How the drought affects different Illawarra producers

They might not be much to look at, but the grapevines at one Gerringong winery are a picture of preparation.

As drought wreaks havoc across the state and a prolonged dry spell leaves its mark on the Illawarra, landholders from all facets of the agricultural industry are altering their farming practices to combat the conditions.

At Gerringong, the landscape is far from the dusty, parched paddocks of western NSW,  but even the vineyard at Crooked River Wines is “not as green as it should be”, winery owner and vigneron Godwin “Goodie” Felice said.

The current dry spell is the worst Mr Felice’s family have experienced in their 20 years running the winery.

Pruning at the 100-acre operation, about 20 acres of which is under vine, is well under way. It’s a dormant time for the vineyard, but staff are busy preparing the plants now – for growth by October and, hopefully, for picking early next year.

“We’ve had pretty much a very dry 2018 and we’ve planned it,” Mr Felice said.

“We’re cutting them [the vines] way back to make sure that we don’t have too much foliage on there for a dry season to come, if it does come, and our product will be much, much better quality.

“Rather than going for quantity, we’re going for quality more than anything else; so it’s all in the making.”

Water isn’t an issue at the winery, which has an onsite dam. The business also collects and stores rainwater.

“I think we’ll be OK, we’ve got plenty of water here,” he said.

Other landholders were doing it tougher elsewhere, Mr Felice said, with a Crooked River-run charity event to support drought-stricken farmers in the pipeline.

This weekend’s South Coast Beer and Burger Festival at the winery will also raise money for farmers.

The festival, on Saturday, features a “find the needle in a haystack” fundraiser and a number of auction items.

The need for feed as drought takes its toll

Tim Chittick on his family's dairy farm at Gerringong this week. The hay in the shed is from their second farm in central-west NSW. Picture: Adam McLean

Tim Chittick on his family's dairy farm at Gerringong this week. The hay in the shed is from their second farm in central-west NSW. Picture: Adam McLean

The Chittick family knows others are a lot worse off than them – but that doesn’t mean the Gerringong dairy farmers aren’t feeling the effects of drought.

While there’s still a bit of feed left on their property ‘Alne Bank’, thanks to rain about a month ago, grain and hay stocks are dwindling as the big dry tightens its grip.

“We can’t grow enough feed to sustain full milk production on the coast here, so that’s when we buy in and we have to always buy supplement feeds of grain and hay or pellets,” Tim Chittick said.

The 33-year-old works on the Gerringong farm, milking 300 cows a day, alongside his dad, Joe, and brother, Nick.

While the family is adapting to the current dry conditions, they’ve also been growing and future-proofing the business in recent years.

They have a second farm – in the state’s parched central west – where Mr Chittick’s other brother, Ben, oversees the family’s 2500 acres of hay and grain crops.

As hay and other fodder becomes increasingly expense, and hard to find, the Chitticks have been lucky enough to tap into their own feed supply – for now.

“At the moment, there doesn’t look like there’ll be any crop come off that [out west]; that is to secure feed for our business here and if we don’t get that next year, we’re really up shit creek,” Mr Chittick said.

“Pretty much we’re up shit creek now, but we won’t have the paddles by then.”

The Chitticks use a thousand tonnes of grain and the “best part of six or seven hundred tonne of hay” a year.

“If we don’t have that we can’t farm here just purely on grass, we can’t grow enough feed to supply the dairy here on the coast as it is,” he said.

About $10 is currently being spent per cow to feed the 300 animals.

Access to available feed, and the lack of it, was the biggest problem facing the dairy industry, Mr Chittick said.

Hay was non-existent “unless someone can pull strings and get it from Western Australia”, he said, while any other source of grain, if you could get it, was very expensive.

The young farmer has heard talk about boats of grain coming from WA, or possibly overseas – bringing back memories of the tough times from years gone by.

“When I was a kid … I can remember we had trucks loading from Port Kembla, that would have only been in ‘94 and ‘96,” he said.

“You go back to the 80s and they talked about the grain coming from Port Kembla off a boat that’d come out of Newcastle – so that’ll be the next step for grain supply.”

Compounding the uncertainty of future feed supplies is the fact dairy producers are “at the mercy of the market”.

Unlike other products, milk is perishable – it can’t be stored on-farm for more than 48 hours. It means farmers can’t hold off selling their milk in hope of a better price.

“The supermarkets and the processors know we have a perishable product and it has to go, so they’ve pretty well got us bent over a barrel,” Mr Chittick said.

“They can set their price because they know we can’t do anything else with it.

“There needs to be a price set that’s fair for farmers to stay in the industry.”

Mr Chittick said people paying as little as 10 or 20 cents more per litre for milk would help ensure the survival of the industry.

“Put it [a price rise] on all your products, all your meat, your bread, your fruit and vegetables; all farmers need that help at the moment,” he said.

“The farmers in the west [of NSW] are the ones that need every bit they can get at the moment. If we don’t have them to grow the feed for us we’re really up shit creek.”

Mr Chittick’s comments came in the same week Gilmore MP Ann Sudmalis called on the bosses of Coles, Woolworths, ALDI and IGA to increase the amount paid to farmers for produce.

Ms Sudmalis has written each supermarket chains’ chief executives, asking them to consider the move. 

“An extra 20 cents a litre for milk, an extra 20 cents a kilogram for produce or an extra 20 cents per dozen for eggs from their profit will make a huge difference to our primary producers,” she said.

Meanwhile, Woolworths has announced all profits from sales in the fresh food departments of Illawarra stores on Saturday will be donated to drought-affected farmers via Rural Aid’s Buy a Bale campaign.

Coles has vowed to match every donation made instore dollar-for-dollar during August.

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