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Working the land - or not

Working the land – or not
by Jenny Hume

This piece highlights some of the issues that many farmers face in the traditional wheat sheep belt of the western and northern plains of NSW in terms of preserving the natural environment and biodiversity while at the same time maintaining economic viability. It does not address the broader issue of crop production for the intensive livestock industries, as opposed to cropping for export to the world food market. Nor does it address the touchy issue of cropping for biofuel production.

You can do two things with land in the grain belt. You can work it and try and make it work for you or, rather, your bank balance. Or you can give it a break, let the place go back to grass, put livestock on it, and forget about the bank balance. Few families have the luxury of that choice. Only off farm income from 30 years of professional life give us that luxury.

Being the owners of a couple of thousand acres, around 900 hectares, of some of the best cropping country in NSW, we have nonetheless wrestled with those two options for the past seventeen years. It is valuable land and continues to rise in value each year. But its value lies in its cropping potential, not in its capacity to carry livestock. For cropping purposes it is worth $1 500 a hectare; for livestock production, less than a third of that.

We know that land can produce good crops. Five tonnes a hectare of prime hard wheat off just 80 of the 900 hectares put a net $25 000 in the bank in 1997, and that was after the share cropper had taken his 80% cut. So the return on that small part of the property from wheat was close to $100 000. He had the expensive gear; we had the land that needed cleaning up. It was a good arrangement for both parties. The land had been cropped out by the bankrupted previous owner and was just a bed of valueless weeds so it had little grazing value. Cropping was the first option if one was to get any return off it at all.

On top of the grain return we then had the benefit of five years of good grazing on those 80 hectares, having under sown the wheat with dry land lucerne. But after about five years on the plains the lucerne dies out, the weeds take over once more, and one is back to square one.

Cropping the land locks one into more cropping. So we continued to crop for the first decade or so, but then gradually took the land out of cropping. The cost of getting out of cropping is far more expensive than getting in. So the incentive to keep cropping, even though the season may look uncertain, is strong if one wants to improve the bank balance. It promises a much higher return. But it has its downside.

Cropping depletes the soils, thus requiring larger and larger expensive fertilizer input over the longer term. For moisture conservation during the fallowing period, more and more herbicides are needed to deal with the increasing resistance of weeds to Roundup, the broad spectrum herbicide most widely used in the cropping belt. But more importantly, it destroys the natural grasses, and once destroyed they take ten years to re-establish. It also wipes out the native insects, reptiles and birdlife. Croppers don’t like trees in the way of the big machines, so where they can get away with it they push them over and burn them. They can do this even under current clearing restrictions. So a monoculture of both flora and fauna is created and we are surrounded by thousands upon thousands of hectares of it.

During the ten years of recovery the grazing capacity of the land is greatly diminished. Lucerne is a good nitrogen fixer and can be under sown in the last crop cycle, but it is a nightmare to manage in terms of cattle safety, especially if the wind is blowing in cold and moist from the east. So no cattle producer wants a property covered in lucerne (or other legumes) and nothing else. There is nothing more upsetting than finding a paddock littered with the carcasses of dead cattle and it can happen very easily. Large numbers of cattle have been lost on western and northern properties, especially after heavy winter rains following droughts. Droughts reduce all grass cover allowing the explosion of native medics, barley grass and black oats – all dynamite to cattle when lush and green in the early spring period. But lucerne (known in the US as alfalfa) is the most dangerous of all. Pulpy kidney, bloat and grass tetany are the biggest risk factors, even though one may take various precautions to reduce those risks. But they cannot be eliminated, far from it. So one lives in a constant state of anxiety until the danger passes as the grass hardens up.

If one wants to quit cropping then one has to be prepared to take a substantial income cut over many years. We were told by locals that native grasses on the plains will return over a period of ten years once cropping has ceased, and we found that to be true. First a few plants, then the next year a few more will appear. Then finally a property covered in a beautiful mix of native pastures that have much more drought resistance than the introduced pastures, with the exception of the introduced digit grasses which are deep rooted perennials and extremely tough once established.

