GONE are the days when business in the bush was sealed over a cuppa and a handshake.
When hundreds of sheep might be sold and delivered many kilometres away up-country after just a brief phone call and the promise of a "cheque in the mail".
Or when a wheat farmer would be supplied with uteloads of seed, chemicals and fertiliser - or even a tractor - on the standard wing-and-a prayer deal of payment months later "once the crop comes in" or "when the drought breaks".
The boom in corporate farming in recent years has eroded and exploded such hallowed concepts of bush trust.
That has been the experience of 29 businesses in the prosperous northern NSW farming town of Moree this year, after they were left with $1 million of unpaid bills following the collapse of a large corporate cotton farm at Garah, 60km northwest of Moree.
Corporate administrators have told the business owners they are unlikely to see a cent of their money.
Most of the dealings with the Bengerang cotton farm by Moree's fuel, tyre, farm machinery, chemical and aerial spraying businesses and suppliers were sealed with a handshake and no legal documents.
When the farm's operating company, Medgun, was placed in voluntary administration in February, locals owed money discovered a complex web of companies linked to the 2300ha property.
This corporate tangle effectively separated the farm's daily trading and operating company Medgun from a separate entity owning the assets of the $20 million property, leaving the Moree businesses with nowhere to turn to recoup their losses.
They are also out of pocket because no deed of company arrangement was included when Medgun, half-owned by Melbourne-based KFT Investments, was liquidated by company-appointed administrators in August, ruling out any payments for unsecured creditors like the Moree rural firms.
Making matters worse in the eyes of the local community is that the ultimate owners of Bengerang's operating company Medgun are the Kepper Family Trust, linked to property investor, private Citation jet owner and former Datacraft millionaire George Kepper, who has an estimated Rich List fortune of $385m.
"We know that they are probably 100 per cent legally right when they say under the Corporations Act we don't have to be paid a cent," says Tyrepower owner and Moree councillor James von Drehnen, who is owed $9155.
"But what they are doing in my view is 100 per cent morally wrong; why should we as the little guys who are providing them with services suffer and bear their debts so these rich millionaires living in luxury in Melbourne can make even more bucks?"
Moree Plains Mayor Katrina Humphries said the missing $1m ripped out of Moree means workers will miss out on annual bonuses from the affected businesses, spare cash will be tight this Christmas, affecting local shops and supermarkets, and donors such as B&W Rural Services - owed $343,000 - will be less able to sponsor school fetes, footy clubs and community events.
"These people blow into town, don't live here and have no friends here, take us all for idiots, incur debts and then move on; it's not the way you do business in your own backyard and corporate law has to be changed to stop this sort of thing happening again somewhere else," she said.
KFT Investments chief Steve Kepper yesterday said he would not be commenting on any issues associated with Bengerang, Medgun or his family's interests in Moree.
The area's federal MP, the Nationals' Mark Coulton, is so perturbed by the implications of the Moree saga as corporate agricultural investment marches across the landscape that he raised the issue last week in parliament as a matter of national importance.
Naming Kepper Family Trust Investments, Mr Coulton branded it deceitful conduct that was severely hurting businesses and individuals in the grainbowl.
"Sadly it seems that the long-established way we conduct business in rural areas, where a handshake and person's word was legally binding, may be a thing of the past," he said.
"Recently there have been companies in Australia operating with a certain level of deceit; actions like this are not welcome anywhere, particularly not in the bush."
While reluctantly accepting they are unlikely to ever get their money back, the united Moree business group is determined not to let the wrong quietly fade.
This week, members posted signs along the highway and on the Bengerang front gate leading to Garah.
They are hoping to make potential buyers think twice before bidding for the farm when tenders close on December 10.
Air-conditioning supplier Mark Davies is owed $8000, which has nearly sent his business broke.
Now he has to endure seeing the Bengerang farm, complete with grand homestead, on the market for $16m to $20m - none of which will come his way.
Rubbing salt into his grievance is that the property is being sold with a new airconditioner he has not been paid for, installed in one of its farmhand cottages, and another reconditioned one in the main house.
"The shame of it all is that it has changed my attitude to doing business after 28 years; I've found out the hard way that there are no morals and no trust in big business farming; it's left a sour taste in my mouth and a big hole in this town."
Bengerang is regarded as one of the best cotton farms on the black soil Moree Plains, with 1300ha of irrigated laser-levelled fields and abundant water rights.
But last month it was prevented from sowing a 1000ha cotton crop, after failing to pay a $405,000 invoice for user licence fees owed on its 2011-12 crop to Monsanto.
Peter Birch, whose B&W Rural Services is owed $323,000 for chemicals, fertilisers, agronomic advice and other farm product sales, hopes by going public they can raise awareness of a growing problem in country Australia.
"We want to let people all around Australia know what the pitfalls can be of trading with some, but not all, companies and trusts, and to make sure people are aware if KFT Investments does business in the bush again," he said.
Jeremy Matthews, director of Wj's farm machinery dealership, which is owned more than $4000, despises most the broader mistrust and broken promises that the saga has spawned.
"It's a shame because we deal with corporate farmers every day and we have never had a problem before," Mr Matthews said.
"But reputation is everything in agriculture and now these people have broken their word and left all these bad debts around Moree, Bengerang and the Kepper Family do not have that any more."
Read more on The Australian.