Sally Rigney at home on Myall Plains, Nindigully.
Sally Rigney at home on Myall Plains, Nindigully.

‘It’s not enough’: primary producers fight back

IN 2013 Sally and Ian Rigney were forced to destock 80 per cent of their cattle from their Nindigully property 'Myall Plains' when the drought began to bite.

Last week Mrs Rigney, a proud primary producer, was flown to Sydney to talk with Rabobank's metro team about the drought's impact.

According to Mrs Rigney, apart from one reasonable crop in 2016, it's been a dusty argument with a series of failed crops.

"I was really grateful Rabobank wanted to have a meaningful discussion on this killer drought," she said.

"It's hard for city people to understand how soul destroying and insidious it is when they're not living it every day like we are."

As chair of Rabobank's Southern Queensland and northern New South Wales Client Council, the council brings bank clients together to direct bank funds into initiatives to inject energy and prosperity into the regions.

"I explained we are now in survival mode and our country is dying," she said.

"Many producers are unable to pay back their carry-on-finance and every dust storm reinforces the understanding that there is no quick recovery this time."

Mrs Rigney said farmers are watching their equity slide and considering when they will have to exit.

"Beginning again at our age doesn't look like much fun. I haven't slept through the night in a long time and I dread three o'clock in the morning more than you can imagine," she said.

During the meeting, Mrs Rigney told stakeholders the government's drought assistance was poorly targeted and ineffective.

"We actually don't qualify for any drought assistance as the asset test knocks us out every time. Yet we have kept our two very loyal workmen employed," she said.

"Maintaining employees and families is vital for our communities because if we lose people from our district they are unlikely to come back."

It's a similar story for local small businesses.

"As they try to keep their doors open they've let valued employees go, but where do those people find other work in a small town that's shutting down?"

In March, Mrs Rigney spoke with Federal Member for Maranoa and then-Agricultural Minister David Littleproud and he was keen to introduce a wages subsidy to hold existing employees on farms and in town.

"Then they win the election and nothing happens."

Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently said on radio: "a lot of people are running around at the moment getting all panicked and wanting crisis measures".

Mrs Rigney said that's more proof the gravity of the situation is just not getting through to Canberra.

"We are all just trying to get to Christmas but no one knows what happens after that."

Following the latest injection of drought funding, Mrs Rigney rang the local drought adviser, thinking the guidelines would have changed.

"Everything was still exactly the same. There's been absolutely no response to all the good advice rural people are giving the government."

She said the message from the bush has been delivered time and time again, access to drought assistance has to be available for larger family farms as well as drought affected town businesses.

"There are lots of community grants, but volunteers are wearing themselves out applying for them and that funding could be better placed making small business stronger," she said.

She believes there is no willingness from the government to look for an equitable drought assistance plan that rewards proactive behaviour.

"Currently rural producers have no ability to prepare for drought. In a good season when we make money we are killed by tax and there is nothing to save for the bad times," she said.

Sally said it's been a long time since anyone has been able to put money aside in Farm Management Deposits (FMD).

"That system is also outdated as we need to be able to offset those FMD's against our loans to really make them useful," she said.

"We are smack bang in the middle of the biggest natural disaster we've ever seen and unless the government starts listening and taking urgent action many will not survive."

Sally said this is a drought that has stolen the future.

"Even if you get through, it will be a 5-10 year recovery phase at least."

Falling farm equity means rebuilding presents problems.

"We need the government to offer low interest loans, similar to the flood recovery loans, for restocking and replanting."

"This drought will end and if Government and the Banks don't work with us to manage the rural recovery our family farms could be wiped out and I'm not too sure what happens to Australia then."

Sally said her message to banks is to see their clients as not just numbers on a page. "Please back them as much as you possibly can and for as long as you possibly can."

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