parts of Queensland and Australia are enjoying an excellent season,
the bottom 60 percent of Queensland is drought declared along
with vast tracts of southern states.
The winter grain harvest was down by 60 percent,
and AgForce is foreshadowing a drought-induced rise in food prices
as grain shortages impact on intensive livestock industries and
the food processing sector.
But hardship breeds innovation in the bush
and Queensland producers remain optimistic about their future.
Queensland Farmers Federation chief executive
John Cherry says that despite the drought, the annual gross value
of production – calculated by the Department of Primary Industries
and Fisheries’ Prospects survey – for 2005-2006 is forecast to
be $10.93 billion.
“GVP has grown 9 percent
during past five years at an average of 1-2 percent per year,
which suggests farmers are managing better and smarter and just
getting on with the job despite the growing water shortage.”
The 1994/95 drought was the wake-up call for
fifth generation farmer Linton Brimblecombe, who says it was the
driver for a new way of thinking about securing the water that
underpins farming in the Lockyer Valley.
That drought led Linton to invest $2 million
in water infrastructure and dams to secure his water supply, as
much as that is possible. The State Government missed that wake-up
call, because rain fell in the Wivenhoe catchment that year and
there was still plenty of water for Brisbane.
But a decade on, this drought has made its
presence felt in the city where residents on are scrambling to
set up rainwater harvesting schemes (water tanks) to drought-proof
This time the government got the message,
some hard decisions about dams and water infrastructure have been
made, there’s a plan to drought-proof the cities in the south
east with a grid to move water around as required.
“Queensland must not get complacent, we must
not miss another opportunity for infrastructure building,” says
Linton, a beetroot grower who supplies Golden Circle.
It was the Lockyer farmers who conceived the
idea of recycling Brisbane’s wastewater. The western corridor
pipeline the State Government is now building to provide water
for power stations was originally a farmer-driven initiative.
They’re still keen for a piece of the action
and have put forward a business plan that would see part of the
recycled water diverted to agriculture in the Lockyer, where urban
encroachment and a lack of irrigation water have seen farming
shrink in the area by 30 percent in the past two decades.
“We’re not whingeing farmers looking for handouts.
Farmers are willing to put up $50 million to make this happen
and we’re looking to the National Water Initiative to put up the
other $50 million.”
Although farmers are used to dealing with
challenges from the elements, with each drought it gets a little
harder and requires constant innovation.
It was the desire to sure up his water supply
that drove Gatton orchardist Ross Stumke to source recycled water
from Gatton township, which is piped 7km from the local treatment
With funding from federal and state government,
and support from Gatton Shire Council, Ross and two other farmers
secured an annual allocation of 100 megalitres in 2002 which is
applied by micro sprinkler or trickle irrigation to his persimmon,
fig, peach and nectarine trees.
“Water is always going to be our greatest
limiting factor and we have to carefully monitor its use because
we have just enough for our current crops and no room to expand.”
On the Darling Downs, Jeff and Marilyn Bidstrup
won’t be planting any cotton this season after being industry
leaders for years. The Bidstrups have chosen to use what little
water they have to grow sorghum, which will tolerate running out
of water better than cotton will, and have faith that it will
rain before that water runs out.
Despite spending millions on controversial
water infrastructure, the drought is impacting on the biggest
cotton grower of all, Cubbie Station, which this week declared
it has hardly any water left.
Recent Rural Adjustment Authority
figures show that total farm debt for 2005 in Queensland was $8.67
billion, an increase of $966 million from 2003.
But QFF drought project officer Peter
Perkins says that aggregate level of debt is within acceptable
levels, considering the annual value of the sector is $11 billion.
He estimates about 5000 of the 18,000
farmers in the affected areas are receiving assistance, in the
form of interest rate subsidies and Centrelink EC relief payments
when they can demonstrate they have been severely impacted by
Since 2001, about $300 million has
been provided as interest rate subsidies to Queensland farmers.
In response to the drought, livestock
producers have been steadily destocking over the past few years
with Australia’s biggest cattle selling centre at Roma having
record throughput of 408,000 cattle in 2004, and 370,000 in 2005,
according to Roma Saleyards market reporter John Gilfoyle.
“There have been a lot more store
cattle coming on to the market during the past two years, but
there is strong demand, particularly from northern producers,
who have had good rains from the cyclones earlier in the year,”
So is it the end of the boom time for cattle? North Queensland
cattle producer and chairman of Meat and Livestock Australia Don
Heatley says no, not in Queensland.
The seasonal influence has dampened
demand, particularly in southern states, where the market has
dropped about 25 percent.
“But there has been no fundamental
change in the marketplace and export markets remain strong,” Heatley
After years of rising cattle property
prices, there is still keen demand for good properties, with money
readily available and relatively cheap to borrow says founder
of Herron Todd White valuers Kerry Herron.
“But drought cannot be ignored and
is impacting very severely on much of southern Queensland, and
southern states, with far fewer properties are being advertised,
and even fewer sales going through,” says Herron.
South west Queensland sheep producers
such as Dick and Donna O’Connell, from Thargomindah, faced the
reality of the ongoing drought and decided their most viable course
of action was to destock and preserve their financial position.
Over the past five years, they progressively
sold-off sheep and cattle while they were still in good condition
and used the proceeds from those sales to retire farm debt and
invested what was left off the property.
“Each year the drought continues
makes us glad we decided to sell the stock,” says Dick, who remains
optimistic that despite this run of rotten years, things will
In the agribusiness banking sector,
Suncorp’s southern Queensland regional manager Geoff Magoffin
says droughts are an everyday part of life for their rural clients
and most have plans to sell down, or contain expenses, as any
business does in tough times.
“It is just business as usual for
us. Producers just batten down the hatches and wait for rain,
there is not much else they can do.”
AgForce drought coordinator Rod Saal
says the country people he deals with are an incredibly resilient
“The selection process has already
happened and those that are still in the bush have been tested
by its cold, harsh realities. They’re wonderful, hardy people
whose human spirit armour-plates them for the tough times,” says
“But rural small business is under
pressure and there needs to be recognition of the value of financial
counselling because people do have problems with depression, debt,
drought and suicide despite their overall resilience.”
“The benefits of supporting people
in the regions far outweigh the costs that government invests
in providing another tool (farm financial counselling) for people
in the bush to access so they continue to be viable.”