Gunnedah’s businesses hurting as drought drags on

AUSTRALIA’S record-breaking drought has brought many farmers in north-west NSW to their knees, but it’s not only those on the land missing out on the rain.

Gunnedah’s businesses are also feeling the dry.

Gunnedah is a diverse agricultural and mining town located in the Liverpool Plains, with a population of more than 12,000 people.

Agriculture business make up nearly 40 per cent of its industries, and many are seeing a change in their customers’ spending habits.

With nearly half of Gunnedah businesses supplying the agriculture sector, deals are competitive.

For many, this means sacrificing more margin than normal, particularly during times of drought.

For the other 60 per cent of businesses, the drought may not be having a direct impact on profits, but customers with a smaller disposable income isn’t helping.

Richard Neill, director of Ultra Lubricants, a business which supplies lubricant products and services to the agriculture sector, said many in Gunnedah hadn’t seen a pay check from a successful harvest crop for over a year.

“We’re noticing the stress of the drought on our customers over the counter fairly well,” Mr Neill said.

The NSW Business Chamber’s survey on the drought’s effects found that 84 per cent of regional businesses in NSW have been negatively impacted by the dry.

Ultra Lubricants has experienced a 30 to 35 per cent downturn, on a monthly basis, from predominantly selling farm-based products.

Peel Valley Group is a John Deere Agriculture equipment supplier on the town’s main street.

General Manager of the Gunnedah branch, Philip John, said relying on large agricultural equipment sales, when farmers aren’t updating machinery, had a direct impact on the business.

“If a farmer gets a cold, the dealer gets pneumonia,” Mr John said.

“The more profitable our farmers and our customer base are, the better our sales will be.”

Both of the agricultural suppliers are struggling to maintain margins and are unable to pass on increased business costs to customers.

The businesses have seen price rises from suppliers, due to increased fuel and staffing costs, among other things

Many farmers aren’t spending if it’s not necessary to running their operation.

“We’re absorbing all those price rises because our customers are hard up paying for a lot of things at the moment and to increase the prices would be fairly cruel,” Mr Neill said.

“All we will be selling is what is absolutely necessary rather than buying excess out of convenience.”

Severe rainfall deficits mean that 95% of North West NSW is in drought, with Gunnedah receiving just over half of its 477mm year-to-date average rainfall.

But the drought hasn’t just hit the business community this season, for many it’s been lingering for years, and for them it won’t be resolved when decent rain falls.

“This drought, particularly in Gunnedah, has been creeping up on us for the past 4 or 5 years,” Mr John said.

“We’re an operation that can sustain this drought but we can’t sustain it forever. No one can.”

 Gunnedah isn’t new to dealing with drought and neither are its businesses, combined Peel Valley Machinery and Ultra Lubricants have been in the local market for more than 73 years.

The drought will end eventually, but with a predicted summer El Nino, businesses are putting plans in place to survive.

“Agriculture is a long-term game, if you think otherwise you’re in for a shock and you won’t survive,” Mr John said.

Gunnedah’s Mayor Jamie Chaffey is concerned about the long-term impacts the drought will have, particularly when it comes to job losses in the community.

The drought has the ability to drive people away from regional communities towards larger cities where job opportunities are greater.

“For us, every job that’s lost in a community, means risk and once you lose population, you start to lose scale and capacity,” said Cr Chaffey.

Gunnedah’s unemployment rate rose from 5.66 per cent in March 2018 to 6.31 per cent in June 2018.

The drought has cost Ultra Lubricants two highly skilled employees, and the business finds it hard to find quality, skilled staff.

“Hopefully we can encourage them back when things pick up again,” Mr Neill said.

The council is pushing for businesses to apply for hardship assistance which provides rate relief to those struggling.

The Chamber of Commerce’s ‘Gunnedah Gift Card’ has distributed $30,000 to farmers within the district, as another form of drought relief.

President of the Gunnedah Chamber of Commerce Stacey Cook said the money, approximately $200 per farmer, can be spent at any local business and another $20,000 worth of gift cards is expected to be dispersed in time for Christmas.

“It’s a really great example of how sourcing money coming into Gunnedah from other communities out to the farmer, and giving them an avenue to spend it within the community benefits all of us,” Ms Cook said.

Many agriculture businesses believe that funding should be given to farmers to spend within the local community, because when its agriculture industry is thriving, so does Gunnedah.

When it comes to state and federal government relief for local businesses, it’s hard to draw the line on who should receive help.

“We now have suppliers who say they’re getting affected by the drought also and they’re in the city. Definitely start with farmers and then work back from there,” said Ultra Lubricants’ Mr Neill.

Gunnedah’s in a unique position with a booming mining industry, and as many farmers already have, those looking to supplement their income have the ability to find employment in the mines.

“When you look at a drought that has lingered for so long, the damage you see is only a minor percentage of the damage,” Cr Chaffey said.

“It’s affecting the generational farm businesses, the confidence to stay on the farm and they’re the long lasting ones that as a community, and as a country, we’re going to have to deal with that for the years to come.