A short time ago I foreshadowed a post on the Government’s possible rescue package for farmers and farming communities suffering from drought. Since then the Prime Minister showed his power over the elements by bringing rain to the drought-stricken areas, reminding me of Bob Hawke’s similar demonstration of power shortly after he attained office in 1983, and broke the drought. We haven’t heard much more about drought in the last fortnight, but some aspects of what happened are worth reflecting on.
One is that the number of people working on the land has been declining for the past century and the decline continues every day. I drive a lot around rural Australia, and you can see the signs in the number of abandoned farm houses. It’s not that people are ‘deserting’ the land. Rather it is becoming more and more difficult to get a decent income from it without much more land and much more capital to begin with. A better-off neighbour will buy your land, but he won’t need your house — and no one is much interested in paying rent for it if you’re well out in the country. Australian farming (I’ll use that term to include all pastoral activity as well as agriculture) has been going through successive phases of aggregation and disaggregation since Europeans arrived more than 200 years ago.
The first part of the 19th century saw very large-scale holdings (250,000 acres, all leasehold) in New South Wales. After 1861 the process of closer settlement began, holdings diminished in size and the number of farmers increased greatly. But much closer settlement failed: the blocks were too small, it was just too hard to make a living, droughts and floods were as pronounced then as now, and the process of aggregation began again. It continued throughout the 20th century, and shows no sign of stopping. Around a third of the whole workforce was engaged in primary production at the beginning of the 20th century; it is a tiny proportion now.
More recently, there were 250,000 farmers in 1997/98, and 200,000 in 2010/11, only thirteen years later. That is a pretty substantial reduction. The family farm is being replaced by the agribusiness. Fine merino wool, for so long the mainstay of our prosperity, is much less important. Only a few graziers, well buttressed by the right land and reliable water, make a good living from it. Cattle have replaced sheep on much of the land. Wine production in export terms almost rivals the valuer of wheat. It is still true that primary production is important to us all — the great bulk of the food we eat has been grown in our country — but the numbers of people engaged in it just keep falling, in part because those who remain have become more efficient.
In that sense there is nothing very different between primary and secondary industry. The efficient ones survive and prosper, while the others go to the wall. Technology benefits some who can understand and acquire it, while others wonder and fall behind. There is nothing very different in what happens to industrial communities like Newcastle, Wollongong or Geelong, when major companies fail, or pull out, and what happens in country towns as the number of primary producers, and their families, fall. Shops close, real estate declines in value, banks leave, other businesses move to a more promising location, and so on.
I spent my first ten years as a researcher studying farmers and their politics, and I see what has happened with a lot of sadness. But it’s not anyone’s ‘fault’, and — I turn to ‘climate change’ — it’s not because of a ‘natural disaster’ in drought, the term Mr Abbott used to justify his rescue package. Droughts, floods and fires (and grasshoppers, and other unpleasant facets of country life) are recurring events in Australia, and the ‘drought’ that he was speaking of is of tiny consequence compared to the Federation drought and those of the Second World War and the Millennium. Wise farmers prepare for them as they can, by building dams, storing water, being light on their feet in moving and disposing of stock. Some are always in trouble because they owe too much to the bank, have to hold on to their stock, sell at the worst possible moment, and go to the wall. When I see the video footage of ‘drought-ravaged country I wonder how the farmer being interviewed got to his current predicament.
The point is that farming is always uncertain. You can have good years, a few great years, some poor years and some disaster years. You have to prepare for them. Farmers are always in a contest against Nature. It is worth remembering that even during the Millennium drought agricultural production remained high, mostly because the efficient farmers acted sensibly.
Yes, I know that the National Party has to show that it has some clout in Cabinet, but I would also be glad if Mr Abbott and his Ministers were more consistent in their approach to requests for help. The dry spell was in no sense a natural disaster. Dry spells occurred in the past and they will recur in the future. More effort ought to go into showing farmers how best to adapt and, if they can’t, then how to sell out to best advantage.