Future Drought Fund’s first round of spending for farmers announced by Federal Government

The Federal Government has revealed how it will spend the first round of its $5 billion Future Drought Fund, designed to help farmers better prepare for dry times.

This round of money will assist farmers to become more financially savvy, while also funding better climate data information, research and development, and natural resource management.

Federal Agriculture and Drought Minister David Littleproud said the Government would allocate $20 million to help farmers develop and improve their business plans.

Mr Littleproud said refining financial literacy will work together with investment in a climate data service.(Supplied: David Littleproud)

“But our job as a Government using Australian taxpayers’ money is to give our farmers the very best tools possible to make them even more profitable.”

The Future Drought Fund was first announced in 2018 and allows the government of the day to provide $100 million each year for preparedness and so-called resilience programs.

Mr Littleproud said “refining farmers’ financial literacy” would work together with a $10 million dollar investment in a new, online climate data service, tailored to farmers’ needs.

He said the digital platform would provide “regional specific climate data” to allow farmers to make “real time decisions that gets them ahead of drought rather than behind it”.

Looking through a barbed wire fence to desolate paddocks as trees are pummelled by wind. Dust haze on horizon paints out the sky
Wind is blowing topsoil away and farmers fear it will take years for some landscapes to recover.(ABC News: Lucy Barbour)

The announcement comes after a Government-appointed committee, headed by former National Farmers’ Federation president Brent Finlay, conducted a six-week tour of rural communities to find out how farmers wanted the Future Drought Fund spent.

“This is not about whittling away money,” Mr Littleproud said.

“We as Australian taxpayers have a proud record of having a safety net, and that’s what we provide to not only Australian farmers but to the individuals out there to have a safety net when things don’t go your way.”

Farmers welcome climate data spend

Wool grower Oliver Kay, who farms at Bungarby in southern New South Wales, questioned whether money should be spent teaching farmers how to develop business plans.

“Farmers should be doing that themselves already, that’s just a no brainer,” he said.

“So there’s no excuse for any farm business not to have clear plans for the path based on what’s happened previously.”

But Mr Kay welcomed the investment in an online climate data information service, which would likely draw on information from the Bureau of Meteorology, the CSIRO, and the Department of Agriculture.

Another $20 million dollars will be spent on drought research and development, and $15 million on natural resource management.

That could include grants for individuals and farmer groups to improve their local landscapes by maintaining ground-cover and improving soils.

South Australian pastoralist Gillian Fennell said the Government had “done business plans to death” and would have preferred to see money spent on improving farm and town water infrastructure.

“There’s no amount of business planning that will help you get rain out of the sky and help you get water onto your crop or your cattle or sheep,” she said.

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Access to water becomes difficult as a vineyard succumbs to drought

As a vineyard slowly dies from drought, the owner provides access to water for the rural community, writes Marie-Claire Colyer.

BEBREW ESTATES is a small boutique vineyard in Australia’s Upper Hunter Valley. Established in 1971, it provided a welcome escape from the city and a labour of love for our family. Weekends were spent pruning, picking grapes, caterpillars and weevils. An organic vineyard for most of my youth, as a child I remember the hours combing the serrated leaves for hawkmoth caterpillars; those lime larvae that would stare with fake eyes as they wagged their spike in impotent warning.

There were years of dry weather, brittle grass, patchy rain and droughts that stretched like the far fields to the swell of the horizon. Flash floods that roared like express trains down the deep-cut banks of the creek. I remember the water flowing wave-like into the rows, undercutting the humped earth so that children could float buckets in channels that filtered out into the dam.

Then the nematodes took up residence, attacking the roots and the Chardonnay vines withered. We potted vine arms for grafting onto Ramsey rootstock. Plunging small hands into sand and clay soils, sifting it through our fingers. I recall the knobbed and ridged backs of the grey elephant weevils that began to proliferate, their larvae gnawing tunnels through healthy stock. And so, the chemicals were sprayed as the weevils burrowed. Poison sifting down onto leaves and water tanks. And potable water was carted 280 kilometres from Sydney to Gungal, just so we could drink and the vineyard be irrigated.

