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Spectre of rural recession haunts trading

AFTER three seasons of crops blighted by frosts, drought and flood, small businesses in WA’s wheatbelt are facing a rural recession.

The three poor seasons have meant lost earnings of about $2 billion in the area. About half of that was lost in the last harvest.

With farmers suffering from poor harvest returns, the businesses that support them are struggling as well.

Jerramungup Business Enterprise Centre manager Yvonne Polain said both small businesses and farmers in the area had started to lay off staff and people were being forced to leave the area.

Despite the town’s bleak outlook, Ms Polain said a couple of groups were trying to set up businesses based on the area‘s farming products.

“People down here are real triers. They all work together fairly well so all is not lost,” she said.

The Federal Government recently announced Exceptional Circum-stances Funding worth $31.5 million for farmers in the south coast and south-eastern wheatbelt region.

The money will be spread through the Shire of Lake Grace and parts of Kulin, Dumbleyung, Kent, Gnow-angerup, Jerramungup and Raven-sthorpe and is expected to be spread among up to 900 farmers.

With access to the funding, farmers will be eligible for interest rate subsidies, income support and concessional access to a Health Care Card and Youth Allowance.

Federal Agriculture Minister Warren Truss said the WA Government’s application for a Special Assistance package for all WA grain and livestock producers affected by the dry 2000 season was unlikely to be supported.

“It is not unreasonable to expect viable farmers to manage some poor seasons and indeed this principle underlies the EC policy agreed to by State and Federal Governments,” Mr Truss said.

Despite this response, the WA Government is still pushing for the package.

Ravensthorpe Shire President Rick Besso said the funding was inadequate.

“This is only a token effort by the eastern states to appease those in the west in the hope we’ll go away,” Mr Besso said.

“It won’t help the people that need it – the farmers and the small businesses that support them. Farmers still need a community infrastructure in place.”

Mr Besso said a number of small businesses had closed in Ravensthorpe as the results of three consecutive bad seasons.

“We need about three exceptional seasons in a row to get us back to where we were,” he said.

The Ravensthorpe Shire Council wants the Special Assistance package because it will bring immediate help to both farmers and small businesses.

Mr Besso said the small amount of mining around the town was the only thing keeping local small businesses going.

WA Farmers Federation president Colin Nicholl said the funding was welcome but insufficient.

“It’s a long way short of what is needed and the geographical area needs to be extended too,” Mr Nicholl said.

“Our estimate is we need a minimum of $300 million from the Government or we’ll continue to have a rural recession.”

“Putting lines on a map to designate who received funding and who did not would cause divisions within the community.

“People to the east of the line miss out and their neighbours to west get the funding.”

Mr Nicholl said eastern states farmers, particularly sugar growers, had received three lots of special assistance funding.

“What it boils down to is their politicians have more clout than ours,” he said.

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