Australian farming is in crisis.
Family farmers are being taken over by corporate agribusinesses, their land is being polluted by mining companies and they are powerless to stop and the supermarket duopoly of Coles and Woolworths which keeps prices low for consumers by paying producers prices so low they barely cover costs.
At the same time there is increasing speculation in buying water rights. Farming cannot survive without clean water. The most reliable source of water is artesian, which the mining industry can draw from unregulated and pollute at will.
Meanwhile banks are foreclosing on drought-struck farmers so they can sell the still viable farms to corporations, both domestic and foreign.
Farmers cannot win this battle against the corporations without allies. Australia is one of the most urbanised countries on Earth. Almost 90% of Australians live in urban areas. We have some of the cleanest, most regulated food production in the world. If you want to protect that quality, it is time to support and protect our farmers.
Farmers need support
Too many urban Australians believe that farmers are the sole cause of land clearing and do not see the concrete and lawn sprawl of suburbia covering the best farmland in Australia like a creeping disease. Sadly, retiring farmers have few choices if they want a decent amount to retire on but to sell their land to developers to subdivide, or to foreign or domestic corporations.
We need a Land Trust, sponsored by the government, to buy fertile farmland at a decent price, so farmers can retire in comfort and keep it for farming by young farmers and co-operatives to supply the present and future domestic food needs. If cities and towns need to expand, spread up or down, not outwards like giant cancers.
Many politicians come from these land developers or from lawyers paid by corporations, and until we put in principled people with real life and show we won't shut up until we get specific changes, and that we will recall them if they break their promises, we cannot expect anyone's interests to be protected except those of the super-wealthy who give the big donations.
What is needed is a manifesto of constructive solutions that can be taken to every candidate, whether independent or in a party, to get a commitment of support for those policies, with an accountability clause to allow a recall vote by constituents if they break their commitments.
Farmers are environmentalists. They farm for their children, not for the quick buck. Farmers and agricultural businesses, according to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics figures (2009-10), manage 52% of the Australian environment. If they do not manage it sustainably they go broke very fast.
They are on call 24/7, generally have to rescue themselves in disasters and may make a profit but seldom make a wage. It costs a lot more to live in the bush and internet, phone and school services urban people take for granted are not available. Health services are far away.
There are about 134,000 farm businesses in Australia, 99% of which are family owned and operated, and as of 2010-11 they employ only 307,000 people to manage 417.3 million hectares of land, including the 46.3% of Australia that is marginal land. Marginal land is where poor quality vegetation and bushfire fuel is converted by livestock into high quality human-edible protein.
A 2013-14 White Paper showed that agriculture contributed $51 billion (2% of GDP) and accounted for 15% of our merchandise exports. More than half the continent is under agriculture.
Yet a 2011 Bureau of Statistics study shows 40% of Australian farms earn below $50,000 per annum. In a recent survey of 93 family farms, 48% were living on additional wages drawn from outside of the farm, 12% had ceased operation due to low farm gate prices and 35% were considering leaving the farming industry due to low farm gate prices.
The dairy industry is in complete crisis. One of Australia's largest processors, Murray Goulburn, just announced massive payment cuts to their dairy farmers. The other major processor Fonterra has followed suit.
As part of their election campaign, the National Party has offered dairy farmers hit by the cuts concessional loans of up to $1 million.
Agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce said $55 million would be available in loans to dairy farmers this year, with $500 million available over 2016-17 and 2017-18. No doubt farmers will apply for the loans but they will eventually have to be repaid and will add to farmers' debt burden.
Milk costs a dairy farmer about 42 cents a litre to produce. These cuts mean dairy farmers can expect to be paid 14c a litre from the processor, leaving them 28c a litre out of pocket. Add to this the stress of little or no rain means farmers have to buy additional feed supplements for animals normally on pasture.
Milk price cuts do not just affect the dairy farmers either. In the prime dairy region of Gannawarra in western Victoria the economic fallout from the milk price cut could cost up to $25 million in milk payments locally and potentially wipe out 250 jobs in the region. Other regions think the fallout could be even worse.
"Get big or get out" has been a refrain of the dairy industry since its deregulation 30 years ago, when farmers had to consolidate and gain economies of scale to survive. In 1983, there were 20,060 dairy farms with an average herd size of 90; in 2014, there were 6314 with an average herd of 268 cows.
In Victoria, total cow numbers remained the same between 1980 and 2010, but milk production doubled. Only about 3% of farms are corporate, according to Dairy Australia, with most being family-operated small or medium-sized businesses. These family farms are still run on mainly rain-fed pasture.
During the same period, many dairy farms overseas have been switching to factory farming, getting bigger and more intensive. Almarai in Saudi Arabia has a facility housing a herd of 67,000. In the United States, Fair Oaks Farm has 37,000 cows milked 800 at a time, 23 hours a day.
Housing cows in a shed where they are milked voluntarily and food is brought to them conserves their energy for milk production — none is "wasted" on staying cool or warm, grazing or walking to the dairy. As a result of this and an optimised diet, some cows are milked five times a day and annual output can top 12,000 litres, compared with a grazed dairy cow average of 6000 litres.
Large herds and factory farming are a rarity in Australia. But in the past two years there has been a flurry of investment in factory farming in the $13 billion dairy sector from wealthy entrepreneurs and corporate investors, including mining magnate Gina Rinehart and retailer Gerry Harvey.
During the mining boom, the government pushed farmers to get big or get out, to go into debt to buy more land and machinery and use herbicides and pesticides instead of labourers.
Now we have a perfect storm of farm debt of more than $17 billion (as of 2011), increasing climate disasters and corporations keen to bring in American Big Ag-GM crops and methods, like spraying glyphosate on grain prior to harvest, to speed up the harvest.
But there are alternatives.
A Land Army. A farm labour force paid award wages, transported and insured by the federal government.
This would reduce unemployment, supply farm labour to farmers desperate for it and bring a crucial injection of wages for those labourers to spend in rural communities, which then translates into more taxes and income for the government and keeps rural services like schools and hospitals open. It would also equip people with skills and experience.
Farmer-owned rural cooperatives. We need to encourage their establishment in areas such as purchasing inputs and marketing produce. These bodies have an impressive history in rural Australia.
A national milk pool to establish a floor price. All milk would be sold through the pool and processors would bid for milk with a fair minimum price. It would be based on a farmer-owned cooperative where each supplier only has one share and one vote.
Government investment in processing and infrastructure upgrades. This would be for national food security, instead of encouraging sell-offs of farms, ports and railways to multinational corporations who are major competitors to our industries. No signing of free trade agreements that put our quarantine protections and clean food production at risk.
Farmers markets and direct-farm ordering. This would allow producers to receive more than 80% of the price of produce compared to the 15%-25% that most supermarkets offer.