The tractor shed behind the desiccated vineyard (Image by Marie-Claire Colyer)

Through all this, the trunks grew thick, knotted beneath a canopy that each year hung heavy with tight-bunches of fruit. The aged aromas of spilled wine fermenting in the concrete, the tart smell of sulphur, the woodiness of oak. These are the scents of my youth.

And then the drought came once more. Sapping moisture from the land. Baking it. My father knows what it is to tackle drought head-on. Having experience of the harsh realities of living on the land without access to water, he decided to do something about it.

Facing the loss of his own vineyard and knowing the needs of the community, as a designer and manufacturer, John Colyer created a solution. Without access to local water, farmers and producers were hauling in water over long distances to feed livestock and irrigate crops. What was needed was local access day or night; bores and town water that was available to everyone, from tanker drivers to individuals.

The occasional sprig of green shouting like a semaphore amid the desolation (Image by Marie-Claire Colyer)

From necessity comes invention — water filling stations paid by credit card. There are now hundreds of machines installed throughout Australia. John believes that “access to drinking water is a right and should be available to anyone, anywhere and at any time”.

A machine has been installed in Merriwa (15 minutes from Bebrew Estates). But having nursed his vineyard for 49 years, even with three dams and the local creek, it has all but succumbed. Row upon row of grey trunks stand like a testament to aridity. Their bark peeling in strips, the occasional sprig of green shouting like a semaphore amid the desolation.

From lush greenery, the vines on Bebrew Estates are now desiccated, gnarled trunks. Before the rains, the dams became sunken plains of cracked mud and the creek flowed deep beneath the sand. Looking at photos of the rows of dead vines, it is easier for those with the privilege of access to clean water to gain an insight into the calamity that has befallen much of the rural community. Ann Stokes was due to retire two years ago but stayed with John’s company to do her bit to assist. Every week she is out on the land, providing relief by delivering these means of accessing the artesian basin.

Drought grips the area surrounding Bebrew Estates (Image by Alison Chan)

For my father’s vineyard, it is too late. The wind soughs in the once-verdant arms and the dust clouds kick up the tangled roots of parched grasses. In summer, there was earth cracked into hexagon plates and dry grit. When rain fell it wet the surface, bringing an illusion of green. There was not enough to fill water tanks or dams, to saturate the thirsty soil. There was heat and even now there is still the drought.

But John is providing a means of hope to at least provide public access to what water remains. Like the many machines being installed throughout Australia, if you drive through Merriwa now, you can see it. A slender green rectangle, perched on the side of the hill. And others, wider with more capacity, serving the lines of tankers and the solitary farmers in their utes in other desiccated states.

Perhaps it is this that we take away from the devastation of one of the many small businesses to succumb; it is in times of crisis and in this perhaps the cruellest drought on record, that we as individuals come together.

It may be that our children will work the remnants of Bebrew Estates. It may be that their own children will help dig out dead vines and plant new ones to augment the matured vines that survive. That they will snip and tie up arms, nurture with diligence as their grandfather did. That they will breathe deep the aromas of heated juice as it ferments sticky on their hands as they pick. That one day perhaps they will fill up their water cubes from their grandfather’s machine and be proud of what he’s done. As I am.

Water filling station providing 24-hour access to water in Merriwa 15 minutes from Bebrew Estates (Image by Marie-Claire Colyer)

Marie-Claire Colyer is both a writer and nature artist. View her website on www.mccolyer.com.

Carting water from Sydney when the vineyard was lush (Image by Marie-Claire Colyer)

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COVID-19 NSW small business grant criteria questioned in light of business downturn from drought

Peter Nash has run a shoe shop in Broken Hill for 45 years and has endured countless droughts and the closure of mines, but nothing has come close to the economic stress of COVID-19.

The Federal Government’s ‘JobKeeper’ scheme is helping keep him afloat but he is angry his business did not qualify for a New South Wales Government small business grant.

“Unfortunately, our downturn at the beginning of April was 72 per cent and they have a benchmark of 75 per cent,” he said.

“I started the application but got booted out so to speak.”

