BIG Condamine wheatgrower Rowell Walton has a feeling in his bones that this winter will deliver a bumper crop on his five southern Queensland properties.
There has been plenty of early cool rain, his fertile blacksoil river plains are full of moisture after two years of drought and, most telling of all, the elusive black swans that are always harbingers of a bountiful harvest have arrived on the brimming lagoon below his family’s simple white home.
“You get to feel the season when you have been here for 30 years; everything is telling me that this crop is going to be a great one,” says Mr Walton, with some enthusiasm.
But the chairman of the federal government’s National Rural Debt roundtable and one of Australia’s top 200 biggest farmers, falls silent as he remembers that he and his family are unlikely to be at Yullabilla to reap the benefits of such a big harvest ever again.
On May 27, Mr Walton and wife Debbie will be evicted from the country home where they have lived for most of their married lives and built their cropping empire.
After the Walton Family Farming’s debt reached $30 million this year, their bankers, the ANZ, sent receivers KordaMentha barrelling up their remote dirt drive without warning three weeks ago and declared their family farm enterprise with its five properties bankrupt and soon-to-be-sold.
Mr Walton, who has spent much of the past year touring Australia talking at farmer meetings and lobbying politicians to address what he believes is a tide of rural debt that threatens to swamp agriculture’s long-term viability, said he was stunned.
“It’s bloody ironic that the banks jump in at this point, when if we had been allowed to put the crop in ourselves, we would have been looking at a one-in-10 year massive crop that would have pulled us though,” Mr Walton said. “I don’t really blame the (ANZ) bank; I know somewhere in an office in Melbourne there is a whiteboard with our names and others on it saying that by this date, these properties and debts have to be off our loan books.
“But I do wonder why they picked the very week after we had good rain and had a soil full of water ready for a crop, to give up on us; you would have to think it is because now they can get a crop in the ground and maximise their resale values when they put our farms on the market …”
Just a month ago, the Waltons were engaged in mediated talks with their bank about refinancing the debt on their Condamine River farms, which can produce winter wheat and summer crops worth more than $7 million in just one season. While times were tough and the bank had been tightly controlling their spending since 2011 when they lost two big crops in two consecutive years to flooding, Mr Walton believed there was still hope of recovery.
Admittedly their debt had blown out just as land prices plummeted because of the drought, sending bank valuations of their farms’ assets down from $27 million in 2009 to just $13m in 2012.
But they were still one of the biggest cropping businesses in Queensland, and Mr Walton never doubted that one good crop this year would get Walton Family Investments — his two sons Robert and Gavin both work and manage parts of the family business — out of trouble.
Now the bank-appointed receivers have placed a farm manager on his cropping properties to plant this season’s new crop and run every element of the business, in readiness for likely sale to new owners in June.
Mr Walton is forced to sit by and watch from his veranda while someone who doesn’t know his land, uses “his” machinery — the banks have claimed it too — to sow vast hectares of wheat that could have been his family’s salvation.
After four years of rotten luck, it is enough to make Mr Walton walk away from the kitchen table in tears.
Mr Walton said he had fleeting moments of being excited about a new future ahead, of living in a caravan as they had no other home and maybe going fishing.
But, more often, the proud man who has inspired farmers across the nation trying to get a fairer deal for rural Australia, admits he lies curled in a fetal position for hours on end, unable to get out of bed and finding little reason each morning to face a new day.
The potential for suicide is not ignored. Mr Walton, whose father took his own life, said he knew there were times in his darkest moments of deep depression, when someone less strong, positive and big-picture might have killed themselves.
Mr Walton fears a gathering storm that could become the “Fanny Mae” prime lending crisis of the Australian bush, especially if banks continue to squeeze credit and try to recoup bad loans with multiple fire sales of farming properties like his now the rain has come around the nation.Author : SUE NEALES
Source : The Australian