Support comes up short – Few farmers bother even applying for bushfire grants

Distressing photos of dead stock littering the Batlow Road attracted international attention, but farm manager Rod Sturt said he’s seen little help from the government in the wake of the Dunns Road Fire.

There’s been plenty of government agencies moving through bushfire-ravaged areas of New South Wales, but in figures just announced, only 1205 farmers have actually applied for a state grant. That’s just over 12% of the 10,000 farmers who have been affected, and only half that number were approved for grants.

 The State Minister for Agriculture, Adam Marshall, said so far $37 million in disaster relief grants has been paid to 618 primary producers.

 Another 190 grant applications were rejected. That’s an average of $61,000 going to each approved applicant.

 Producers are eligible for all kinds of assistance, including these grants (which are limited to $75,000 per farming enterprise) and special disaster relief concessional loans of up to $500,000. Minister Marshall said 160 NSW businesses have applied for those loans so far, but only 11 of those applicants were primary producers.

 The Murrumbidgee Primary Health Network has also just announced a $10,000 grant for activities to strengthen social connectedness in affected regions and St Vincent de Paul Society says they still have Federal drought assistance funds available for farmers, but actual fire and drought victims say the money isn’t getting to the areas that need it.

 Minister Marshall suggested some primary producers might be “philosophically” opposed to asking for government recovery money. Batlow land manager and land owner Rodney Sturt didn’t start out as philosophically opposed, but he’s become that way after being repeatedly knocked back. 

 “They say we’ve got this and that for you, but when you go to apply for them, you’re not eligible,” said Mr Sturt who owns a property on Old Tumbarumba Road, which he rents out, and manages another on Batlow Road.

 “You’ve got to be a big farmer and that’s got to be your only income. I manage a place and that’s my main income.

 “There’s a lot of people down here that’ve got full time jobs and they work weekends and until dark every day trying to get ahead and this happens and you’re not eligible, so you’re better off doing bugger all. You’re better off working hard and not having a go [at the grants], that’s how I look at it.”

 Mr Sturt fought the fire on two fronts when it came through Batlow, desperately trying to save the home he owns on Old Tumbarumba Road, then racing back to protect the property he manages. At the second property, they lost 820 head of sheep, mostly lambs, and 105 head of cattle. He said it will take him years to rebuild all his fences.

 “I’ve got to rip the whole place down and start again, it’s all old timber posts,” said Mr Sturt.

 The crushing effect of the fires is made worse by the fact that the Sturts were looking forward to a great year in 2020, positioned well despite the long-running drought.

 “We had a really good season, numbers were up,” said Mr Sturt. “We were prepared to make some serious money.

 “It’s going to take a long while to get back to where we were.”

 The hay donations from other farmers in the region provided an instant boost for morale in the region and were the most helpful and no-nonsense relief Mr Sturt has received to date.

 He tried applying for the immediate $1,000 government relief grant, but says he spent 15 minues on hold, wondering if the woman on the other end of the line had gone to get a cup of coffee before she returned to say he needed to call back at another time.

 “The government make out they’re doing a lot, but they’re not doing much at all,” said Mr Sturt.

 “I’m just starting to get sick of it, really. It’s not worth worrying about.”

 Mr Sturt said there are “a lot of pats on the back being handed out,” but didn’t didn’t feel he had many to give out, other than to the local guys in the RFS.

 The government continues to hope that it’s just a timing issue that is preventing the money from reaching where it’s needed. During Minister Marshall’s comments this week, he and others suggested extending the grant and loan application deadlines.

 NSW Labor Primary Industries spokeswoman Jenny Aitchison said producers are overwhelmed at the moment and shouldn’t be expected to be able to apply for grants without more time or help.

 “Anyone who thinks that six months is enough time to sort through the devastation of fires and fill in a mountain of paperwork is kidding themselves,” Ms Aitchison said.

 To help support primary producers, the Murrumbidgee Primary Health Network (MPHN) is providing its bushfire affected communities with an opportunity to apply for a grant of up to $10,000, which has been made possible as part of the Australian Government’s Supporting Communities in Recovery program.

 There will be at least three grant rounds, with round one open from Monday, 2 March and all applications must be received by Friday, 17 April 2020. Rounds two and three will open in August 2020 and March 2021 respectively.

 MPHN CEO Melissa Neal said the grants will be available for activities that aim to strengthen social connectedness, emotional wellbeing and resilience, assisting communities to recover and heal.

 “We recognise the significant impact the recent bushfire crisis has had on individuals and communities in our region,” Ms Neal said.

 “To help communities to recover from the impact of the bushfires, we are providing grants for activities aimed at bringing the community together in a positive way.

 “These activities might include a community barbecue to thank local firefighters, regular community meetings to help build local friendships, or workshops designed to help local businesses manage the impact of the bushfires on demand.

 “Small rural communities are always very resourceful and innovative when it comes to supporting each other and we are really looking forward to seeing what community-led activities are developed to access these grants,” she said.

 At the federal level, there are also still drought relief funds on offer, with officials promising a more streamlined system now that some of the bottlenecks have been identified.

 St Vincent de Paul Society’s CEO Toby O’Connor said the Society still has Federal Government drought assistance funds available for distribution in eligible Local Government Areas in Queensland, NSW and South Australia.

 Mr O’Connor said farmers, farm workers, farm contractors and suppliers struggling to pay for basic household expenses, but who have not yet applied, are encouraged to apply for a one-of payment of $3,000. “Eligible people may not have applied due to old media stories about a backlog of claims, and there are people out there who either still don’t know about the payment, or who might find the prospect of applying for help a bit too much,” Mr O’Connor said.

 “Experienced, empathetic staff in our national call centre are taking calls and processing claims quickly.

 “Most payments are now in bank accounts within a week or two of applications being received.

 “In addition, our staff are able to refer callers to additional wrap around services in their local areas.

 “Many drought-affected areas have had rain in recent weeks. But we know that recovery will take time and that people are likely to need financial assistance for some time yet,” Mr O’Connor said.