When times get tricky
Helping hands, many approaches
COUNCILS are finding different approaches to giving rural producers a helping hand in a time of drought, environmental hazards and economic difficulties.
Craig Johnstone, media executive for the Local Government Association of Queensland, said a number of local governments in Queensland were sensitive to the needs of rural producers.
“A common approach to drought and hardship assistance can be to offer instalment plans or rates reprieve,” Mr Johnstone said.
“While they can’t keep letting people off forever, councils do what they can to keep people operating.”
Mr Johnstone said councils often developed responses addressing the particular needs of their community, including the impact on rural producers within that community.
“There can be unique needs that council needs to consider, such as the impact of mining and gas operations,” he said.
Specialised responses designed to meet rural needs have included fencing programs, water quality activities, mental health outreach programs, or drought assistance activities and rates relief, and these can form part of a raft of options to make life a little easier for farmers doing it tough.
Some responses can be as simple as lateral thinking. Gunnedah Shire Council, in NSW, have assisted drought affected farmers by offering access to water used to leak-test the town’s swimming pool currently under construction, rather than let it go to waste down the drain.
Rural Weekly spoke to three councils across Queensland, and asked what strategies they had adopted to support rural producers in their local government area (LGA).
■ Longreach Regional Council mayor Ed Warren said he was proud of his council’s innovative Longreach Wild Dog Exclusion Fence Scheme.
Council received approval for a one-off loan of $17.9 million from Queensland Treasury Corporation to proceed with the scheme, which will enable the construction of 2500km of exclusion fencing, protecting 900,000ha of land from wild dog predation.
The game-changing initiative is cost-neutral to council; with the applicants paying for their fencing through a special rate levied over a period of 20 years.
An increase of 200,000 sheep is projected under the scheme over the next five years, a boost of around 40 per cent on current levels.
The benefit to the economy is significant, with a further 130 jobs and a population increase of 500 people anticipated.
Cr Warren said the drought was affecting more than just farmers and that the scheme would benefit the entire community by bringing sheep back into the region.
“We’ve been struggling with this drought for the last four or five years and it’s impacted
the whole community, not just the farmers. People forget about the businesses and services that flounder when there’s no money going around in a drought stricken community,” Cr Warren said.
“Sheep contribute much more to the economy, because even with mechanisation, they’re still shearing and pressing bales much the same way they did one hundred years ago.
“So this scheme means people can go back into sheep and by getting on top of predation it’ll also mean they can actually grow their flocks and get more productive over time. As they do that, they’ll need more help, and they’ll be able to invest in infrastructure like yards and sheds – that’ll make a huge difference to the whole community.
“When you have shearing teams and roustabouts coming back into the region, that’s more money into local businesses, and more kids in
our schools, and it makes whole communities more sustainable.”
■ Mackay Regional Council deputy mayor Amanda Camm said Mackay Regional Council valued the contribution its rural and regional communities made to the local economy.
“Specifically, as a proud sugar growing region, council is conscious of the need to support our rural communities,” Cr Camm said.
“Our recently adopted new Mackay Region Planning Scheme is heavily focused on not only protecting prime agricultural land, but also on allowing opportunities for new agricultural industries to grow and develop.”
Cr Camm said other council initiatives, like its Facilitating Development in the Mackay Region Policy, placed a high importance on supporting agricultural industries.
She said policy gave the high levels of incentives to rural tourism, which was a key opportunity for the region.
“We have supported local farmers looking to diversify their crops and embrace value adding initiatives to create new and sustainable industries,” she said.
“Council also supports programs like on-farm improvements through our sustainability program to help farmers make their land use more efficient, and we also provide event support funding for events like local field days.”
Mackay Regional Council is willing to work with any ratepayers, including rural property owners, experiencing financial difficulties to come up with an acceptable arrangement in terms of rates payments.
■ Western Downs Regional Council (WDRC) mayor Paul McVeigh said council was addressing liveability in the predominantly agriculturally-based LGA.
“We’re seeing a real generational change in the Western Downs, and with young families coming back to the land they want to be connected in all sorts of ways: through safe roads, reliable telecommunications networks, or just social inclusion, we all want to be a part of a community and our rural producers are no different – with such an expansive region this presents a challenge,” Cr McVeigh said.
“We talk about liveability in our towns, but we also need to think about liveability in our rural regions.”
Two notable assistance programs delivered by that council were the Pest Management Funding Program and the Not Just for Laughs regional comedy tour.
Not Just For Laughs has been an annual event since 2015, held in community hall in smaller centres across the LGA.
“Council believed in active and vibrant communities and we know how important it is to provide these social and fun opportunities for our valued producers and farmers,” Cr McVeigh said.
“Living in the bush is a way of life, but it’s no surprise that it also comes with its hardships. The Not Just for Laughs Regional Comedy Tour is all about lifting the spirits of our rural residents doing it tough, while also having important conversations about mental health.
“That’s what I love about Not Just For Laughs, it was about giving our drought-affected communities a fun night full of laughter and social connection – which is something our residents don’t get many chances to do during times of drought.”
Approaching assistance in a completely different way, WDRC’s Pest Management Funding Program funding is specific to assisting rural producers with pest management issues around feral pigs and wild dogs.
“With rural landholders across the region feeling the pressures of growing feral pig numbers on local agricultural production, our Feral Pig Aerial Shooting Program was able to eradicate 86 per cent of the feral pig population over an area greater than 350,000 hectares,” Cr McVeigh said.
“After the success of the program last year, council are now offering funding specifically to assist rural producers with pest management.”
PASTORAL CARE: Rural producers face financial pressures around commodity prices and climate effects like drought and cyclone.
Practical assistance, such as protection programs around wild predators, can be a meaningful way for councils to assist rural producers. PHOTO: FILE