Balancing drought

Imagery of starving livestock, desperate farmers and cracked barren paddocks from across NSW and Queensland have flooded Australian media in recent weeks. In response to the media blitz the public and corporates mobilized, starting GoFundMe pages, food drives, “parma for a farmer” nights in pubs, and donations in supermarkets. It may have raised awareness for city folk – which should be a positive – but a growing number of voices are questioning accuracy of these stories and raised concerns about the reputational damage they may be doing.

Sam Heagney, a NSW farm manager was one of the first to raise his head above the parapet on Twitter:

Since then others from the sector have challenged the “drought victim” media portrayal. It’s a particularly sensitive issue for livestock producers, the vast majority of who don’t have starving animals that they are being forced to shoot. The portrayal of poor animal welfare drew fire from animal activists such as Peta with headlines like “Can’t feed, don’t breed”. Nice.

While NSW is almost 100% drought-declared, the state’s Agriculture Minister Niall Blair also cautioned farmers and the media as the overly negative coverage risks Australia’s reputation as a reliable and sustainable supplier of high quality meat. “I’m not dismissing the fact we are in a dire situation for drought, but I also know we have some of the most resilient farmers and we have farmers that have put plans in place to be able to meet that demand.”

Richard Taylor, the founder of Growth Farms, echoed those sentiments. “We want to be seen as a reliable trading partner, which you won’t think we are from watching the TV news.” Growth Farms manages A$400 million in farms, and Taylor is the deputy chairman of British-Australian hedge fund manager Sir Michael Hintze’s farming portfolio – as well as the older brother of newly-installed Energy Minister Angus Taylor.

Tim Burrow, CEO of Agribusiness Australia is another heavy-hitter that has spoken out on the media coverage which he says is “out of control”. Burrow maintains that while the drought is bad, it is not the worst on record and the vast majority of affected farmers were coping well, with just 1% in desperate straits. There needed to be balance in city-based coverage that further risked the image of agriculture as a fast-growing modern industry that is trying to attract investment. While Burrow maintains the 1% must be cared for – just as all Australian have a safety net – the majority have planned for dry times and are doing well.

Slowly there are some positive stories emerging of farmers who accept droughts are not natural disasters – but all part and parcel of farming on the world’s driest continent. Farmers are carefully managing stocking levels and grazing practices to maintain pasture coverage and soil structure. They are planting trees, undertaking earthworks, and building up reserves of fodder or cash to manage through the inevitable dry times. There are positive stories of progressive and adaptable farmers that will be well placed when the rain inevitably comes, and who are justifiably proud of their professionalism and acumen. These are truly inspiring and motivating stories – just not as news-worthy.

At the same time, the sector can’t reject the genuine outpouring of concern or the goodwill offered by the community – the majority of who rarely give the challenges of food production a second thought.

NFF President Fiona Simson has done her best to negotiate that fine line on behalf of farmers. “The public has shown they are so generous and love and respect farmers, which is absolutely fantastic and so important when many farmers are going through a lot of mental stress and anxiety with the drought, and we thank the community for that support.” But Simson adds, while those doing it toughest need to be supported, if farmers are always seen with their hand out there’s a risk their trust bank will be drawn down.