Farmers in limbo as cropping season looms

Claire TyrrellCountryman

Thirteen WA farming families have walked away from the land in the past two years, aided by the Federal Government's farm exit scheme offered under the drought pilot.

The scheme became available to farmers on July 1, 2010 and was almost fully subscribed by December last year, ahead of its scheduled end date of June 30, 2012.

Under the pilot, the Federal Government allocated $1.44 million to provide farmers with up to $150,000 to assist them to leave the land.

Eligible applicants could also receive up to $10,000 for retraining and professional advice and an additional $10,000 to help with relocation expenses and job-seeking services after they exited farming.

A Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) spokesperson said the farm exit support program closed on March 28 this year, after its funds were exhausted.

"The closure of the farm exit support program earlier than anticipated has not reduced the number of people able to be assisted under the program," the spokesperson said.

DAFF paid exit grants to 13 WA farmers as part of the program, but 12 farmers who applied for the grants were rejected.

Payments were made to growers in the shires of Narembeen, Carnarvon, Kondinin, Goomalling, Esperance, Albany, Dandaragan, Lake Grace, Perenjori and Mullewa.

To receive an exit grant, farmers had to sell their land before the scheme closed in March.

Lake Grace farmers Sue and Brian Burrow, and their son Tim, were one of the first families in the State to apply for the scheme in 2010, but they will miss out on a grant because they have not sold their farm. "We have been trying to sell the farm for the past three years. We went to auction this year but had no bids," Tim said.

"With the last five years being so tough, everyone out here is in the same boat."

The Burrows decided to leave the land in 2010 after a run of tough seasons. Tim said the family were in "limbo" this season as they struggled to obtain finance.

"We are trying to farm for another 12 months, but we are still discussing with the bank about finance to organise chemical and fertiliser," he said.

Tim said the family was in the process of determining whether they could put a crop in this year.

Tim and his father Brian are helping other farmers with odd jobs such as crutching to generate income.

The family also runs a sheep enterprise of 1100 breeding ewes.

Former dry seasons committee chair Dexter Davies said eligible farmers could either physically sell their farm or hand it back to the bank.

"To qualify for the scheme, people can physically sell their farm or hand it back to the bank as a voluntary mortgagee," he said.

"They have to meet either of those criteria, otherwise they wouldn't get the money."

Mr Davies said the unwillingness of banks to buy back land in the current economic climate was a limiting factor.

"One of the restricting factors of the scheme is in a very tight market it is pretty tricky to sell," he said.

Mr Davies said once they had sold their assets, they needed to end up with less than $250,000 net to qualify for the exit scheme.

"It is a pretty sad situation when you qualify for it," he said.

"The idea of it was to allow people to exit their farm with some dignity and move onto the next stage of their lives with some sort of a chance."

Mr Davies said the farm exit scheme would be considered as part of a review into government drought assistance policy.

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