One can cultivate to sow resilient perennial native and introduced pastures, such as buffel grass, consol love grass, the panics, purple pigeon grass, Rhodes grass, and the digit grasses but to be successful most require the same preparation of the land as for grain growing, The seed is scarce and prohibitive in cost, and once sown can take up to three years to establish, during which time livestock largely have to be kept off the paddocks. If sown too deep, it will never germinate. Many sow onto the surface to reduce that risk, but ants can then harvest much of the seed before it gets to germinate. It is quite a balancing act. But few farmers can afford to wait even the three years for the sown pastures to establish, and certainly cannot afford to sit and wait ten years for native pastures to return of their own accord. And even if they do they are then faced with a return on the land of only a third of what was possible under a cropping regime.

Confronted with the two realities, most elect to lock into cropping, but with the recent long run of poor seasons and low returns many family farmers have lost heavily and have then simply sold up and left the grain belt. The ageing population and loss of the next generation to lucrative city careers has added to the incentive to sell. Even if they did have the capacity to establish pastures again and quit cropping, much greater capitalization in land assets would be required to support a family due to that lower per hectare return. Few have the resources to substantially increase farm size without substantial additional debt. So the population drift from the sheep wheat belts of NSW and Victoria is the largest of any areas in the country. No better example can be found than down our own road where ten years ago five families lived along 20 kilometres. All have now gone and the homesteads are abandoned. Absentee landlords have bought up much of the land at quite high prices.

This often results in the selling of all livestock (goodbye to the traditional wheat-sheep combination), all the subdividing fences being pulled up, water points removed, the remaining trees being pushed down, and boundary to boundary cropping carried out. Even surface dams are filled in and cropped over.

And of course the little towns start to die. After seventeen years our main street is now a street of closed and deteriorating buildings with only the post office/transaction centre, two shops and a café remaining open.

So if one hangs in, is it financially worth the wait for the native grasses to return or introduced pastures to establish? The answer to that is no. The gross return on our 900 hectares through livestock is now less than $30 000 a year. Without drought it would have been around $60 000 a year. Still far short of what a family would need as well as maintain the property and pay fixed costs. An additional 1 500 hectares would be required to come even close, and then one would have to pay cropping country price for that additional land. Over capitalization with a vengeance. And the additional area would require a full time employee, something very hard to find in the bush these days.

With our 900 hectares worth around $1.4 million to a cropper, you don’t have to be an accountant to see that grazing return provides an almost nil return to capital. We elected to return the land to grazing country simply because we could afford to and to preserve diversity. But it did not make economic sense.

We planted up to 8 000 native trees and native saltbush over a ten year period in banks around the various paddocks, and the property is now covered in native and introduced pastures. Wildlife abounds in a variety of reptiles, birds, insects and amphibians and with extensive populations of echidna, emus and marsupials. Surface water storage was developed, starting from almost nil 17 years ago to 24,000 cubic metres, with articulated bore water through 25 kilometres of underground pipe and six storage tanks. Paddocks were subdivided to allow rotational grazing to conserve pastures. Regeneration of trees in open cleared paddocks was encouraged by guarding of individual young trees from stock.

But clearly the property’s value lies in its cropping potential. We know that the day we leave, the big tractors will move in and that will be that. A monoculture will be created once more, and when they leave the flora and fauna diversity will be lost, possibly forever.

So the environment out on the western plains does not stand much of a chance given the economic forces working against it. With the escalating grain prices and world food shortages, properties like ours will continue to be swallowed up by Big Agribusiness.

It may sit well with the national bank balance, but it does not sit too well with the environment, or with the soul.

The photos are taken on our spread on the plains. They show what that country can do, both in terms of crops and of livestock.


