending money on building resilience and sustainability in the agriculture sector.

Long-term water and infrastructure loans, extension and education services, investment allowances, tax concessions, and improved Farm Management Deposit schemes should all be available and budgeted for every year, not just as a reaction to adverse climate conditions.

Producers would be better off having access to educational services that would give them the skills to handle climate better. Spending money on bandaid measures like freight subsidies distorts the markets and ultimately doesn’t benefit the landholder.

If you look around, you can see that there are some people who are handling this drought better than others. Their pastures and livestock are in good order. Their stocking rates match the conditions and their land is ready to respond to any rain that comes along. 

“The government needs to put more resources into reaching those who are not handling the conditions well." 
There are excellent courses on holistic farm management. Grazing for Profit and ProGraze are two examples of courses that give meat and wool producers better skills in pasture and livestock assessment. The information is all out there but it needs to be encouraged by government and made more available to the people who need it.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the climate is changing quite rapidly, so we have to adapt to that. We might need to consider different pasture species, different classes of livestock, better plant breeding for crops and different species of crops. Part of that is production feeding of livestock and general management of changing climate conditions. 

Of course, nobody is going to always get it right, but there are degrees of getting it wrong. The only way we can get better at it is to bring everybody up to best practice in the industry. We don’t need a drought declaration policy to do that.

“Drought declaration puts a line in the sand that says ‘these people are doing it tough and need government assistance'.”

Jan Burgess, Merino sheep and beef cattle producer at Coolah in Central West NSW and former NSW Farmers branch secretary, argues that a drought declaration puts a much-needed focus on affected areas.

We need to declare drought in the same way we do floods, fire and cyclones. When floods come, people have to be evacuated and stocks need to be moved. It’s considered an exceptional circumstance and treated as such. Droughts need to be treated the same way. 

You’ve got to call it what it is. Some areas of NSW haven’t had good rain for six years. If you’re a Queensland farmer and you’ve been in drought for the past seven years, what else would you call it but a natural disaster?

My husband Bill is a third-generation farmer and we’ve been married for 40 years. Our country is fertilised up, and as soon as we get rain, it responds. We’ve been breeding cattle and Merino sheep for many years and the wool market is doing well. 

We will sell off what stock we can, but we need to hold onto some of those sheep because, come next April when we shear them, hopefully we will get back some of the money we spent on fodder. It’s nonsense to say you can store fodder for months on end. You can’t. Because this drought is so widespread, the price, quality and quantity of fodder has been a big problem. When fodder prices went through the roof, it was very difficult to decide which way to go. You can’t sell skinny cattle. A short while ago, most of the cattle were calving, and calving cattle can become poor if they don’t have quality feed.

Farmers who could get good prices for their wool and cattle found it easier to decide to carry their cattle forward and ensure an income in coming years. For those who sold off young cattle, the next two years will be difficult because that income won’t be there. It’s a cleft stick whichever way they go. 

“When an area is drought-declared, it puts the focus on that area. It’s not just the farmers doing it tough, it’s also rural communities and business owners in the towns who need assistance." 
Some argue there are always measures you can take, but there are a lot of producers who haven’t been able to make themselves drought-proof. With a flood you know where you are, but drought is a slow-onset natural disaster. There’s no beginning and no end to it, and drought relief isn’t one-size-fits-all. 

Related articles:
- The truth about the Murray-Darling
- Livestock to hay production: Tamworth farmer diversifies during drought
- The drought hay crisis
- Drought stories of success, not charity

Drought statistics

$1 billion - Amount committed by NSW government for drought relief measures, 2018/19.

$190 million - Funding allocated to help NSW farmers with transport costs of fodder, water for stock and stock.

$5.47 billion - Amount held in Farm Management Deposits in Australia.
(31 October 2018)

58% - Amount of the land area of Queensland that has been drought-declared. (October 2018)

9 - Number of major droughts in Australia since the 1860s.

27.5% - Average decline in real gross farm product during Australian droughts over past 50 years.

1989 - The year the Australian government removed drought from natural disaster relief arrangements.

$2.7 million - Additional funding allocated to the Bureau of Meteorology in 2018 to develop finer-scale regional weather and climate guides.

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