The sum of $10,000 is available to businesses who have experienced a loss of 75 per cent in income because of COVID-19.

But Mr Nash said that did not take into account businesses who had already seen a downturn because of three years of drought.

“We are so close to the 75 per cent which in reality is a high figure to expect anyway. If you are shut you are 100 per cent down, but if you try to stay open and keep kids in a job,” he said.

Half a billion dollars in grants still available

The State Government has confirmed it still has half a billion dollars in small business grants available with applications for the money closing next week.

A parliamentary hearing this week heard Service New South Wales had distributed $249 million of the $750 million grants fund.

Treasury officials told Parliament:

  • The Government only received 34,000 applications for a grant from hundreds of thousands of businesses not paying payroll tax. 
  • Service NSW has distributed just $249 million of the $750 million budgeted, with 25,000 small businesses obtaining grants. 
  • NSW small businesses must suffer a 75 per cent downturn to qualify for a COVID grant, despite Victoria applying JobKeeper’s 30 per cent requirement for help.  

Mr Nash said the Government set too high a hurdle for small businesses to clear.

Local businesses encouraged to apply before deadline

Local businesses in New South Wales are being encouraged to apply for the State Government’s small business grant before applications close on Sunday at midnight.

The Member for Barwon Roy Butler said the Treasurer Dominic Perrottet had indicated discretion would be given to small businesses who made a case to him.

He said businesses should not be deterred by from applying if they did not meet the whole criteria.

“We really want to make sure people apply before the first of June, if they get knocked back, we are happy to take it up with the Treasurer, but we can only do that if people make the application,” he said.

“People who have spoken to me have said their business was down 50 per cent over the past three years as opposed to losing 75 per cent at the onset of the coronavirus, so when the margins are already that thin, if they’d lost another 75 per cent of business they would have been out of business well and truly.”

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Farmers step up to help meet ‘huge’ food relief demand after drought, bushfires and coronavirus

Farmers in north-east Victoria are donating tonnes of fruit and vegetables to help an emergency food provider meet the ‘huge’ demand in communities hit hard by drought, bushfires and the coronavirus pandemic.

Manager of Albury Wodonga Regional FoodShare Peter Matthews said it had been a difficult year.

“Everything that could have possibly happened in the past four months in terms of emergency food relief has happened,” he said.

“We had the bushfires, before the bushfires we had the drought … and now coronavirus.”

His organisation feeds up to 3,000 people a week in southern New South Wales and north-east Victoria, including towns devastated by the summer’s bushfires such as Corryong.

“We basically can’t meet the demand. We still run out of fresh fruit and veg sometimes,” Mr Matthews said.

“We substitute. We never say no. We’ll explain to them that this is all we’ve got at the moment … during the bushfires in particular we purchased fresh fruit and vegetables because they were really scarce.”

Albury Wodonga Regional FoodShare Manager Peter Matthews stands in front of a large bin of donated pumpkins
Peter Matthews hopes many more farmers will jump on board and donate their produce.(ABC Goulburn Murray: Jackson Peck)

Farmers step up

But a project started 18 months ago is beginning to bear fruit after FoodShare worked with local primary producers for a school education program.

“We got to know some farmers and some of them said ‘Well, you know, we might have a bit of spare produce every now and again, would you like some?’ … that sparked the idea of going and approaching them,” Mr Matthews said.

Foodshare volunteer Vic Citroen has been leading the project.

“Peter said I know you’re a primary producer … can you get some farmers involved to supply us?” Mr Citroen said.

There are now about 30 farms that regularly donate hundreds of kilograms of fresh fruit and vegetables.

“We found them quite approachable and more than happy to provide food as long as we came and picked it up. Some of the donations were quite large,” Mr Matthews said.

Farmer Ben Kelly with FoodShare volunteer Vic Citroen and a bin of butternut pumpkins
FoodShare volunteer Vic Citroen (right) has approached many farmers like Ben Kelly to ask for donations.(ABC Goulburn Murray: Jackson Peck)

Farmer Ben Kelly, one of the owners of Kelly Brothers, west of Yarrawonga along the Murray River, has become a major supplier.