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James Sinnamon:  "...we are going to have to live less materially prosperous lives"

cf Irwin Stelzer, the usually upbeat economic commentator on the rightist The Weekly Standard

"We are witnessing a massive transfer of wealth from American consumers to oil producers.  My own guess  is that the emergence of richer Chinese and Indians....will mean a gradual decline in American and Western living standards."

So, can we adapt and make the most of it?

James Sinnamon:  "...many absurdly wasteful practices of our throwaway society."

That struck a pertinent chord here - speaking to a woman who runs a "chef's toolbox" party plan.  The roasting dish I might like to buy, and for which I would be prepared to spend, say, $20 at the outside, can be bought through the chef's toolbox at a cost of $299.

Anyone silly to pay such, to my mind is due for a rather harsh reality slug.

Oranges here at the independent greengrocer - 40c a kilo.  In Woolworths, $2 a kilo.

Consumer items also underpriced

Thanks, F Kendall, I think as well as consumer items being overpriced, it seems likely to me, many are also underpriced. This is because the use of non-renewable resources and destruction of the natural environment is not fully reflected in the prices we pay. On top of that, wages paid to the workers who make most of our consumer items are pitiful. So I fear that many of those handy plastic gadgets, often costing well under ten dollars, won't be anywhere near as cheap a few years from now.

Using the Internet to get up to speed on GM food

Thanks Fiona, I am glad to know that the links were appreciated. Here's another for an article, which, whilst slightly tangential to this discussion, I found useful and informative:

Using the Internet to get yourself up to speed on the half-truths of the GM crop and food lobby of 29 Jun 08 by Yuki Otoko.

(I now remember you once before told me not to put internal links in my posts. I will desist in future, although I don't completely understand the reason for the policy. Internal links make documents more useful IMHO.)

Scott: Had security problems with that link James.

Fiona (later): Thanks James, problem fixed.

Can any livelihood other than farming be made sustainable?

This article raises the vexing question of how we are to live sustainably off the land in the longer term. If incomes to be earned from sustainable farming are low in comparison to those to be earned by working in the city or in mines, then we still need to consider whether those economic activities are sustainable either.

Clearly in the case of mining they are not, as I argued earlier. Is it any wonder that farmers, who are ultimately attempting to turn the comparative trickle of energy obtained from the sun into wealth, cannot offer wages competitive with those on offer from industries which are, in large part, simply plundering energy accumulated over at least tens of millions of years by biological and geological processes? If other city-based economic activities were also placed under the microscope, we would invariably find that they are also ultimately based upon the destruction of our finite capital.

So agriculture has been placed at an extremely unfair disadvantage compared with other economic activities. To expect it to compete with those other activities under these circumstances would guarantee the destruction of our soil and our future impoverishment. As David R. Montgomery's Dirt - the Erosion of Civilisations (2007) shows, this is far from being a theoretical question.

If we are to establish an economy which is to be sustainable in the longer term, we are going to have to face the fact that many of us may find unpalatable, that is, many of us, whether we live on the land or in cities, are going to have to live far less materially prosperous lives than we are at the moment. Even if we eliminate many absurdly wasteful practices of our throw-away society, and even if remove the extreme inequalities in distribution of incomes, we may still find ourselves without the same access to all the convenient gadgets and comforts to which we are now accustomed. We are going to have to get used the idea that we won't all be able to travel by air to the other side of the world every year or across the continent every two months or so, or be able to buy every gizmo we desire almost at will only to throw them away a mere 12 months later.

Of course one first and necessary step will be to remove the often crippling burden placed upon on farms by the finance sector, which, in turn, drives farmers to ruin their land. As I mentioned earlier, one means towards achieving this would be to re-establish a Peoples' (i.e. Commonwealth) Bank.

