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A Queensland farming family shares personal story of bank foreclosure and being forced off their land

Photo: A south east Queensland farm for sale after being foreclosed on (Marty McCarthy) Photo: A south east Queensland farm for sale after being foreclosed on (Marty McCarthy)
Rural debt is an issue most farmers are too embarrassed to admit to. It's a silent crisis affecting a growing number of Australian producers.

A grain and cattle farming family in south-east Queensland is using its own painful story of bank foreclosure to encourage other Australian farmers to speak out about rural debt.

"It was the most terrible day of my life," recalled Queensland farmer Tanya Brooks. (The names of the family members have been changed to protect their anonymity.)

    "We're staying at emergency housing at the moment. We wouldn't know where we'd be otherwise
    Tanya, farmer"

"People turned up, there were removal trucks, there were police. When they come over the grid and you see it, it's just shocking," Ms Brooks said.

"We've tried so hard. The kids find it hard coming back here because it was such a terrible situation we went through on that day and it has bad memories."

While banks are reluctant to release the figures, there's growing concern that Australia is in the grip of a rural financial crisis, as more farms fall into the hands of banks.

For producers in pockets of Australia, property prices have decreased so dramatically in recent years that for many, their debt is higher than the value of their farm.

Last week, ANZ Bank said it would stop foreclosing on drought-stricken farms for the next 12 months, and pressure is mounting on other banks to do the same.

It's a silent crisis, with stakeholders hesitant to reveal the extent of the problem.

The banks often dispute there's a rural financial crisis, believing that acknowledgment might draw their lending practices into question and could push property prices lower.

Federal and state governments typically play the existence of it down, because acknowledging a rural debt crisis would identify a need to fix it.

"We're staying at emergency housing at the moment. We wouldn't know where we'd be otherwise," Ms Brooks said.

"I rang this person and said 'don't ask questions, do you have a home we can come to?' and she said yes."

Tanya and her husband Lindsay have four children. Their teenage son Kurt was working on the farm the day the removalists came.

"I was in the shed and dad saw these cars coming. I got in a panic and didn't really know what to do," he said.

Kurt says he still wants to be a part of the agriculture industry, but says this experience has made that difficult.

In a sign the rural debt issue is pushing more people to the extreme, Ms Brooks says her farm was looted the moment her family had left.

"We had 28 irrigation pipes and tyres stolen. People were just coming in and helping themselves," she said.

"We had motorbike tracks and four wheeler tracks, and nobody was meant to be on the property.

Ms Brooks says she reported the matter to police.

Mr Brooks says his family owed the bank about $600,000, and that a perfect storm of drought, floods and poor market conditions made it impossible to service the debt.

"The destruction of floods and the recovery period was just too much. We couldn't recover from not only one, but two, major floods."

Farmers are often reluctant to admit the extent of their own responsibility when being foreclosed on, but Mr Brooks is frank in his assessment of what went wrong.

He says mistakes were made as he desperately tried to get himself out of the financial mess.

"The banks are happy to lend money against evaluation, but as we find in this circumstance, all of a sudden the evaluation has reduced by half, or less," he said.

"I've made mistakes, there's no doubt about that. I was in default and behind in payments, but it was a combination of things.

"We were pushing the farm harder than we should have been. That's what you do in a time when you're trying to raise more funds.

"We were overstocked, we overgrazed the country and we pushed the farm harder.

"In hindsight, it's easier to say we should have made decisions earlier to offload stock. But commodity prices were smashed and you were giving up your livelihood with no potential to get back into it again.

"We were guilty of hanging on too long, for sure."

Many farmers who go through this see it as a failure, and most refuse to talk about it.

Mr Brooks says he was aware he was being foreclosed on, but that a lack of communication with his bank meant he didn't understand the severity of it, or how soon he had to be off the property.

It's a difficult story for him to talk about, but he says he needs to tell it to warn other farmers.

"It's pride. I put my life on the line. It's hard to talk about but I'd like to highlight it for other peoples' sake.

"If you're in this situation, don't go on someone's verbal advice. Definitely seek some qualified help.

"The mortgagee is everything, and he's at fault for everything. He becomes the villain in this case and there's no opportunity to keep it amicable.

"There's a huge rural debt crisis in this country and I'm sure it's going to get much, much worse."

The names in this story have been changed for confidentiality reasons.

Photo: ANZ Bank recently announced a 12 month moratorium on new rural foreclosures (Marty McCarthy)

Author: Marty McCarthy
Source: ABC Rural


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