Last week Agforce held the first of its regional forums at Roma and the Queensland Agricultural Minister (The Honourable John McVeigh MP) released his State of Queensland agricultural report in Brisbane.
I found it hard to correlate the stories presented with the grass roots situation as I see it.
Comments such as “the golden age of agriculture”, “the key markets are off shore”, “we export 75pc of our production” display a disconnect with reality. However one speaker did say “the value chain is not adding value in agriculture” and “Aussie farm gate prices are the lowest in the world”.
Ben Cameron outlined the chilly financial situation of the beef industry at the Roma forum which would probably also be typical of most other agricultural industries. He said “it will not go away” and must be addressed.
Why have the financial institutions not released figures to do the 2013 QRAA report? It is difficult to understand and thus manage a situation where there is insufficient up to date data.
With record low beef prices and an ongoing drought, the situation can only be worsening. Concerning anecdotal retail figures suggest it has. Yet Greg Leahy of Suncorp dismissed “the so called rural debt crisis” and said that we export 75pc of our production and could feed 200 million people.
The Honourable Jeff Seeney MP made the comment at Roma “that Governments are not good at running R&D programs”. Yet the outstanding Kalei apple story (a 30 year project) was told in Brisbane . This is an outstanding example of a long term government R&D project which a private investor would not do. This is what QDAFF used to do so well , and still could.
The Agforce forum suggested the use of Filipino labour and Brisbane commented on the dependence of the fruit industry on 417 visas. At the same time Australia is experiencing high youth unemployment. There is a paradox of a dependence on 457 and 417 visas, Filipino workers, the labour shortage in the bush and high youth unemployment. The theory of free trade says that we use people displaced from menial jobs in more remunerative jobs, all I see is them unemployed! Surely the pursuit of Robotics is also adding to this disconnect.
One speaker said the aim is to remove trade barriers but surely we need to understand why countries put these barriers in place initially ?
The Brisbane forum clearly stated the strategy was to double agricultural production . Yet the only product which we are clearly doubling production is in the roo population and this did not get a mention, and it is clearly impacting negatively on production in my area.
The emphasis in both forums was the export market (“the aim is to supply the middle class of Asia”) yet the Customs House Agreement clearly suggests that we only export about 25pc of our food production. (And these figures are 20 years old) Is our policy mix aimed in the wrong direction? With a growing population, we should be focussing on our domestic market and the viability of our food sector if we wish to feed ourselves in the future. Yet the unfounded but enduring dangerous myth of 75pc of food being exported prevails. Are we are in danger of grossly underestimating and ignoring the important and paramount domestic market? It was said we are a net importer of animal protein. Other people have said too much of our processed food is imported.
The reality is that if there is no profit , there will be no investment and producers will go into a holding mode further constrained by a drought.
Both these important initiatives need to be continued and pathways for doubling agricultural production, if feasible , developed.
I would suggest producers are gun shy as they have heard these messages before and paralleled with low confidence, it will take some dramatic and reliable price signals to convince them to even think about increasing production.
Surely the role of good government is to lead, not to let the market sort it out especially when it is not to our benefit, yet The Honourable McVeigh said “governments will support but not intervene”