Funding helps, but rate relief needed

By Jeanette Severs

Helen and Chris Nixon have accessed a range of Victorian government-administered grants, although his view is the co-funding is aimed at small landholders rather than commercial farmers.

Late last year, the Victorian Government funded a bundle of assistance grants for farmers who are affected by drought in East Gippsland and Wellington shires and in northern Victoria.

When Mr and Mrs Nixon decided to resow the entire 380 ha dryland dairy farm and a 300 ha outblock, they applied for the pasture recovery grant of $5 000.

“We had to oversow the entire farm with short-term rye-grass and cereal,” he said.

“The $5000 grant paid for one tonne of seed.”

Fortunately, 350 mm of rain has fallen this year. While it hasn’t been enough rain to improve the soil moisture profile, it has supported the germination and initial growth of the oversown pasture during winter.

Mr Nixon also applied for an On-farm Drought Infrastructure Support Grant — up to $5000 — to help fund a reticulated system for watering the cows.

“We bought solar-powered pumps for the dams to reticulate water to troughs and because we want to keep the cows out of the dams,” Mr Nixon said.

“We’re also applying for a Federal Government-funded On-Farm Emergency Water Infrastructure Rebate Scheme. We want to cover the dams with a film to reduce evaporation and reticulate more water around the farm.

“It’ll cost about $250 000 and we’ll get it done, but we’re still seeking quotes for the work.”

The On-Farm Emergency Water Infrastructure Rebate Scheme was established to provide a 25 per cent rebate up to $2000 to primary producers, for the costs associated with installing on-farm water infrastructure that addresses animal welfare needs and builds resilience to drought and dry conditions.

“We need to reduce water wastage and evaporation,” Mr Nixon said.

“Climate change is bringing us droughts that hit harder and last longer. We need to be prepared.”

The Victorian Government has received more than 4500 applications, to the end of July, for the On-Farm Drought Infrastructure Support and Pasture Recovery grants.

Agriculture Minister Jaclyn Symes said late August would be a trigger point for making further decisions about government assistance to farmers affected by drought in eastern Gippsland and northern Victoria. The dateline is dependent on a spring break in those regions.

Late August also coincides with decision-making around water storages and irrigation — the irrigation season for Lake Glenmaggie, in the Macalister Irrigation District, normally opens on August 15 with first water allocations.

Meanwhile, Ms Symes encouraged farmers to be vocal about how they are managing the drought and what could make a difference to them.

“I will continue to meet with farmers and discuss how we can help them prepare for and manage tough seasonal conditions,” she said.

“We are continuing to work closely with stakeholders to inform where any potential further support may be required; and how we can work together to keep building drought preparedness in our rural farming communities.”

In the meantime, Mr Nixon, (whose father, Peter Nixon, was Federal Minister for Primary Industries, 1979–83), said the Victorian Government and East Gippsland Shire Council needed to get together and decide on rate relief for farmers.

Mr Nixon is concerned that recent announcements by the NSW Government to further support fodder transport will be to the detriment of Victorian farmers.

He is also disgusted that for two years, the three levels of government ignored the drought in East Gippsland and Wellington shires.

“Drought support for Gippsland farmers has been very late and a poor response, when compared to NSW and Queensland,” Mr Nixon said.

“The grants now available to us have worked reasonably well, but in the quantum of money available, they’ve been about supporting small landholders rather than large, commercial farmers.

“Rate relief, based on assessing the farm as commercial, frees up cash flow for farmers to spend on farm business — buying in feed, paying for agistment and investing in infrastructure. That spending helps local rural businesses, which are also being affected by the drought.

“Just because farmers are not united and speaking as one, shouldn’t preclude them from the discussion and decision-making.”

The rates bill for the Nixons’ combined Orbost and Cann River farms of Chris and Helen Nixon is just under $40 000, increased by 2.5 per cent in the past year.

“I’m running 100 cows to pay for my rates,” Mr Nixon said.

“The State Government should be embracing rate relief with both arms, as a fair and equitable way of helping farmers. It should be a base policy for drought relief.”

The Victorian Government and East Gippsland Shire Council are in a stand-off over providing rate relief.

Ms Symes has encouraged farmers to apply for the $2500 and $3500 Farm Business Assistance Program grants — which are cash payments available for people to use on anything.

“These grants can be used wherever farmers’ cost pressures are — feed for livestock, paying all or part of their council rates, or on household bills. Farmers know their businesses better than anyone else,” she said.

Mayor Natalie O’Connell said East Gippsland Shire Council had applied to the Victorian Government, through the premier’s office, for assistance to provide a rate subsidy for East Gippsland farmers. Notwithstanding, there has been a concerted, long and vocal community push for the council to reduce rates or provide rate relief for farmers and small business owners.

“A rate subsidy is something that council cannot absorb on its own, without impacts to other services,” Cr O’Connell said.

“Our officers are committed to working with any ratepayers to put a plan in place for paying any overdue rates, given the financial times as a result of the drought.”

The council has recently extended free silage wrap disposal at three sites in the shire and will soon be contacting local groups to offer funding for events to reduce social isolation and offer social support.

“We have also appointed a drought assistance officer, whose primary role is to assist farmers in navigating the paperwork to access the ranges of assistance,” Cr O’Connell said.

Mr Nixon also called on the Victorian and federal governments to fund transport subsidies in Victoria, to make farmers competitive in accessing fodder.

It costs him $100/tonne to transport fodder from South Gippsland or western Victoria — which precludes he and other farmers from accessing livestock feed in order to maintain production.

“NSW has gone back to transaction subsidies, the Victorian Government should replicate that decision,” Mr Nixon said.

“There’ll be plenty of hay available in the spring. We just want to be competitive with NSW farmers, to be able to buy it.

“A tonne of hay ($400), freighted to Orbost (+$100), is equivalent to the production output of one cow for me — $500. If it’s all the feed she’s getting, it’ll last her 52 days. At the end of 52 days, will I have made $500 more out of that cow?

“So it has to be worth it for me to keep feeding that cow.”