Drought is a horrible thing. It preys on optimistic souls, who often make decisions based more on hope than on good business decision making. Now that may sound harsh, but we are all guilty of assuming that it will rain at some point, and that everything will be ok. And it will. But just when is anyone’s guess.
Drought is also a relatively common thing in Australia, and something that every farm business must plan for. But do they? How many Australian farm businesses have strategies in place, and trigger points for implementing action plans if the season, or seasons, are going against them? Unfortunately, it would appear, not enough.
It makes me absolutely furious to see animals dying of starvation across our country, when those same animals could have been sold into beef and sheep markets which are tracking at exceptionally good levels. The question has to be asked…. Why weren’t they?
Ultimately it comes down to stubbornness or optimism. Both are preyed upon by drought. The immediate response from most will come in the form of “but how could they know it was going to be the worst drought in years” or “how do we get back into the market if we do sell most, or all of our stock”. Neither have simple answers, but neither problem comes close to letting animals die of starvation.
Late action, or decision paralysis, results in animals dying. At some point, when animals are not having their nutritional needs met, they will become unfit for sale, and unfit for transport. And that is when the bullets come out. It isn’t something that happens overnight. There are times when hands are tied, such as lambing ewes not being able to be sold or transported, locking the farmer into holding onto those animals for a period of time. But the process of getting ewes in lambs took place 5 months earlier, and there are plenty of opportunities throughout that period to put some action into place. Sell them, move them, or feed them properly.
In the old days of drought, it was a case of shoot sheep, because they were worth nothing anyway. But that isn’t the case in this current market. For those who did move quickly and sell stock into buoyant markets, their bank accounts are looking good. It won’t be easy to buy or breed their way back in, but their bank accounts will help. For those with stock dying in their paddocks, the road back, both physically and emotionally is a long one. Drought undoubtedly leads to significant mental health issues within our industry, and that must be acknowledged. Farmers experiencing drought need support. In my opinion, that should come in the form of mental health services, farm management support, and advice on building agile and resilient businesses. Not money.
Every time I open twitter or facebook, or turn on the TV at the moment I see another story about how our poor farmers need your help. The everyday Australian should put their hand in the pocket and donate to help our farmers. I’m sorry, but why?
Bear with me here as the following analogy is a bit out there….
If Mr Whippy was having a terrible year, because we were experiencing abnormally cold weather and ice cream sales were crippled, would the general public leap into action to give him money? No, because he doesn’t have animals that could die. But he does have ice-cream. Lots of it. It all has an expiry date, and he can’t afford to keep it all, or it will go out of date if he does. He could sell it to other ice cream vendors in other areas of the country for really good values. Actually, in most cases more than he paid for it, and more than he has ever sold ice cream for before. But he chooses not to, because surely the sun will come out at some stage.
His ice cream all goes off, and he has to pour it down the sink. Thousands and thousands of dollars down the drain (literally). He tried to sell it at the last minute, but no one could take it as it was about to expire any day. Should he get a handout from the government, and support from families in the city who might be struggling to put food on the table for themselves? Hell no. The season was a bitch to him. No doubt. But Mr Whippy suffered from optimism and decision paralysis.
“But ours are breeding stock. We don’t want to lose the genetics”. While that may well be the case, I would rather lose those great genetics with dollars coming the other way, rather than watch my prized genetics die in the paddock. The harsh reality is that most people vastly over overate their own genetics anyway. If they genuinely are very good, then hold onto the very best of them, and feed them properly (agistment or supplementary feed) to ensure they are still useful in years to come.
The real people that I feel sorry for in all of this are the farmers who have built great robust and agile businesses, who make early decisions and live by them. I never hear people say “I wish I hadn’t sold those stock so early”, or “I wish I had waited a bit longer to sell those stock despite my dwindling feed”. It just doesn’t happen. I feel sorry for those that have bank accounts holding cash, rather than paddocks full of dying stock. Those who had a plan to deal with drought, because let’s face it, we know that every year we don’t have one, we are a year closer to the next drought.
I feel sorry for them, because they get no recognition for their efforts at all. At the moment, the nation’s focus is upon the “poor, hardworking Aussie battlers”. The “salt of the earth people” that “feed our nation”, the dust, and the dying stock. Dying stock that shouldn’t be there! The politicians are all over it like a fat kid on a cupcake because they see great opportunities for a photo in a big hat, a concerned look on their face, and chance to sneak inside the vulnerable hearts of the general public, who still love the nostalgia of farming.
If we learn nothing else from all of this, we can take away the fact that the general public does still care about farmers. And that is great. But once again our industry is being portrayed as tough, hard, dusty, and unsophisticated. This is the single biggest exposure to the general public that our industry has received in the last decade. Next in line would be live export. And we wonder why we can’t attract young people into agriculture…
I know this article will piss some people off, but if we are going to be the “Modern Agriculture” that we want to be, then we have to be better than this. This isn’t designed to kick people while they are down, but to make sure that we don’t face these circumstances again. We can’t have stock dying simply out of optimism and stubbornness. We can’t be asking for handouts from consumers. Just imagine if the people donating money, knew the net worth of the people receiving the donations…
When it comes to the handouts offered by government, it is certainly a case of don’t hate the player, hate the game. For those eligible for funding, go your hardest. You might as well while it is there. And as for the big banks making donations, at least this is providing some method of getting a tiny bit of their revenue back into the community.
Drought is a horrible crippling thing, and this is a harsh article, but we must learn from the current situation. We must learn so that next time drought comes along to kick everyone in the arse, its kicking is fended off with good planning, and agile businesses. Businesses set up to respond to trigger points throughout the lead up, to what ultimately ends in horrible conditions.
We can be better than this. Be the future you want.