DESPERATE TIMES: Grain farmers in the Millewa are no strangers to drought, but some are facing their third season in a row with little of no crop to harvest, and it’s steadily taking its toll. Grain grower Ian Arney, left, and fellow Millewa farmer Ron Hards, right, with Victorian Nationals leader, Peter Walsh, centre, talk drought pressures.

By JOHN DOOLEY

FARMING can be a fickle business at the best of times, with a bumper crop one season followed by a patchy crop or nothing at all to harvest the following.

For many grain growers in the Millewa, just west of Mildura, it’s even worse, with some facing their third bad season in a row.

The irony is that even where rainfall has been low, there are some properties that do have a crop, albeit not great, but it’s better than nothing. 

Further south in the Mallee there are some growers who are looking at bumper crops because good rain has fallen at the right time, in the right places, but it’s a patchy story right across the State.

It’s not just lack of rain that has contributed to the Millewa’s woes, in November 2016 a massive hail storm ripped through the region, reeking havoc and decimating crops.

In order to address the crisis, Millewa farmers have been meeting to work out a strategy to put to government in the hope of receiving some assistance to get them through this rough time, ensuring that when rain does come, they will still have their properties, and be in a position to plant some seed to grow a crop for the next season.

Mallee Sustainable Farming (MSF) chair, Daniel Linklater, has been working with the community in the Millewa, and sat down with farmers at a meeting convened with Victorian Nationals Leader Peter Walsh at the Werrimull Pub recently.

“I think of it in this way, in spite of best practices, years like this, especially two successive years with probably less than ‘decile-one’ rainfall (the lowest 10 percent of rainfall totals on record) is going to test any system,” he said.

“Pleasingly, in spite of two savage seasons, in a lot of instances where progressive farming techniques have been used we’re seeing, at the very least, good ground cover, which will give those growers an opportunity for next year to take advantage of a better season.

“Where people have struggled to establish any ground-cover this year, and even last year, I really do worry about their prospects for next year, and yes, there are instances too of practices that probably don’t lend themselves to being able to cope with the sort of climatic conditions we have had for the past two seasons.”

Mr Linklater said that many growers and their families were under a lot of pressure. 

“The other aspect of course is the link between financial distress and I guess potentially mental distress, and so as a community, we have to be very cognisant of the pressure that many of these farming businesses, and they are generally family businesses, are under,” he said.

Yarrara wheat cocky Ron Hards has pretty much seen it all during his decades of dryland farming, but this season is shaping up to be the worst in his living memory – possibly the worst for 60 or more years.

‘It’s pretty ordinary. Everything came up eventually, but it hasn’t grown very much,” he said. “In saying that, we’ll show you a crop shortly that has potential to make something on 60mm of rain (250mm being the average per annum.)”

Mr Hards said that even at this stage of the season any rain would benefit what’s still growing.

“It would be of benefit to us where we’ve had that 60mm and there is a crop, but there are some other areas where there is absolutely nothing, and so it wouldn’t do anything at all,” he said. “It’s fairly trying, we’ve only had about 100mm of rain for the entire year.

“The only saving grace is that we had good subsoil moisture, and so we managed to get the crops up and they tapped into the subsoil moisture and hung on and did quite well.” 

Ian Arney is another Millewa farmer feeling the pinch from the drought, and he is spear-heading a campaign seeking assistance from the Mildura Rural City Council and State and Federal Governments, calling on them to recognise the plight of people trying to survive in the region.

“I’m trying to get some leverage on this issue and gain some recognition and response to the situation in the Millewa, which has proven to be difficult, but it seems to have gained a bit of momentum now,” he said. 

Listening to Mr Arney tell his story, you are struck by the strain in his voice, he’s feeling the stress of successive years of failed crops, lack of rain, and watching his neighbours property’s parched soil blow away in the relentless winds that hit the area.

His plight is bad enough, but he says he’s not as bad off as a lot of his fellow farmers who are doing it really tough, and are close to the end of their tether.

Ian farms 3300 hectares, and said that of the crops that had come up in the absence of further rain, he’d made the decision to let his livestock graze on what was there.

“It’s not going to become a crop without reasonable rain and so I thought I may as well feed it to my livestock and get some short-term benefit out of it, as opposed to nothing,” he said.

“They chew it back to just above the crown, and so if we get some follow up rain, the crop will actually come back.

“If I had left it as is, the crop would have utilised every drop of moisture trying to stay alive and died.”

A concerned Nationals Leader Peter Walsh travelled to the Millewa recently to meet with farmers to discuss their plight, ahead of which he toured a number of drought-affected properties with Mr Hards.

“We’ve had discussions around options for relief, and there’s a very simple way for the Government to help in the same way as we have seen in other parts of Victoria, and that’s by paying the Shire rates,” Mr Walsh said. 

“It can be done and it’s been done in the past, it was done back in 2008-2009 and it’s very easily administered and a good simple way of delivering immediate help.”

Mr Walsh said the farmers also need to tap into the Federal system and access the Household Support Program. 

“I think the suggestion around some form of crop planting assistance for next year would give people a lot of comfort to go through the summer, knowing that when it does rain next year, there’s a program there to make sure they can put their crop in with the appropriate amount of inputs to maximise yield potential,” he said.

The other issue of concern in the Millewa is the depletion of livestock, which is being sold to raise money and to head-off future expenses in feed in the future.

“Once your breeding stock’s gone, it’s very hard to get back in, and so you don’t want to lose the opportunity to restock when it does come good, and it will,” Mr Walsh said. “There is some beautiful soil in the Millewa, like everyone says in the Mallee, all you have to do is add water.

“Unfortunately Mother Nature didn’t give them any water this year. It will rain in the future, and it will be a very productive area again, and so they need that assistance and the comfort of knowing that people are thinking of them to get them through to next year.    

“The rain that has fallen has been patchy, and while some parts look like they aren’t too bad and are in fact quite green, they are stunted in their growth and may struggle to produce a crop.

“Even with the crops that may not look too bad at the moment, I’d be worried that unless there is substantial spring rain, they won’t amount to much either, that’s the tragedy of the whole thing.”

Walsh calls for visit

In the Victorian Parliament, Mr Walsh called on Premier Daniel Andrews to visit the region to meet with farmers.

Mr Walsh’s visit to the region followed that of the Member for Mildura Ali Cupper, who travelled to the Millewa to meet with farmers earlier that week, and she too expressed concerns with what she saw.

“Bleak, really sad, we hope that the State and Federal Governments assistance packages go a significant way to alleviate some of the stress and pressure on our hard-working farming families,” Ms Cupper said.

“One of the commitments I made was to talk to Council. We know that Council has a hardship policy for rates, and so I want to be able to assist in educating the community out there that those sort of options are available, and I’ll help them advocate for the most rate relief that’s possible under these circumstances.

“Farming entities can generally withstand one drought, that’s kind of built into their business plan, but when you get back-to-back droughts, and for some of these farmers it’s three and four droughts in a row, that’s where things become very challenging.

“We want to retain the family farm in our social and economic fabric, we don’t want a situation where our family farms have to essentially pack up and that vacuum is then filled by the corporate sector.” 

Mr Arney has since met with AgVic and the Rural Financial Counselling Service to discuss the growers situation. The Victorian Minister for Agriculture, Jaclyn Symes, visited the region earlier this week and met with farmers, telling them she was aware of their plight and that all tiers of government needed to work together to provide assistance to them.