Industry establishes think tank

Cate Rocchi
Wheatbelt Integrity Group chairman Nick Kelly, Lucy Kelly, John Grullis, Julian Krieg, Mary Nenke, Bill Foreman, Ken Bailey, Chris Whyhoon, Cathie Kelly, Malcolm Kelly and Dr Graham Jacobs.

A group of WA farmers, agricultural industry service providers and business men and women met at Parliament House two weeks ago to set up a farming think tank.

The Wednesday meeting, organised by Newdegate farmer Nick Kelly and hosted by Eyre MLA Graham Jacobs, discussed issues facing Wheatbelt farmers.

Mr Kelly said there were some great minds who attended and they discussed how to shift the long-term culture of farming business practices and stem the decline in the number of farmers.

He said farm debt was a central focus and one of the proposals was to push to establish an organisation that could offer low interest rates to farmers.

But Mr Kelly stressed the group was in its early stages and even the name — The Wheatbelt Integrity Group — was a working title.

A fund will soon be set up to take donations.

"It is a fund for the future of farming in Western Australia," he said.

Mr Kelly said his door was open and the group may look to form links with others, including WAFarmers and the Muntadgin Farming Alliance.

He said the group aimed to change some of the culture of farming in the Wheatbelt and how it was perceived.

"Looking at debt levels, the models that we have aren't working," Mr Kelly said.

"There is the perception that you need to own land to be a farmer but there should be opportunities to get younger people into farming, as a cashflow business, as well."

Mr Kelly said young people were not staying in the industry because the cost of buying a farm was a massive barrier to entry and that business model needed to change.

"It is just the first meeting and everyone is keen to come back and start putting some concrete pathways in place," he said.

Dr Jacobs said he was passionate about the same issues the group was addressing. He said many farmers had reported to him that they had been unable to access bank finance over the past few years.

There were unviable farming ventures but there was a big group of good farmers, perhaps more than 200, that at times needed support to cope with the vagaries of seasons, he said.

"What I hear is the government saying we don't want to be in there because we don't want to be the lenders of last resort," he said.

"But I say we are not asking you to be the lenders of last resort. What we are asking you to do is what the Canadians do — have a little confidence in farming. Put a little bit of money in the pot and show some confidence and that will bring others."

Many Esperance farmers in his constituency have fared well in recent times, but some in the Yilgarn, who have had a series of bad years, have floundered.

The present financial funding structure has not shown to be appropriate for the variable nature of agriculture, Dr Jacobs said.

"The banking system might be OK for a furniture business or a mining company, but I don't believe it has been appropriate for the specific features of agriculture," he said.

Expert financial advice to farmers had sometimes been disastrous, he said. Farmers were told that to improve profitability, they needed to expand.

"So you either got big or got out and that experiment has failed," he said.

He was disappointed with the conditions in WA's Farm Finance Concessional Loan Scheme, in which $25 million was available for a round of low interest loans. Funds were provided by the Federal Government but administered by the WA State Government.

He said WA farmers could have borrowed from that scheme to buy their neighbours' property, by agreeing to undertake productivity enhancement.

"Now most of the farming fraternity that are facing financial hardship will tell me that their banking institutions tell them the reason they are facing financial hardship is that they got too big too quick," he said.

Dr Jacobs said he was part of the group to provide political input.

Banks were advising government that there were very few farmers who couldn't get finance, but he had information from surveys taken at a Merredin meeting last year, farmers in his electorate and anecdotal evidence sent to him, that that was not correct, he said.

Peter Abetz, MLA for Southern River, also supports the group, Dr Jacobs said.

To draw attention to the future of farming, Mr Kelly is running in The Lou Athan Challenge from Hopetoun to Bremer Bay, a distance of 150km through the Fitzgerald River National Park.

The event, which starts on September 11, aims to attract sponsorship to the new group.