Make it rain: Not everyone agrees a drought coordinator is the best approach

The Berejiklian government has acknowledged NSW is in its worst drought in more than 20 years and appointed respected former grazier Pip Job as the state’s drought coordinator on Monday. But not everyone agrees this is the best approach.

A big job ahead

Pip Job has been given the task of asking NSW farmers what they think about drought relief measures and then report her findings back to the state government.

The Geurie resident said her role would be more about listening than providing legislative suggestions.

“My role is to go out and listen and to better understand what it is the farmers and their communities need," she said.

“I will collect that information and then present it back to the government for them to make decisions … I am out here to listen.”

Ms Job said drought relief does not come as a one size fits all solution because farmers are impacted differently by the weather.

“I think what is important about a role like this is to help create an impact that is out there for all farmers so they can get through this drought,” she said. “We don't know if we are at the beginning, the middle or the end of this drought and it looks different right across the state, every industry is different.

“If you're a cotton farmer you'd be thrilled that there has been no rain. We have to understand that, what does it look like in a localised context and at an industry level and then help farmers work with industry to better understand the right way to help them move forward.

“This is also about creating change as well so people are better prepared and manage their risks into the future.”

It’s a good idea

‘The Springs’ farmer Scott Tourle fears the drought-like conditions gripping NSW could last until 2025.

The farmer and his family run cattle on their property about 40 kilometres south of Dubbo, and Mr Tourle says they have faced below-average rainfall since March 2017.

With just 200 head of cattle on 10,000 acres, they have essentially destocked. They’re supplementary feeding, with plans to offload the remaining stock when there’s no value left in dry feeding.

“It’s daunting,” Mr Tourle said about the prospect of completely destocking, and starting again when the drought breaks.

“But we think we’re better off doing that and putting money in the bank now, rather than trying to guess how long the bit of string is in terms of how long the drought is. We’ve got no idea.

“Looking on past cycles, I think we’ve got a drought that could take us out to 2025 … there’s a good possibility of that happening.”

Further south at ‘Tralee’, Phil Sheridan is running 300 head of cattle on the 840 hectares he has farmed since 1988.

He’s feeding his cattle rolled oats, but will soon move them onto a higher protein, wheat-based ration if the weather doesn’t break.

He said the conditions are “the worst I’ve seen”.

But he welcomed Ms Job’s appointment, saying she is the right person to help steer the government’s future drought relief response.

“I think it's a great thing … the more awareness of what's happening out here, the more likely we'll get a good response,” Mr Sheridan said.

Action, not talk

But some NSW farmers – including Yeoval siblings Chris and Krystal Haycock – want action, not talk when it comes to drought relief.

The fourth generation farmers disagree with Primary Industries Minister Niall Blair, who said “some of our farmers are very proud and they tell us they don’t want a handout, they just want a hand-up”.

“We’re all going to go under if we don’t get help soon so I think the government is just going to have to help us now,” Mr Haycock said.

“Stock can’t live on nothing, there are just going to start dying. I get sick of shooting cows every week, there is just no future.”

“We’re at a loss of what to do and where to go,” Ms Haycock said. “We were one of the biggest Red Angus breeders in Australia and now we’re nothing.

“If we don’t get help in the next two months, we’ll have no choice but to sell everything we own.”

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Pollies’ plan

Dubbo MP Troy Grant said conditions were drawing comparisons with the drought of 1982.

“When we have our locals with dry dams and having trouble accessing feed to feed stock and keep the genetics of their cattle and sheep alive – that’s when you know it’s serious,” he said.

“Governments can’t make it rain … but we have a role to play.

“I have every confidence in [the farmers’] ability to get through these tough times, but they just need to know the government is with them.”

Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the government would make further announcements “in the near future”.

“We’ll be able to liaise with [Ms Job] and make sure the package we put forward is exactly what is needed at the time,” she said.

Don’t just listen

Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party MLC Robert Brown was highly critical of the appointment.

Mr Brown said farmers expect financial assistance from the state government but instead got a new public servant position.

"Is the Premier kidding?" Mr Brown said. "The Premier went to Dubbo with news of drought relief, and despite the state being awash with cash, she's delivered nothing.

"I am surprised that the heartfelt cries for help from farmers have been ignored by the government. Farmers don't need more debt and loans as drought assistance; they need financial support now. We are calling for immediate legislated drought relief grants for farmers.”

But Niall Blair said "I don't think we are going to legislate our way out of this drought”.

"A lot of our farmers don't want us to be going back to Parliament and arguing on the floor for more legislation, they just want to get on with the job and that is what we are doing, trying to find out what more we can do via Pip Job, so we can continue to get money out where it is needed.”

NSW Farmers also want action, not talk, from the state government, with Rural Affairs Committee Chair Sonia O’Keefe saying the government’s response must go beyond the appointment of a new drought coordinator.

“It’s important politicians listen to farmers’ concerns and while well-intentioned, the appointment of a drought coordinator will not address the needs of farmers who have limited access to water or feed, and no rain,” she said.

Whilst it’s admirable that the government seems to want to get the opinion of the farmers, it appears the overall view is that help is needed now, rather than in the months that it will take to implement any action.

As Toongi Pastoral Company Manager Fergus Job said, Pip’s a good listener, but it’s “not going to be an easy task”.

  • with Taylor Jurd