Critical breaking point report 2008 & 2012

Based on in-depth interviews with farming families in the Wimmera and southern Mallee region of north-western Victoria, it uses an unprecedented longitudinal approach to track the experiences of farming families during a time of drought and – it was expected and hoped – a period of drought recovery. 

This study is based on two phases of research. Part one interviewed sixty randomly selected farming families during severe drought in February 2007. Part two involved two follow-up interviews at six monthly intervals (September 2007 and February 2008) with a subset of twenty of the sixty farming families (representing some of the younger and older families of the original sample) interviewed in part one. The interviews were conducted using a unique local interviewer methodology.

Eleven main trends emerged from the research:

  1. Virtually all farming families are eating into their physical, financial and personal/emotional reserves to cope with the drought and will continue to need to do so if drought continues;
  2. For most farming families, the effects of drought will remain with them for years after the drought ends;
  3. The majority of farming families are persevering and have not been pushed to leave farming, although most have had to alter their personal and professional plans and most have engaged the question of whether to leave and will continue to re-engage it over coming years;
  4. There are strong differences between the circumstances and outlooks of farming families and these differences appear to be widening in some ways;
  5. Regardless of how severely a farming family’s financial situation has been affected by the drought, they have been and will continue to be affected by drought indirectly as it exacerbates other issues, affects those around them, and throws a veil of uncertainty over the future;
  6. Farming families’ awareness of and sensitivity to the risks involved in farming has escalated and many are adopting what could be a permanently more conservative approach to production, marketing and income protection;
  7. The default position for a minority of farmers is optimism and the proportion of people who share this outlook swells at the start of each year when the potential of the new season is still unknown;
  8. Some people’s outlook on farming, climate and the world in general has been fundamentally darkened by their experience over the last few years and they now suffer from high levels of anxiety irrespective of weather conditions;
  9. People remain committed to their sector and communities, but struggle with multiple demands upon them and are being forced to focus on their own needs to cope with the effects of the drought;
  10. The vast majority of small rural communities are facing serious issues of declining active populations and services and this is negatively affecting the wellbeing and resolve of the farming families that help make up those communities; and 
  11. Financial assistance is now welcomed and accepted by most but will continue to aggravate negative responses among some for the way that it conflicts with their belief in self-help.