Thursday, 14 May 2020
Gilmore Electorate: Sassafras
I rise today to talk about a small rural community in my electorate that you may not have heard of. The village of Sassafras is the most westerly point of the Shoalhaven local government area, right up against the border of my electorate. The closest township is Nerriga, where the local pub is a popular stopover between Nowra and Braidwood. Sassafras also happens to be one of the areas of my electorate that was hardest hit by the bushfires. In early March I attended the Sassafras community recovery meeting hosted by Shoalhaven council at the Nerriga pub. It's a shame that the minister wasn't there to hear what the people of Sassafras had to say, so I thought I would share their experiences. To say that the people of Sassafras are angry is an understatement. They feel totally and completely abandoned by this government, forgotten by my Liberal predecessors as well as by their Liberal state members. And, to be honest, who can blame them?
The day after the meeting I went back to meet with some of the residents I had spoken with the night before, like Greg, who is a farmer. Greg's story was tough to hear, but tougher to experience. He and his wife stayed to defend their property and farm. Greg described the fire, as it came roaring towards his property, like an explosion. It destroyed everything in its path. Greg's wife had trouble returning to the property. Greg's paddock-to-plate farm had suffered through the drought for three years—the same drought the government said we were not in. Following advice from the Department of Primary Industries, Greg reduced his stock numbers, something that many farmers have, heartbreakingly, been forced to do. Greg's wife had to return to work to help pay the bills. Their on-farm income decreased and they were forced to find new ways of getting by. To help add to their supplemental income, they started an orchard. In the season just gone, the trees had finally matured. They were anticipating sales of produce such as fruit, berries and olives. They were excited and feeling like perhaps they might finally get back on their feet, but these hopes were dashed when bushfire raged through their property.
The orchard was destroyed. They also lost farm infrastructure, machinery and stock feed. They decided to apply for the government's $75,000 disaster assistance grant for primary producers, but they were rejected because their on-farm income wasn't enough, because Greg's wife's income was deemed too high, because the government could not understand the impact the drought had on them. Greg was devastated. I want to read a little bit of what Greg told me so you can hear it in his own words: 'We are left feeling very let down, despite the government's talk of support for those that need it. After the drought, the direct impact of the fires, the period of isolation and continuing to live with the devastation that has been wrought and now the new restrictions in force due to the coronavirus, the hope that we had been given has been taken from us.' It is heartbreaking. I am still fighting for Greg.
That same day I also met with Alison and Richard from Sassafras Nuts, a completely off-grid commercial chestnut and walnut farm. Visitors can come to the farm to pick nuts and have lunch surrounded by the beautiful trees. Sadly, their farm was badly hit by the fires. They lost 30-year-old walnut trees, two nursery areas and 200 young chestnuts. They showed me how they were working to repair and protect their damaged trees—the 'burns unit', they call it. Most of their income is made during one month of the year. During the harvest, they hire labourers to help, but, without sales, they can't invest in those jobs. They rely on the tourists, but, with fires and now COVID-19, the tourists have diminished. It will take four to five years before their trees produce again. Alison and Richard are upbeat. They are resilient and they are fighters. But, aside from the $75,000 primary producer grant, which barely touched the sides on what needed to be done at the farm, they were receiving no help.
From so many people I spoke to in Sassafras, I heard the same thing: They are sick and tired of being forgotten. They need help. To everyone in Sassafras, I say: I will not forget you. I will keep standing with you and standing up for you. I just hope the government will start listening.