NSW drought: Agronomists talk soil, farm management and lessons to learn

DRY TIMES: The drought has taught some farmers some very hard lessons, one agronomist says. Photo: FILE
DRY TIMES: The drought has taught some farmers some very hard lessons, one agronomist says. Photo: FILE

GRAIN production this spring has been a failure for some farmers while others are questioning just how much more debt they should enter into, the region's agronomists say.

With 99.4 per cent of the state in drought the months ahead are going to be tough for farmers and the communities that surround them.

Now in its third year, this drought has become not only a financial issue for the region's farmers but a social one as well, Parkes agronomist Peter Yelland said.

"There would be very few people who've had more than 15 millimetres in a single rainfall," he said.

"I don't know that you can recover from something like this ... everyone thought that last year was bad, and it was bad, but this is worse."

"Growers are questioning whether they want to go into more debt."

Parkes agronomist Peter Yelland.

Parkes agronomist Peter Yelland.

Mr Yelland said many of the region's grain crops had failed and what was produced would be low quality and yield.

In Forbes, agronomist Guy Webb said some farmers had got an "ok" crop which would make some money.

"There's a few people who are lucky and got under a good storm and also there's been some good management," he said.

Despite this, he said the drought had been a very hard lesson for many and that better management practices on some properties could help.

"We probably need to take a good hard, long look at how we're managing things ... we need to be less reactive and do more forward planning," he said.

"We've all been caught with our pants down with regards to the length of this drought."

Forbes agronomist Guy Webb.

Forbes agronomist Guy Webb.

Mr Webb acknowledged it could be hard to maintain ground cover when you have stock, but he said this was essential for the long term health of paddocks.

"You've got to weigh up stock value and the ability to recover after the drought and capture any rain that does fall," he said.

"The golden rule is to do your best to maintain ground cover and look after your resource base."

Young agronomist Mick Marchant said this drought was having an impact on the mental health of farmers and the agriculture industry.

"It plays with all of our minds, people are thinking 'how long do we have to go and how far will the bank balance stretch'," he said.

"We're [agronomists] trying to lift people and get them to focus on the positives. We're telling people 'don't just sit on the fence, have a vision of being on the start line if we get a break'.

Young agronomist Mick Marchant.

Young agronomist Mick Marchant.

"There's so much expertise around us that we can call on."

Cowra agronomist Mitch Dwyer said only 30 per cent of sown crops are being harvested with the rest going to bailing or grazing.

"I think the thing that's keeping people going is livestock prices," he said.

Cowra agronomist Mitch Dwyer.

Cowra agronomist Mitch Dwyer.

"Look at summer crop options, if there's a summer storm, one in the right area, this could provide opportunities."

Mr Dwyer urged farmers to "hang on" and that eventually the drought would break.

"I think it's just batten down the hatches and just getting through it ... you just don't know what's going to happen, you've just got to hang on," he said.

Time is ripe for looking towards the future

DRY TIMES: NSW Farmers Narromine and Trangie branch chair James Hamilton has been helping other landholders with succession planning.

DRY TIMES: NSW Farmers Narromine and Trangie branch chair James Hamilton has been helping other landholders with succession planning.

WITH cash at a premium and farmers overseeing dry pastures, many are taking the opportunity the drought to take stock and evaluate their properties' future.

James Hamilton of Collective Advisory has been working as an facilitator with families on succession planning and said the number of inquiries had risen in the past six months.

"It's a very serious question - it's people's careers at stake," he said.

It's those doing the hard yards during the drought questioning the future, that 'if I'm not going to have the farm in the end, I might as well get out now'.

Collective Advisory's James Hamilton

"The younger generation is saying, 'we need to have this conversation - I'm prepared to be here, but I need to know there's something at the end'.

"It's those doing the hard yards during the drought questioning the future, that 'if I'm not going to have the farm in the end, I might as well get out now'."

Mr Hamilton said children were not asking for their share of their farms "tomorrow", but they wanted certainty.

"They want to ensure the farm stays within the family," he said.

He said families had more choices available to them to keep the farm viable the more time they allowed to plan.

Despite state and federal government drought assistance, Mr Hamilton feared what shape town economies would be in once the drought lifted.

"Some of us have that ability to borrow money, but some of these people who own shops don't and they won't come back," he said.

"There needs to be a greater conversation about that."

In fact, he said programs providing hampers of food could make the situation worse because they did not support local stores and suggested a voucher system where farmers could spend them in town and those stores could then claim the money.

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This story Everyone thought that last year was bad, and it was bad, but this is worse first appeared on Cowra Guardian.