On top of that, the rest of us should consider paying more for food in order to allow farmers to be able to both earn a decent income and properly look after the land. It would also help if were to change the grossly inefficient industrialised food processing and distribution system (the US version of which is described lucidly in the US by Christopher Cook's Diet for A Dead Planet (see YouTube broadcast). Breaking the Coles Woolworths duopoly would help. Similar to the re-establishment of a Peoples' Bank, why not establish a publicly owned supermarket company that only has to meet its operating expenses and not pay inflated returns to its shareholders, company directors and CEO's? Local cooperative producers' markets could complement the aforementioned Peoples' Supermarket to allow as much food as possible to be consumed locally.

Local food distribution and consumption would reduce transport, storage and packaging costs which can only continue to climb from now on and to make easier the recycling of all nutrients. The alternative of continuing to mine nutrients from the soil and dump most of them in landfill hundreds of kilometres away cannot be sustainable. The fertilisers which currently used to partially replace lost nutrients are either finite resources or are manufactured unsustainably using finite and limited fossil fuels. Moreover their use, in conjunction with pesticides, tends make soil sterile and lifeless as Jenny Hume is, no doubt, aware.

Some links which may be of interest include: Last gasp for single desk marketing of Australian wheat of 17 Jun 08, Peak oil prices cause South Australian Farmers to call for 'fair market forces' of 10 Jun 08, Orwellian Waterworks: big-agribusiness and Victorian Gov of 27 May 08, A 10,000 year misunderstanding of 1 May 08 by Canadian soil microbiologist Peter Salonius, I will govern for all Victorians (caveat: but only if you are powerful and connected) of 26 Jun 08.

Fiona: Thank you for your links, James. They are interesting indeed. Please note, however, that you do not need to link to your earlier comments on this thread. Of course, if you need to reference yourself on another thread, the name of that thread with its overall link is sufficient.

You know that day has come

James, thank you for your interesting links and comments, and also John and F Kendall and others for your input here.

Regarding the labour shortage, John, as machines get bigger, fences are removed and sheep are no longer part of large areas of the wheat belt, the demand for labour in that belt has declined. The labour intensiveness has gone. For skilled labour such as tractor and header drivers, you will now find people from as far away as Denmark meeting the demand.

We could use unskilled labour on our place and there is quite a pool of unemployed people in the local town but I will not go into the issues as to why they are no longer employed on farms.

Importing Islander casual workers is mainly intended to meet the demand of seasonal industries such as the fruit growing industry.

F Kendall is right. You can't make it rain and that has been a major issue in the decline of the family farm in recent years. But not only that. Returns on farm do not reflect the cost of production. Farmers cannot pass on increased costs and are forced by middle men to carry an unfair burden of their increased costs. For instance, a butcher buying cattle in the saleyard will pay less for a beast as his cost of transporting it to the meatworks increases under escalating fuel prices, now over $2 for diesel in the bush.  

Similarly, increased costs of farm inputs such as fertilizer are simply passed down to the end of the line where waits the farmer. Fertilizer and herbicide costs have increased by two thirds in the past three years, way above the inflation rate.  Yet the farmer is at the mercy of the market when he comes to sell, and buyer collusion, dealing and carteling in livestock saleyards is not unknown, though proving it is another matter.

But you are right, James.  Big business is good at ripping money out of the soil. Caring for the soil so that it can produce in the longer term is another matter. But not for all. There are big and successful farming operations which do value and care for the land asset. But what most family farmers bring to the land is a real love for the land, and if you love something you do take pride in it and do try to look after it.  

Most of the environmental work in the area where we live has been carried out by dedicated family farmers. You do not see the big absentee landlords on their knees in the dirt planting any trees.  That really saddens me, but I hope that the thousands upon thousands of trees that we and our now departed neighbours planted will be left alone and will stand as a testament to a generation that laboured mightily to try and preserve some biodiversity.

