Season over

Farmers from across the sector looking to survive
The Southern Farmer
WEB_FARM HELP_pe_c4_20190416
STRUGGLING ON: Brian Mobbs owns and operates High Spa Angus. The poor season has seen him sell stock that would normally be held for stud purposes, at the local saleyards.

BRIAN Mobbs owns and operates High Spa Angus, a breeding operation focused on diverse genetics and quality progeny.

Last month, Brian sent 80 weaners to the market – where they were sold for slaughter.

Just 12 months earlier, the same quality of animal was held over, to be offered at the annual High Spa Stud Sale.

But the season – the lack of rain, of surface water and of grass – has driven Brian to do what every farmer rails against; he has been forced to sell his animals for half their value, so that the core herd may continue.

“It’s been like this since Christmas,” Brian said.

“We’ve got no water, no grass – we are hand feeding just to survive.”

Normally, High Spa would have received more than half an inch by now – enough to promote autumn growth and carry stock through the winter.

This year, just 2ml has fallen.

“It’s too late now for an autumn break,” Brian said.

“We’ve got 12 months of hand feeding in front of us.”

Brian, who is desperately holding onto his 300 breeders, has already earmarked the next 80 that will go to market.

Although it breaks his heart, he said it was a matter of necessity.

“We will have to sell again at next month’s sale, and then again at the next if it doesn’t rain.”

With producers from much of Victoria eligible for some government assistance, Brian is one of the unlucky few who does not farm in a shire considered drought affected.

Although he has not contacted Ag Vic about what was on offer, Brian said he felt there was just not enough support.

“We are supposedly in a safe area, from drought,” he said.

“All the farmers should get help – it should be on a case by case basis.”

Down at Werribee South, Anthony Agosta is a second-generation vegetable farmer.

Together with his son and brother, Anthony runs AAA Farm – an operation spanning 240 acres, farming iceberg lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli and celery.

Anthony has been in the business his whole life, taking over from his father.

He is proud of what his family has achieved after being so long on the land – but he worries about the future challenges that will be faced by his son in the years to come.

Anthony has access to almost unlimited water – at a cost – but even that comes with a unique set of challenges.

Anthony will receive less than half of his allocation out of the Werribee River this year – balanced by his allocation of recycled Class A water from the Melbourne Treatment Plant in Werribee.

The recycled water – a seemingly abundant source – leaves Anthony with quality issues.

“The thing is, they run on a dilution system – they mix the recycled water with lots of chlorine – that’s not ideal for our veggies,” Anthony said.

“And the hotter it is, the more chlorine they use.

“We can have a burning effect in the paddock.

“That’s the disadvantage of recycled water – one year we only had a five per cent allocation (from the Werribee River) and they gave us the rest recycled – we bought in water to mix with it to water it down; but we had a lot of quality issues that year.”

This year, Anthony is facing the same.

With a record hot summer, coupled with low rainfall, his recycled water is causing quality issues in the paddock.

“You have to use more fertiliser, more soil conditioner, gypsum – that’s really all you can do,” Anthony said.

“We have to buy water – 55 per cent of what we need – at $350 a meg.”

Like all farmers, Anthony is desperately waiting for rain – hoping his allocation out of the Werribee River might increase.

However, like Brian, Anthony feels like there is no point asking for help – with past calls going unaided.

“We harvest every week – that’s why we don’t get any assistance from the government, because we have a quick turnover,” he said.

“We have asked for help in the past, and was told no.

“We would like assistance with water – not money handouts.

“We live in hope that it’s going to rain – I would hate to see how we would manage without the recycled water, even if it is poor quality, because without that water Werribee South would not exist.”

Kylie Crump owns a lavender farm on the Mornington Peninsula.

Unlike beef and vegetables, lavender survives in all but the toughest conditions.

This year, Kylie explained, was the worst they had experienced since planting.

“It’s the driest we’ve ever been,” she explained.

“We’ve only ever pumped water from our lake to irrigate in 2009, when we first planted our lavenders – and we have again this year.

“We have them in a weed mat, and have opened the weed mat around the base of the lavender so that any moisture can get into it.”

The production season for lavender runs for eight weeks around December – so the need for a spring break is not as imperative for Kylie.

However, the Agri-tourism – there is a café and farm gate on site – is not faring as well.

“We’ve had a really good season – the lavender is fine – but everything around it looks dry – it’s not so pretty,” she said.

“Lavenders adapt to becoming drought tolerant – they are very sturdy in that regard.

“We are lucky – but there are issues.”

A spokesperson from Agriculture Victoria said there was help available for farmers who needed it.

The On-Farm Drought Infrastructure Support grant is being provided to shires in north and north west Victoria to encourage increased drought preparedness – those farming in the Alpine, Benalla, Buloke, Campaspe, Gannawarra, Greater Bendigo, Greater Shepparton, Hindmarsh, Horsham, Indigo, Loddon, Mildura, Moira, Northern Grampians, Strathbogie, Swan Hill, Towong, Wangaratta, Wodonga and Yarriambiack. 

“When determining drought support eligibility, we take into account a range of social, economic and climatic conditions, as well as the impact of seasonal conditions on agricultural business and regional communities,” the spokesperson said.

“Central and East Gippsland farmers are experiencing a third year of drought conditions, after ‘very much below average’ to ‘lowest on record’ rainfall since late 2016.

“A range of technical, financial relief, family and mental health support is targeted to supporting farmers and community in this region – there is a range of ongoing support that is available to all farmers in Victoria, to assist them in preparing for and managing dry conditions – from workshops and technical support to financial counselling, the Farm Household Allowance, Farm Management Deposits and the On-Farm Emergency Water Infrastructure Rebate Scheme.”

Agriculture Victoria said a range of options were available to those not currently living in areas covered by other grants and schemes.

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More farming news and stories can be read in the May, 2019 print edition of The Southern Farmer or click here to access digital editions.