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Fears over loss of safety net

Haidee VandenbergheCountryman
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With the Drought Pilot set to wind up in weeks and no new program ready to take its place, there are fears some WA growers will be left out in the cold when it comes to drought aid.

While 2011 might have been a record breaking production season, low commodity prices meant farmers made little ground on debt levels.

By the end of March nearly 680 farm families had received Centrelink payments as part of the Drought Pilot, but that's set to end when the pilot officially finishes on June 30.

Some of those families may be able to transfer to the Transitional Farm Family Payment (TFFP) but not all of them will be eligible.

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The eligibility criteria of the two programs is different and while growers needed net assets less than $2 million to get the full payments under the Drought Pilot, TFFP eligibility hinges on a farm business net asset value of less than $1.5 million.

And like the Drought Pilot, Centrelink payments under the TFFP will be capped at 12 months.

State Agriculture Minister Terry Redman concedes the situation is not ideal.

"I am concerned for those farmers on special Centrelink benefits under the Drought Pilot now that the scheme has wound up," he said.

Mr Redman urged farmers on Centrelink payments to apply for the TFFP but according to Regional Men's Health Initiative executive officer Julian Krieg, it's not just dollars and cents that is the issue.

He said he had concerns about the resilience of some of the farmers accessing through the Drought Pilot, particularly considering there was nothing in its place.

It's that uncertainty that Mr Krieg said took a toll on farmers already under pressure from financial or seasonal conditions.

"Those are the sorts of things that put distress levels up," he said.

"The bush is feeling fragile ... there's a lot of distress around finances. We didn't come out of 2011 as well financially as we thought we would.

"My guess is there would be about 75 per cent of people with a fair degree of distress.

"I would agree we need to rethink what Exceptional Circumstances needs to be but right now we're in between an old program being phased out and a new program being developed, which means there is no clear picture. It's extremely stressful."

A Standing Council on Primary Industries is set to consider a detailed proposal for a new drought program in October, with the view to implementing the program in 2014.

Mr Redman said WA's Drought Pilot would be among the options considered.

"The Drought Pilot resulted in $75 million in assistance to drought-affected WA farmers in the past two years," he said.

"It has been very successful and I believe it will serve as a model for future Federal drought reform."

Meanwhile, Mr Redman has announced the farm planning workshops, rolled out as part of the Drought Pilot, would continue in a new format in 2012-13.

More than 940 farm businesses attended the workshops under the Drought Pilot and the recent announcement has $2 million of the State's money allocated for a "refocused training program".

The funding means up to 200 farm businesses can attend the workshops, which are set to be tailored to the specific needs of regions and industries.

"This comprehensive business training encourages a shift away from a reactive, crisis management approach dealing with drought, towards farmers being better prepared to cope with climate change," Mr Redman said.

But while the farm planning workshops held under the Drought Pilot allowed growers to apply for up to $30,000 as part of the Building Farm Businesses initiative, that measure has been scrapped under the new State-funded workshops.

The grants were to help farmers prepare for drought and climate change or to undertake activities with a natural resource management focus.

Farmers interested in undertaking the training can contact the Department of Agriculture and Food on 1800 198 231.

Mr Redman said farm families who were struggling could contact the Farmer Assistance Line at Centrelink.

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