Crunch time for Wheatbelt

Brad ThompsonThe West Australian

Warnings about hundreds of farmers losing their livelihoods and communities breaking down are becoming a reality, with crops in parts of the Wheatbelt already lost because of a lack of rain.

After a crisis meeting of about 60 farmers in Southern Cross yesterday, Yilgarn Shire president Romolo Patroni said the situation was getting worse.

Bankers and rural accountants estimate at least 10 per cent, or more than 400 farms, in the Wheatbelt are unviable with a high concentration in the region's east and north-east.

The Rural Financial Counselling Service has 800 clients in the Wheatbelt and its staff have noted that banks are taking a much harder line with farmers.

Leading rural banks met Agriculture Minister Ken Baston and Department of Agriculture and Food WA director-general Rob Delane last Friday to brief them on debt levels and the outlook for some of the hardest-hit regions.

Mr Patroni said farmers on the edge of the Wheatbelt felt abandoned by the Government.

He accused Premier Colin Barnett of making hollow promises about a $7.8 million financial assistance package announced in April that included grants of $25,000 to farmers.

"We are getting no assistance," Mr Patroni said. "In fact, we are not even getting recognition of our plight despite the Premier coming out this way in March.

"Those grants are a little bit like the rain - it gets out about as far as Merredin and then fades out. I don't know where that money has gone but none of it came out this way."

DAFWA said seven of 217 grants had gone to farmers in the Yilgarn shire and that the shire had also received a $10,000 community support grant.

Mr Patroni said the strict eligibility criteria for the grants, including an equity level of 55-65 per cent, had ruled out farmers who needed it most.

"A lot of crops haven't come out of the ground," he said. "A lot that have come out of the ground have burnt off, sheep feed is non- existent and a lot of sheep have left the district.

"We have just had two 26C days with a howling north-easter which made any crops that were out of the ground turn blue."

Mr Baston said advice from banks was that debt levels were manageable across most of the Wheatbelt, but identified the eastern Wheatbelt as a concern.

He urged banks to take a long-term view on the ability of farm business to repay debts. Mr Barnett would not comment.

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