Farmers need real income support, services to deal with drought crisis

Many farmers do not bother applying for the assistance, self-assessing that they will not be granted the Farm Household Allowance.

Farmers cannot get the dole. However, if they are drought declared they and their partners can apply for the Farm Household Allowance (FHA). This has just been increased from a maximum of three to four cumulative years out of every seven, no matter how long the drought lasts.

The fortnightly payments are equivalent to Newstart Allowance (or Youth Allowance) and supplementary allowances such as rent assistance, telephone and pharmaceutical allowances and a Health Care Card are available.

Before farmers can receive FHA, they need to supply verifying information, including all mortgage, debt and account details. The forms contain 100 questions.

Because the land, stock and farming machinery that are tools of the trade can add up to millions of dollars in nominal assets, even though they are mostly debts or expenses, many farmers do not bother applying for the assistance, self-assessing that they will not be granted the FHA.

Given the poor quality of internet services in rural areas to apply online and the long travel distances to apply in person, most do not bother wasting their precious time and money.

According to the government, the program is supposed to give “farmers breathing space to implement plans and seek training to become financially self-sufficient, so they are better placed to sustain their farming businesses”.

It also argues: “The FHA program focuses on helping farmers make important decisions to improve their long-term financial situation.” It includes a $4000 activity supplement that supposedly “gives farmers an opportunity to develop skills, access training and pay for advice to better manage their business into the future.”

This supplement is meant to replace the free government services that previously existed to help build a strong Australian farming industry.

These services, which supplied free expert advice and assistance, such as the careful importation by the CSIRO of disease-free exotic dung beetle species to break livestock manure down into the soil to build humus across varying Australian climates and seasons, have been closed down or privatised.

[Elena Garcia manages marginal forest and grasslands with cattle and is a co-author of Sustainable Agriculture versus Corporate Greed.]