By Frank Noakes
PERTH — Farmers in Western Australia's wheat belt have formed the Rural Action Movement, with a perspective best summed up by Bindi Bindi farmer Stan Lewis: "Let us not be afraid of being militant: let us be afraid of not being militant".
RAM's actions so far include a 14-truck street blockade in Perth during morning peak hour, a 100-strong storming of the USA's Yaragadee tracking station and dumping of farm produce in protest against rising costs and falling returns.
These actions forced "farmer's daughter" Premier Carmen Lawrence, to promise to underwrite the state's wheat crop to the tune of $150 million.
Now RAM is turning its attention to the banks. Although we've not yet seen the large mobilisations of WA farmers that last took place in 1985, they may not be far away.
At the moment wheat and wool are the hardest hit, with diversified small farms scraping by while giant agribusiness corporations rake in record profits. In real terms, the price of wheat has fallen to Great Depression levels. Some other commodities have fared little better.
Australian farmers produce the world's cheapest wheat yet can't sell their produce because of underselling by the United States. Because the European Community subsidises farmers and erects tariff barriers, the US government subsidises its wheat to capture traditional Australian markets. Free enterprise and free competition? Meanwhile, millions around the world starve while the market is glutted by "overproduction".
Farmers striving to stay competitive have come to rely more and more heavily on agribusiness products, from new and more expensive chemicals to sophisticated machinery. This has led to growing indebtedness.
On the other hand, increased efficiency and bigger harvests lead to glutted markets and lower prices.
Combined with these structural problems are an international recession and high bank interest rates. Moreover, when the banks foreclose, farmers are forced to sell their properties on a depressed land market.
With the rural sector producing more than 30% of gross national product, the rural crisis has implications for the whole economy.
WA wheat farmers were not deceived when the US ambassador told them to blame good weather and the wharfies instead of the US for their plight.
The situation for many wool growers is not likely to improve quickly in view of an April 30 announcement from primary industries minister John Kerin that farmers should expect a sharp drop in income.
Nor can embattled farmers look to the opposition parties, as they broadly agree with Labor's strategy. Family farmers may well discover that the National Farmers Federation is no ally either.
The recent action by WA working farmers has been outside the control of and without reference to the NFF, perhaps even in opposition to it. Morawa farmer Tim Croot warned the NFF: "If you start to sound like Parliament House, then you are going to have problems with grassroots members". n