For me, my farming days are drawing toward their end, which will end 200 years of association of our family with the land in this country. I have grown tired of a lifetime of struggling to make ends meet from tilling the soil, and no longer need to do it.  There comes a time when you have to call it a day.  As our departed neighbour said, once you lose the fire in the belly, you know that day has come.

Over and out from this thread. Cheers to you all.  

Always thus

Was it not always thus on the land, Jenny Hume?

Didn't you buy from someone gone bust before the big drought?

Isn't that what one reads, through laughter and tears, in Steele Rudd?

Isn't that what JK Conway writes of in The road to Coorain?

Never mind:  big business can control much, but not rainfall.  If the climate does not support their business, then broad acre will fail.

Number crunching in fantasy land

David R says:

"I'm pretty sure you don't have to import people before you train or reskill them - you can start with the ones you've got whose jobs will be priced out of existence by the price of carbon ... "

Well, you're going to have to sack them, re-hire and then re-train them at the rate of 428, 571 per year, or 8,241 per week from now untill 2015.

And Australia's current total workforce is only 10 million. So, you'll have to sack 30 per cent of them first.

So, where are you going to re-train them? At the local TAFE?

Better get rid of the students already in there, then. And maybe build a few thousand more TAFES.




Most of the training will be done on the job.

Eliot, have you heard of "on the job"training? There is no need to sack anyone.

People are retraining all the time it is part of modern life.

No great problem, just more of the same.

How many people to you think have retrained in the last 70 years or so?

Not so many bullock team drivers or ice block delivery men these days. 

I learnt Morse code when I joined the Navy, not much call for Morse code operators either.

Believe it or not we live in a world of constant change. 

Forty acres and a mule

James Sinnamon says:

"The shortsighted suggestion that we import ever more people to fix the current rural labor shortages should not go unchallenged."

Oh, that's nothing. A CSIRO report predicts a carbon emissions trading scheme will require three million workers to be trained or re-skilled by 2015.

David R: I'm pretty sure you don't have to import people before you train or reskill them - you can start with the ones you've got whose jobs will be priced out of existence by the price of carbon ... 

And the construction industry wants another 130 million.

Which is understandable, given the effect that population growth has on housing prices and rents.

So, once the skiils shortage is over, even though immigration adds to the skills shortage, which is why the government is boosting it another 30 per cent to record levels, we'll be able to create a peasant class of small famers.

Like in Bangladesh or Bolivia. And fix soil degradation.

Large scale farming will inevitably destroy the land

Sorry to have appeared to have ignored your article, Jenny. Looks most intersting. Will read it more carefully later.

 If our economic system forces small farmers to sell out to big agribusiness, then that system has to be changed. A good start would be to re-establish people's bank (i.e the original Commonwealth Bank) so that we could have a bank whose purpose to help farmers rather than bleed them dry.

 I am close to the end of David R Montgomery's lucid Dirt - the Erosion of Civilisations (2007) 247 pages. It leaves me in no doubt that large scale mechanisation and the swallowing up of small farms by larger farms is a sure-fire way to utterly ruin the soil. It's been tried again and again, since Roman times, and probably before, and every time it has led to the destruction of soil's fertility and/or erosion leading to a crash in population. (More later)

Shortsighted suggestion

The shortsighted suggestion that we import ever more people to fix the current rural labor shortages should not go unchallenged. Mark O'Connor hit the mark when he wrote:

Tonight’s Insight program< on SBS (June 17, 2008) – “Is Australia running out of workers” was very interesting about how we are now digging up and shipping out our minerals so fast, and so profitably, that other employers can’t compete with the wages paid by the mining companies. Employers are desperate for staff, but with unemployment currently low they can’t get workers at the wages, or the wages and conditions, they are able or willing to pay.

We are now so greedy that we want to ship abroad our mineral patrimony even faster than our existing workforce, with all the mechanical aids and vast machines now available, ­can manage. So the solution proposed by short-sighted business councils and some economists is to bring in ever more people to make up the shortfall in labor.

