East Gippsland has a perception problem.
People passing by farms in the region aren’t being overwhelmed by dry, barren paddocks like they are seeing on television from up in New South Wales and Queensland, but instead, in some cases, paddocks that look like a bowling green.
But looks can be deceiving.
Rainfall totals recorded in East Gippsland are in the lowest 10 per cent since records began, according to the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM).
In the last 18 months, some towns have recorded disastrously low totals.
So the grass, and the farmers that are trying to grow it, aren’t doing as well as it might seem.
Tom Gannon, who farms at Nicholson, just east of Bairnsdale, is one of those farmers.
Mr Gannon’s property, which he leases with daughter Roberta, neighbours the Princes Highway, and from there, he said, things don’t look too dire.
“We’ve had people comment that it’s nice and green up here, but it’s almost spring, we should have long grass and we don’t,” Mr Gannon said.
To get by, he’s culled half of his flock, reducing numbers from 900 sheep to 450.
“Any dry sheep has been sent off the property, and we had a lot of older sheep, so we managed to cull about 400,” he said.
There’s also no longer any young cattle on the property.
“They’re all either sold, or a handful are on agistment,” he said.
He’s been feeding a round bale of hay every second day for almost 18 months, and freight costs are crippling his budget.
“We got a lot of good hay from the Birchip area at market price, but had to pay $3700 to get it landed here, that adds a lot of money to the cost of the article,” he said.
He is calling on the State Government to offer freight subsidies to drought-stricken farmers.
“The cost of freight is impacting a lot of farmers’ ability to afford feed, so they’re having to think about culling breeding stock because they can’t physically find the money to cover the cost, so freight subsidies would be some assistance,” he said.
Gregor McNaughton has 120 year’s worth of rainfall records on his Seaspray property.
Mr McNaughton recalls 1972 as one of the driest years he’s ever recorded, but said this year is almost on par.
In an average rainfall zone of 350 millimetres a year, so far only 100mm has fallen.
Mr McNaughton said he is going broke buying feed in.
Mainly sourcing hay from the Western District, he said the freight component was hurting his hip pocket.
“Freight is a big thing at the moment, our hay’s been coming from areas like Ararat and Stawell, and by the time you get it here, it’s cost you an extra $4000,” he said.
He is calling on the State Government to relax rates paid by farmers during this difficult time.
“We don’t want to be a charity, but I think the government could help us because we pay a lot of tax,” he said.
And he said he hoped help comes sooner rather than later, because if a break doesn’t come, “I don’t know what we’ll do”.
Bengworden fine and superfine woolgrower Allen Sheridan said while it’s not a “disaster area” in his neck of the woods, it’s still been fairly dry.
Mr Sheridan has been supplementary feeding his sheep since before Easter.
“Some paddocks are worse than others, but we still have a bit of feed, we’re not as bad as other places,” he said.
His containment areas have enabled rotational grazing.
“When we have a long dry spell, we put the sheep into containment areas and move them around before the paddocks go bare,” he said.
“That way when we get a shower, we get a bit more growth.”
Mr Sheridan said it was pathetic that the “city-centric” State Government had shown little interest in what’s happening in East Gippsland.
“You look into NSW and see what they’re offering their farmers, and in Victoria, see nothing,” he said.
Running a second property at Traralgon, he said the seasons were quite contrasting.
He said this was hindering the attention placed on East Gippsland.
“People drive as far as Warragul, and see that it looks good there, but don’t come as far as here to see what’s happening,” he said.
He encouraged the government to offer substantial support, and more than just counselling.
Orbost farmer Chris Nixon is enduring his second year in a row of below average rain.
Residing in an 850mm average rainfall area, last year 530mm was received, and so far this year, only 260mm has been seen.
Mr Nixon said he had gone down the destocking route, rather than supplementary feeding.
“With hay at $400/tonne, you’re not going to make that up even if we get a break,” he said.
For this reason, he was not interested in hay subsidies, anticipating prices of hay would only go up further if they were offered.
What he would appreciate was assistance with water and shire rates, to try and rid some of the farm’s operating costs.
“They also need to come out with grants for drought preparedness, like silos and bunkers for silage, to build farmers’ capacity to prepare for future drought,” he said.
Up at Gelantipy, conditions are “as dry as anything”, according to local farmer Tina Moon.
Ms Moon said she had been buying two to three truckloads of hay a month to feed her sheep and cattle.
She’s been buying in since August last year and said she’s completely blown the budget, spending almost $80,000 in that time.
She only has 60 of 300 ewes left, but has tried to keep a hold of the majority of her cattle.
She said she urgently needs support from the government.
“Our biggest thing is freight, we bought hay from 1500 kilometres away, and the freight was actually dearer than the hay,” she said.
“People just can’t afford it, we’re really struggling.”