Customer feedback suggests at least half the 3000 farmers with cheap Regional Investment Corporation loans would not have survived recent drought, bushfire or extremely wet years if they had not been able to borrow the money. Most are now confident about their farm's prospects, but drought, water security and rising interest rates rank as key ongoing concerns for RIC borrowers. The feedback also found well over half of RIC's customers made farm machinery upgrades a priority in 2023, and farm succession planning was prioritised by almost half. The independent June survey involved more than 500 customers for the farm sector concessional lender which provides 10-year loans so farmers can better manage seasonal or market situations outside their control, or to help them kick-start their own farm operation. The survey complements increased moves by the five-year-old RIC to reach out to customers and potential borrowers at agricultural field days and industry events, and its webinar series to highlight services such as its drought, investment and agri-starter loans. About 55 per cent of borrower respondents said their RIC loan, at a current 4.52pc interest rate, enabled their farm to keep operating after encountering recent weather-related financial hits. Without the funds their business would not have survived. RIC loans are often used to pay down earlier commercial bank borrowings and reduce a farm's interest rate repayment burden. More than 86pc of customers said their loan had given them greater confidence in their farm business' future; 88pc said it had made drought and natural disaster recovery easier, and 83pc described their operation as now being more drought resilient. Chief executive officer, John Howard, said, based on the solid customer sample, the fact that potentially about 1500 farmers had stayed farming and rebuilt their finances because of their RIC loan explained a lot about the value of the lender's services to the farm sector and regional communities. "Our low-cost loans and interest-only terms for the first five years have been a lifeline for thousands of farming families in times of drought, natural disasters or other major financial disruptions," Mr Howard said. While industry confidence had dipped since last year's bumper seasonal and market results, RIC's discount loans provided a reassuring safety net to help farmers through tough financial times. Mr Howard said a return to drier El Nino rainfall patterns, a big correction in livestock markets and rising interest rates and farm costs had dampened customer confidence slightly, but 83pc were feeling confident about their farm's future and profitability. More than three quarters also had greater confidence in the future of the agriculture sector. Rising interest rates were cited as a key customer concern by 82pc of customers, water security and drought by 61pc; income volatility by 58pc; equipment costs and upgrades by 57pc, and labour availability and costs by 56pc. However, despite worries about rising farm equipment costs, replacing and modernising their farm machinery fleet was also cited as a current top priority by 60pc of RIC customers. "Anecdotally we know quite a few farms didn't have spare cash to spend on machinery upgrades during the drought - or a need for more cropping gear - and equipment availability was limited in the past few years," Mr Howard said. "Until 2023 it may have been five to 10 years since machinery upgrades were seriously on the radar for some producers." Farm succession planning rated as a priority for 46pc of respondents. Given the average age of Australian farmers was 56, or 17 years older than the average worker, Mr Howard said it was no surprise to see producers considering their retirement and farm transition options, but also heartening to see they were planning for it. Farm succession was a frequent discussion topic raised with RIC staff in industry discussions, which, in turn, indicated a lot more potential demand for RIC's AgriStarter loans to help next generation farmers take over the family farm. He said ageing farmers generally had a lot of equity invested in their enterprises and it was hard to separate "retirement money" from the business while still leaving their offspring with enough capital to keep the farm running. Since RIC opened its doors in July 2018 more than $3.2 billion in farm loans worth up to $2m each have been settled with farmers and farm sector-related businesses. Three quarters of applications were for drought loans, followed by 15pc for farm investment. However, Mr Howard conceded it was likely quite a number of farmers were unaware RIC had loan products which may suit their situation. He said the lender was now well prepared for any rush of drought or other natural disaster-related funding applications if El Nino conditions turned from bad to worse. Extra funding was also available for RIC loans during 2023-24 to now total $259m, which left about $197m in the kitty after $62m was approved in the first four months. RIC will host a free drought loan webinar on February 28 to promote more awareness of its loans, the eligibility criteria, how funds can be used, and how to apply.