Depressing conditions impact on farmers' tenacity
A RURAL chaplain who has just toured the Southern Downs believes the dairy sector is in "crisis" with many farmers unable to even afford basic groceries.
Neville Radecker is a Salvation Army rural chaplain covering a region stretching from south of Bundaberg to the New South Wales border south of Stanthorpe.
He has been witness to droughts, floods and falling prices in the bush since 2002, but says little compares to the desperate situations now facing our dairy farmers.
So concerned is he about their plight, this month he sent a compelling submission to Queensland Dairyfarmers' Organisation warning of the struggle many farming families faced.
This week he shared his experiences with the Bush Tele as part of a determined push to raise community awareness about those battling to stay in the dairy sector.
"I began to focus on the dairy farming industry in late 2012," Mr Radecker said.
"At that time, I became more aware of the depth of the crisis many families are experiencing.
"In the more extreme cases, I found the diet of some families was based on the meat and the milk from their cattle, as they attempt to pay the bulk of their interest payments and production costs - while attempting to maintain ageing equipment."
Once he said these dairy farming families would never have considered accepting financial help but that situation has now changed dramatically.
"I encounter a number of dairy farming families who haven't been able to buy general groceries since 2011," Mr Radecker said.
"This is the result of many factors, including the slashing of farm gate prices; the repeated, extreme flood events; rapidly rising costs; the high Australian Dollar; the GFC; and restrictions put in place by the banking sector."
On the home front he said many dairy farmers were now working in excess of 100 hours a week for a financial return below the cost of production.
"I am aware of many dairy farmers who want to sell up but, with the banking sector refusing to finance rural loans, in most cases such a choice is not an option," Mr Radecker said.
He said as a result many families, including ones of the Southern Downs, were tormented by uncertainty about their future.
"They have to call their bank manager each month to learn if they will be allowed to stay on their farm a little longer," Mr Radecker said.
"This increases the feelings of hopelessness, failure, despair, anger and injustice.
"As a result of these many
factors, the majority of rural men and women I visit are displaying the symptoms of mid to high level depression."
Yet the experienced rural minister admitted it was true the rural sector regularly experienced difficult periods.
"I come from the bush so am able to relate to these families and I know the rural sector regularly experiences difficult times," Mr Radecker said.
"However this situation has continued for a much greater period and at a more extreme level, than I believe has been previously encountered in the history of Australian farming."
Queensland Dairyfarmers' Organisation president Brian Tessman said prices falling below the cost of production had been a major catalyst for many farmers to exit the industry.
While he hated seeing farmers leave the sector, he understood the pressures.
"Many farmers are in the situation where, to meet rising costs, they are eroding their asset base and that is not a good position to be," Mr Tessman said.
"We urgently need government intervention to deal with issues like the supermarket price war."
At a local level one Southern Downs dairy farmer agreed the situation was dire.
"We can't afford any extras when we go grocery shopping and I know we aren't the only ones in that situation," she said.
"And we're exhausted from the worry about how we are going to make ends meet each month.
"Yet we can't afford any labour to help ease the load and we can't afford a holiday so it's a struggle."
She said one of their children was interested in taking over so selling was their "last option".
"But there is no money in dairying and there certainly isn't any money left to put aside for our retirement.
"So we just get up each morning and keep milking, hoping our industry's marketing body starts doing a better job because at the end of the day we believe in our product."