Crisis continues

By Alana Christensen

Despite improved conditions and gradually rising prices, northern Victoria dairy farmers continue to find themselves plagued by financial insecurity and difficulty accessing adequate financial assistance.

Almost two years after the dairy milk crisis, which saw many dairy farmers thrust from a manageable financial position to one of fragility and uncertainty, support services are continuing to feel the effects.

While demand has eased, they said uncertainty within the industry had continued and calls for help had not completely dissipated.

Rural Financial Counselling Services Victoria’s north-east division dealt with almost 500 clients in the wake of the milk price crisis — 74 per cent of them were dairy farmers.

Counselling co-ordinator Chris Howard said the service was still faced with farmers who continued to feel the pressure of rising operating costs and cash flow.

And although Dairy Australia figures released in the February Situation and Outlook report point to a region bouncing back, with milk production jumping eight per cent in northern Victoria in the first half of the 2017-18 season, Mr Howard still has concerns about what the rest of the season could hold for the industry.

‘‘Next season, right now isn’t terribly positive based on market predictions,’’ he said.

‘‘It’s a timely reminder that we are dealing with people that are having a difficult time of it.’’

A December report by the Select Committee on Lending to Primary Production Customers also uncovered a number of concerns regarding how financial institutions lend to farmers.

The committee received a number of confidential submissions which pointed to instances of intimidation and threats from lenders.

Echuca mediation consultant Andrew McLaughlin, who provided a submission to the Select Committee, said he was ‘‘sickened’’ by the reports.

‘‘I have experienced and seen the impact of the recovery practices used by certain senior managers of a number of banks which have not only in some cases physically removed farmers from their homes, but also abused, threatened, intimidated and divided families to the point of unnecessary suicide,’’ he said in his submission.

Mental health experts have continued to call for farmers and regional Australians, particularly men, to seek help when faced with mental health issues as a result of financial pressures, but state that perception and cultural expectations continue to make them reluctant to do so.

Farmers are continuing to face cash flow problems more than 18 months after the dairy price crisis, as uncertainty continues.

After Murray Goulburn and Fonterra’s decision to announce an immediate and retrospective drop in milk prices, North East Rural Financial Counselling Service Victoria said many farmers found their financial position changed overnight from ‘managing’ to ‘financially stressed’.

Following on from the crisis the service saw an influx of clients, with more than 439 people in the north-east region seeking help; 74 per cent of new clients were dairy farmers.

Rural Financial Counselling Service’s counsellor co-ordinator Chris Howard said although the numbers had eased in recent months, there was still need for help in the community.

‘‘We’ve seen that initial rush diminish, however we continue to support farmers that are really having difficulty with cash flow and meeting their operation expenses,’’ he said.

‘‘It’s not unusual for six or 12 months later people to come back seeking support in those areas we’ve previously raised.’’

Although an expected takeover of Murray-Goulburn by Saputo had led to a slight lifting of spirits, Mr Howard said the current milk price and projections were still making it tough for dairy farmers.

‘‘Next year, right now isn’t terribly positive based on market predictions ... We see a remarkable amount of resilience but there’s also weariness that is ever prevalent,’’ he said.

‘‘It’s a timely reminder that we are dealing with people that are having a difficult time of it, so we do have a different perspective. We know events like these we probably deal with a larger portion of the industry.

‘‘I suspect the past 18 months have taken a toll on them health-wise.’’

While the service offered assistance with receiving the farm housing allowance and concessional loans, Mr Howard said the help could go further.

‘‘Sometimes you understand the symptoms but are not sure of the diagnosis,’’ he said.

‘‘You might not be sure what you want but they’re professionals and skilled at diagnosing these issues.

‘‘It’s better to have an honest plan and approach than feeling obligated to tell people what they want to hear, only to fail in delivering.’’

■For more information, phone Rural Financial Health Services Victoria on 1300 834 775.

■If you have a story you’d like to share, phone Alana Christensen on 5820 3237 or email: alana.christensen@sheppnews.com.au