“Vic came out one day and saw me and asked us if we’d jump on board and we’re quite happy to help,” Mr Kelly said.

“It didn’t take too much persuading to get us on board.”

Mr Kelly donates about half a tonne of vegetables each fortnight to FoodShare.

“It’s just the right thing to do. Especially with the bushfires this year and everything else like that, people need a bit of a helping hand,” he said.

Down the road in Cobram, farmer Adrian Conti from Conti Orchards donates between 200 and 500 kilograms of fruit a fortnight.

“Whatever we’re picking and doing at the time so there’s a little bit of variety. Sometimes it’s pears. This time of the year it’s apples,” he said.

“Everyone needs a bit of a helping hand every now and then. So if we can, we’re proud to.”

Orchardist Adrian Conti stands behind a crate of apples
Adrian Conti says he wasn’t affected by the bushfires so he wants to help those who were hit hard.(ABC Goulburn Murray: Jackson Peck)

‘Tidal wave’ of demand

But Mr Matthews is hoping he can sign up many more farmers to help meet what he says will be a “tidal wave” of demand in September.

“Newstart changed its name and was doubled but only for six months … if that goes back to the former level that’ll push a whole lot of people back into poverty,” he said.

He also wants to lower the environmental impact of the organisation.

“The more local food you get, it’s more efficient for the whole economy and the environment as well,” Mr Matthews said.

But he says there is still a long way to go.

“Our objective would be to get 90 per cent of our fresh produce locally. We’re only at about 5 per cent at the moment,” he said.

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Southern NSW farmers brace for drought to worsen due to lack of rain – ABC Rural

New South Wales farmers are bracing for the drought to worsen, with the opportunity for autumn rain and significant pasture growth diminishing as winter closes in.

Key points NSW drought

Key points:

  • The NSW south-east region remains classfieds as in “intense drought”
  • The NSW far-west and north also experienced a period of “intense drought”
  • BOM suggests Australia could be in for a wet few months going into winter

While some parts of NSW have received drought-breaking rain, the state’s south-east is still classified under “intense drought”, according to NSW Department of Primary Industries.

Kannona dairy farmer Michael Shipton said decent rain in February had made the grass green, but had not made up for a lack of soil moisture in pastures.

“You probably think it’s all looking great, but we’re behind the eight-ball,” Mr Shipton said.

“We’ve had this bit of a green flush, but really the soil moisture, and our on-farm water storage, is pretty low.”

The Combined Drought Indicator produced by the NSW Department of Primary Industries illustrates which parts of the state are in varying states of drought, with the far west and north also experiencing a period of intense drought.

Autumn rain has brought a green tinge to most parts of the south east, providing a visual contrast with the burnt-out paddocks seen during the bushfires of Black Summer.

But Mr Shipton said it had not been enough to break the drought.

“I won’t be complacent in preparing for winter and spring and storing as much fodder as we can.”

John Jefferys’ farm at Delegate Station in the Snowy Monaro received an early bout of rain which has helped his wheat and canola crops.

“The rain in February gave us some confidence and ability to sow down wheat and canola crops,” he said.

Mr Jefferys has had to cut back on livestock in preparation for a potentially harsh Winter.

“I guess we are back on 30 per cent on lamb numbers we usually carry into winter,” he said.

“We’ll be right to get through to June, but then we’ll have to reassess stocking rates then.”

“Extremely worrying, bordering on despair”

The Bureau of Meteorology outlook suggests there is an above 60 per cent chance of above-median rainfall for most of the country for at least the next three months.

But Agronomist Stuart Burge said it was crucial rain fell now in order to promote pasture growth.

“It’s extremely worrying, bordering on despair,” he said.

Mr Burge has been soil testing across parts of the Snowy Monaro since March, but has largely found the first 10 centimetres of soil, which is a vital section for plant growth and nutrient uptake, lacked any moisture.

He said it was crucial the region received decent, drenching rainfall now before colder conditions set in.

“Unless we receive significant rainfall in very near future, and I can’t see that happening, I think it’s going to be a dreadful winter.”

“This drought will continue, and it can only get far, far worse.”

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