Experts Argue Why Our Farmers Need to 'Get Out' Instead of Being 'Bailed Out'

An economist, scientist and agriculturalist make the case -- for some farmers -- their time is up.

What you need to know
  • 100 percent of NSW and more than half of Queensland is in drought
  • The NSW government is currently forking out more than $1 billion and the Federal government is spending more than half a billion in drought support and emergency relief
  • Ten daily spoke to an economist, a scientist and agriculturalist who said taxpayer dollars would be better spent helping farmers leave the industry

As drought grips the nation, and the country scrambles to help our farmers, experts reveal farmers need a hand finding an exit rather than a hand out.

Australian farmers are often revered and intrinsically tied to our national identity -- and confronting images and stories of hardship are difficult to ignore.

Despite this emotionally-charged terrain, some experts are bravely saying what others ashamedly think, perhaps our dry land -- that's frequently in drought -- is no longer a viable industry for farming.

The Economist

Saul Eslake doesn't pull any punches and said economics isn't clouded by nostalgia.

"There tends to be an almost unconscious belief about our farmers are more noble or more worthy than other industries like manufacturing for example," he told ten daily.

Up until the 1950's farming accounted for around 90 percent of our exports, but today it sits closer to 15 percent and approximately three percent of our GDP.

Eslake said some farmers don't innovate because they know the government will bail them out. IMAGE: Getty Images

Eslake said the best farmers know droughts happen and plan for it by building their resources during the good years, to help get through the bad years.

"There are farmers who don't bother doing that and they continue to get bailed out - there's a cohort of farmers who, in a sense, know they can just call on government assistance in tough times," he said.

He said he is "not opposed" to giving taxpayer dollars to help farmers in the midst of a severe drought.

"However we need to match that with thinking about how best to assist them and the wider industry when the drought passes," he added.

He estimates that Australia invests seven out of every ten years bailing farmers out.

"We can't just keep throwing cash and drought assistance, given some farmers are farming in areas that are more often in drought than not. Should we keep doing this? Those farms would be the first that need to go," said Eslake.

He said if farms begin to close, food supply and food security isn't a concern.

"Australia exports far more food that we supply to ourselves, so if we wind down productions and close some farms, that's not going to mean we just run out of food."

The Scientist

“I don’t know why it’s not raining. That’s not a flippant comment. The science is not explaining it, experts are quite confronted by this drought and the lack of answers,” said Professor Andy Pitman, Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes.

Despite these unknowns, Pitman said more periods of drought are likely and Australia's landscape seems to be drying more rapidly and intensely.

“There are still some farms that have four good years out of five and that can sustain them, but many others have only one or two good years in five and that makes it very hard for them to build the reserves to withstand droughts of this nature," he said.

Given droughts have become more common, Pitman said he is baffled by the politics which is lagging behind.

“The Federal government has to start looking at packages to help move farmers off non-economically viable farms. I don’t know why the Nationals aren’t talking about this and doing more about this."

"These are hard decisions and the farmers are going to need a lot of support to help them through this transition.”

He told ten daily, government policy also needed to plan for, and address how wider communities would be affected by farm closures.

“You’ve got to understand that whole regional centres, or towns that have been there for 150 years can become unviable once farms start closing. This is a deeply confronting proposition.”

He sympathised with farmers and said many are "amazingly skilled at adaptation" so it's not their fault.

"It’s climate change, therefore politicians need to start having this uncomfortable conversations about the future of some in the agricultural sector.”

He said government announcements shouldn't be limited to a package to "tide farmers over."

"Politicians need to fundamentally shift their thinking towards exit packages and how they are going to support farmers getting off the land.”

The Agriculturalist

Professor David Lamb from the University of New England, is also a Chief Scientist at foodagility - a partially-government funded organisation that helps producers with innovation and technology.

He said the focus, for now, is getting through the worst of the drought.

“This is not the time to be offering strategic package or transition packages, help right now needs to be immediate and offered support to get through the struggles today,” Lamb said.

But he conceded there are farmers who ought to opt out once the dust settles.

“There are definitely some farmers who shouldn’t be in the game, they’ve been struggling for years and haven’t innovated and developed or changed their ways. They need to get out, I would agree with that much,” he told ten daily.

And for some, it would be a welcome relief.

“There are a proportion of producers out there that are at the end of their tether who don’t want to endure another drought after this one, and they are the ones that would welcome a transition package,” he said.

He said they are most likely to be in the most arid parts of the state.

“Very few farms are sustainable in these conditions and it's hard continue enduring these levels of droughts with little weather relief.”

As a part-time farmer, living near Armidale in NSW's northern tablelands, he understands that farming is often more than a livelihood.

“You’ve got to be careful here because this, for many people, isn’t just a job or an industry it is a passion and calling and at times family legacy going back several generations and is part of family succession plans.”

“So while some farmers might be happy to leave, and others quite frankly need to go,  others want to maintain their family legacies and find ways to innovate to stay in the game  -- and they should,” he said.

The Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Nationals Michael McCormack told ten daily, the government won't be telling farmers to stop farming.

"The Liberals & Nationals don’t believe it is the Government’s job to tell farmers what they can grow or where. It’s not the job of a Government to tell people to get off their farm."

"We also know the drought will break one day and are supporting communities through this drought with practical measures, " Michael McCormack said in a statement.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or rural helpline Virtual Psychologist on 1300 665 234 (or send a text message to 0488 807 266) 

For further information about depression contact beyondBlue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.

If you want to help Australian farmers in need, you can donate to a registered charity. Donate online to Rural Aid's Buy a Bale, Drought Angels or Lions' Need for Feed. You can also support farmers by buying Australian grown produce at your local supermarket.

Contact the author at alattouf@networkten.com.au.