The result is of course that the extra workers will rapidly swell the population of Australia, so that the average Australian will own a steadily decreasing share of our mineral riches, which are themselves steadily decreasing. The future will be one of an unsustainable population in an impoverished continent – in a world beset by fuel shortages, climate change, and famines. And all for the short-term benefit of mining companies and those whose fortunes depend on a rising stock market.

Guest workers the answer to the shortage of farm workers.

Rural Australia, still reeling from the long drought, is heading into a new crisis just as weather conditions start to improve: a shortage of farm workers.

Having shed thousands of employees during the drought, farm owners now cannot find enough people to help them capitalise on better times.

The National Farmers' Federation says the crisis is already hitting farm production, hurting regional economies and cutting Australia's economic growth.

As Australian farmers struggle to find labour for their farms we should give serious thought to the abundance of labour available in our neighboring countries. I am sure if we allowed more guest workers into Australia to alleviate our labour problems we would also be able to reduce the amount of money we spend on foreign aid. If we change to more intensive farming practices we will need more labour.

The Australian Government is considering a scheme to bring out Pacific Islanders as guest workers. There are many issues to be resolved: social cohesion, the impact on Australia's labour market and the effect it will have on the Islanders too - loneliness, isolation, financial management. A healthy debate and proper policy design are essential.

But let's go back to the numbers: all the money we will ever give to poor, small, remote Pacific Islands will never equal what the islanders themselves will contribute from hard, honest work. At the moment, remittances comprise 39 per cent of GDP for Tonga, 36 per cent for Tuvalu and 14 per cent for Samoa.

It's not just money; international experience shows people who move abroad become agents of change, demanding more from their home country's governments.

We could help our neighbors in the Pacific as well as East Timor.

The original sin of unrestrained growth

Jenny, it's hard for a city dweller to really understand the problems of the farmer. I can only try to empathisee with the plight of modern day agriculture.

John Feffer had an interesting point of view recently in the Asia Times.

In the long run, the only realistic response is a comprehensive program to address, in tandem, the triple crises of energy, climate and land and water resource exhaustion. If policymakers take into consideration only one, or even two, of the components of this trinity, they may well end up doing more harm than good. The making of biofuels from corn, for instance, was an attempt to address the problems of the cost of energy and the dangers of climate change, but it neglected to consider the effect on agricultural production - hence, the disastrously soaring price of corn. Calls for the next phase of a Green Revolution, which address agricultural production, are guaranteed to play havoc with the energy and water crises.

Such partial approaches don't work largely because they assume unlimited resources. The original sin of unrestrained growth can be found in the economic theologies of both communism and capitalism. In these systems, neither the state nor the market has ever operated according to ecological principles. Now, we must quickly explore ways of boosting agricultural production in fundamentally sustainable ways without, somehow, expanding our carbon footprint.

Certainly organic farming will play a role here. Although Green Revolution guru Norman Borlaug has dismissed organic agriculture as incapable of feeding the world, an important new study published by Cambridge University Press shows that organic systems in developing countries can produce 80% more than conventional farms.

It seems that a revolution is needed in agriculture. Organic agriculture may be the way to make smaller farms more productive. As an observer I can only wish you and Ian well.

Thanks Jen and Ian

I feel like crying, Jenny.

The future appears grim for farmers and the environment.

Thank you for your thought provoking piece.And thanks also to you and Ian for doing your bit for the environment.

Lead balloons

Well, some threads sink like lead balloons, while others take off into the stratosphere, never to know a landing. C'est la vie.

Meanwhile I see all the dividing fencing being ripped out on our recently departed (and last) neighbour's 4000 acres, and the big tractors and spray rigs have moved in.

Soon we will have the vision splendid of another yellow plain extended - with not a roo, bird, reptile or insect left to mourn. 

Oh well, I guess all this is too far away for those in the big smoke to notice, let alone worry about.  

Over and off to the big smoke myself. 

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