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Trip wrap-up - Agency visit to Southern NSW and Victoria

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Last week Coordinator-General for Drought and Flood Shane Stone AC QC, three Regional Recovery Officers and other Agency staff travelled through southern NSW and Victoria visiting communities to better understand the combined impacts of drought, bushfire and COVID-19, how Australian Government and other support is working, and what more is needed on the ground.

On Tuesday Shane and Regional Recovery Officer for South East NSW Chris Clarke drove from Canberra to the Snowy Monaro Shire. They spoke to Mayor Peter Beer and CEO Peter Bascomb about the Shire’s drought and bushfire recovery challenges and were told that for many, little autumn rain is making the drought worse. The region is also one of the worst affected economically by the summer’s bushfires and COVID-19 restrictions.

An important pillar in the Australian Government’s drought response is the Drought Communities Programme, which provides eligible Local Government Areas $1 million each to construct projects using local materials and contractors. The Agency has already seen the benefits of this highly effective programme in other parts of NSW, and the Snowy Monaro Regional Council is now identifying which priority projects their funding will be used to complete.

The travellers then met with the Cooma-based Rural Financial Counselling Service NSW Southern Region team before heading to ‘Kenilworth’, a sheep and cattle property in Nimmitabel, to chat to farmers, shearing contractors and small business owners. They discussed the variable levels of awareness of available drought assistance, JobKeeper payment eligibility, off-farm income, freight subsidies, cluster fencing and the next generation of farmers in the area.

The following day, Shane, Chris and the Agency team continued their trip through the NSW south coast to meet with Senior Land Services Officer with Local Land Services, Andrew Taylor, in Bega. Andrew works with farmers’ networks and groups like SAGE (Sustainable Agriculture & Gardening Eurobodalla Inc), running drought preparedness and ‘how do you react to drought’ workshops. However, since November 2019 his focus has primarily been on bushfire recovery. Andrew said that although there has been rain following the bushfires, it hasn’t been enough to replenish soil moisture. Shane and Andrew also talked about how the effects of drought and disasters don’t stop at the farm gate – we need to support towns and communities as well.

After saying ‘goodbye’ to Chris, the travellers headed back across the Victorian border to meet Ken Bridle on his Poll Hereford cattle property at Genoa. Ken’s property was affected by the bushfires after three years of drought. He has 320 acres and normally runs a couple of hundred breeders, but is down to 120 head. Ken is a fifth generation farmer but says the fires “pulled the rug right out from under him”. Shane told Ken about the available drought assistance, including Regional Investment Corporation loans, which Ken hadn’t heard about.

On Thursday Regional Recovery Officers Lana Young (East Victoria) and Dean Jones (West Victoria) joined Shane and the team for another busy day on the road. In the morning the group met with Chris Nixon at ‘Bete Bolong’ near Orbost. Chris is former Livestock President of Victorian Farmers Federation. His dairy is in its fourth year of drought. Chris usually has 800 Angus breeders, but the drought has seen him sell around 300 head. At first glance the area looks lush and green, however this is a classic example of a ‘green drought’.

From there the team met with Peter Honey, a former vet and now cattle producer, and his wife Jeanette on their property near Orbost. They talked about the fires and how they had lost fences but were well insured and had the networks to pull through. Peter talked about the new dams they had put in in preparation for the next drought, which are currently empty.

In the afternoon, the travellers made their way to Bairnsdale to meet with Rural Financial Counselling Service Gippsland Senior Coordinator Jenny Mason, Agriculture Victoria’s Regional Manager for Gippsland Nick Dudley and CEO of East Gippsland Shire Council Anthony Basford. The experienced group discussed ways in which all levels of government can effectively work together to build drought preparedness in the region and avoid duplication or gaps.

Finally, on Friday, the Agency Landcruiser was transformed into a mobile TV studio! Shane pulled over by a paddock in Orbost to chat to ABC Landline about what he’d seen on his trip. It was clear that despite recent rains in some areas, the current drought isn’t over and remains an enduring feature of the Australian landscape.

The Agency is committed to helping farmers and rural and regional communities get through this current drought and build drought preparedness for the future through practical measures like good business planning, water infrastructure and supporting small businesses in country towns.