Year of the Farmer – reaffirmation or requiem?

Beef Central, 28/06/2012

In this opinion piece Roma, Qld, grain grower and cattle producer Charles Nason argues that if Governments are serious about protecting Australia's future food security, the time has come to address long-term declines in rural profitability.

The Year of the Farmer.

A stocktake?  A possible reaffirmation? Or a requiem?

Considering that a while ago (circa 1970’s) the prediction was made that, at the existing rate of attrition, the last farmer would leave about 2011 (and could he please turn off the lights as he went), the remaining farmers deserve some overdue recognition.

They have survived in a harsh economic and climatic environment and a very unlevel playing field.

Governments have continued to reduce support at all levels such as declining funding for RD&E and removal of marketing systems culminating in the loss of the AWB. This has exposed farmers to levels of risk unequalled anywhere else in the developed world.

The agricultural industry has compensated by achieving outstanding productivity gains which has allowed them to survive until now. This has been in partnership with dedicated but poorly recognised scientists who also deserve a few accolades and enabled Australia to lead the world in so many agricultural RD&E fields.

But has this resulted in corresponding increases in profitability? Rising rural debt suggests otherwise.

Our emphasis has been on productivity rather than profitability. If you are not profitable , you are not sustainable. Droughts and floods are usually blamed but all they do is  bring the underlying cause of poor profitability to the surface.

Agriculture now only contributes about 2pc to GDP whereas mining contributes about 18pc .

The right to mine seems to take precedence over the right to farm. Even the right or licence to farm suggests that the wider community does not recognise the importance of farmers and agriculture.

Surely the wider community should be encouraging the obligation or responsibility to farm, not asking  us to justify it (you can’t eat coal!).

Farming is often referred as a lifestyle. I would suggest that it is more a “calling” as farmers intuitively know the strategic importance of food production. Food security seems to be an issue everywhere in the world except Australia! We seem to be more interested in immediate gratification rather than long term survival.

Many farmers are quietly questioning whether this dedication has been appreciated let alone rewarded.

Some farmers may be doing well but based on indicators of ever increasing farm debt, sluggish rural land  sales, an aging workforce, a carbon tax, a high A$, the ascendancy of the importance of mining,  increasing food imports, declining share of the consumer dollar, the increasing incursion of overseas interests into the industry, a commitment to open and free markets by both major parties, the Society of Modest Members re-emerging, the encouragement of overseas investment and takeovers, and three major tomato growers going to the wall, many farmers must be struggling financially as well as feeling isolated, forgotten and neglected (a crisis of confidence?), as well as working in conditions most unionists would probably go on strike over.

To preserve farmers and maintain a useful agricultural industry we need to protect farmers so they can concentrate on the important role of food production. We also need to remember the other benefits they provide  – environmental , social and cultural (does the growing interest in  rural romance writers reflect this?).

Surely the Year of the Farmer should be a golden opportunity to take stock, thank our farmers, reflect on our past achievements, develop a vision and a plan for a sustainable future for the long term benefit of Australia

We are halfway through the year and I have seen no real effort to do any of this which suggests that the community is happy with the existing disturbing trends.

What is our future? An increasing savage selection process possibly resulting in a highly economically efficient industry but a small farming population with a barren social and cultural landscape or an industry dominated by overseas interests (who obviously understand the strategic importance of agriculture) with Australians in serfdom and no control?

Or preferably a diverse, profitable and thus resilient industry owned and controlled by Australian farmers producing Australian food for Australian people. Surely this would be a desirable outcome of the Year of the Farmer.

An LNP election promise to double agricultural production by 2040 seems questionable if the underlying foundations of that industry are under threat?

We need to question our existing farm policies and query whether they are really helping the agricultural sector and contributing to the long term sustainability of Australia.

We are currently selling dairy heifers to China – surely we should be selling the milk, not the cow?

Is it about time to pull our fingers out, not waste this opportunity and actively decide the role and future of farmers before others do it for us?



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