Drought is a recurring feature of the Australian climate and an ever-present threat to our farming industry. Right now, the drought’s impact is widespread across the country affecting a multitude of growing regions across Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. 

For regions such as the Lockyer Valley and Stanthorpe, west of Brisbane, this drought is now one of the worst in living memory,  seeing the lowest rainfall on record. With this unwanted milestone comes the reality that life of local farmers is far from ideal.

Bruce McConnel represents the local business network TSBE (Toowoomba and Surat Basin Enterprise) – a membership-based organisation that exists to share and create opportunities for local businesses to succeed.

He has seen first-hand the impact of drought on not just the farming sector but the whole local economy.

“Not only are the farmers significantly struggling – it’s affecting boarding school enrolments, it’s affecting elective surgery numbers, it’s affecting seed-rep dealers, machinery dealers and through to retail and hospitality, trade and transport. Every industry in town that relies on being a service supplier to ag is now significantly feeling the impacts of what is happening with the drought,” Bruce explained.

Successive Federal Governments have been criticised for their lack of action on drought policy, with the last substantial National Drought Policy released in 1992. Since then, that policy has received a number of revisions but was not comprehensively reviewed until the Labor government in 2008. Although this review gave the government-of-the-time the opportunity to update their drought response, no robust policy was established. This lack of a long term vision for dealing with drought is why many have lost faith in the Government’s ability to adequately respond to and support the needs of businesses and communities directly impacted.

This month the Government released an updated policy and support package that addresses the current drought emergency. This support also now extends to associated businesses and community members impacted by drought.

“We need to remember drought doesn’t stop at the farm gate. This is about the mechanics who fix their tractors, the schools that educate their children and the local businesses that are so vital to our regional towns,” said  David Littleproud, Minister for Water Resources, Drought, Rural Finance, Natural Disaster and Emergency Management in a statement supporting the policy release.

“That is why we have taken a whole-of-government approach to this drought and will continue to support them through every Commonwealth service that touches them and their community.”

The National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) has welcomed the Government’s response to its calls for greater support.

“The Government has demonstrated it has listened by addressing some of the recommendations put forward by the NFF and our members and by continuing to increase it’s already significant assistance for those managing one of the worst droughts in living memory,” said National Farmers’ Federation President Fiona Simson.

“Drought is complex, it is different for every farmer, business and community. There is now a suite of measures available, to a large degree, [to] address these varying needs.”

Some of the highlights of the new package include no-interest periods on drought loans for farmers and small businesses, support for remote students and economic stimulus for regional communities along with an increased push for more sustainable farming practices. The package also extends to investment in Local Councils supporting their farmers, through a discretionary drought funding model.  The NFF welcomed this move, but also reinforced its desire for a national approach across all three tiers of government in establishing an approach to droughts.

Another key part of the Government’s plan is the Future Drought Fund. The fund supports initiatives that improve the drought resilience of Australian farms and communities, helping them become more prepared to respond to the impacts of drought. The fund is designed to invest in research, innovation and assist in the adoption of new and existing technology. It looks to improve environmental and natural resource management as well as grow infrastructure and community initiatives. $100 million will be available for these drought-resilience initiatives from 2020-21.

Bruce McConnel from TSBE also supports the Government’s new policy.

“For the first time I’ve seen in quite a while, there is now support for not only the farmers themselves but also for the businesses that rely on servicing the Ag sector.”

Bruce also sees industry and enterprise playing a role alongside Government in supporting farmers and communities adapt and cope with drought. He advocates for the benefits of a collaborative, knowledge-sharing approach to dealing with drought conditions, especially when it comes to water.

“Businesses like Boomaroo are prime examples where we already have significant knowledge on how to have the best water treatments and manage our water through all periods. We have to spend more on the extension services and translating the research and current knowledge into more farmer’s and producer’s hands so everybody can be more drought resilient,” said Bruce

“We need to get it spread more widely throughout our culture and communities to ensure that everyone is drought-resilient to the same level of the top producers.”

To read the draft Drought Resilience Funding Plan and provide your feedback, visit: https://haveyoursay.agriculture.gov.au/future-drought-fund 

If you’d like to learn more about the Government’s support currently available to Growers as they prepare for, manage through and recover fro​m drought click here

If you are experiencing difficulties relating the drought, Lifeline has prepared a support services contact list available here

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