The poverty of farming in the Tweed
A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate, on 10th December 2011
Last time I introduced Tweed mango grower Mike Yarrow, whom I met recently while in Murwillumbah as part of a team working with the Tweed Council to prepare a strategy for sustainable agriculture.
Mike would like this process to be a success, but he believes that it’s ’30 or 40 years too late’, at least in the case of him and his wife; and other farmers of their vintage (Mike is 67), which is the vast majority of farmers in the region.
Your problem as I see it”, he told us, “is that we, the farmers, have reached the end of our working lives. There are no new young farmers.
The aging of the farming population is an issue that affects the country as a whole. By far the largest category of farmers in Australia is in the 65+ age bracket. In this as in other aspects of food policy, the Federal Government has made the complacent assumption that there is really nothing to worry about, and that what objectively appears to be a demographic crisis will simply correct itself over time. Projections issued after the Australia 2020 Summit in 2008 saw the age of the average Australian farmer peaking in 2011 at just under 55 years, and then gradually declining past 2030.
Yet no convincing explanation was given as to where the next generation of Australian farmers would come from. On the contrary, all the indications are that the decades-long trend of an aging rural workforce is likely to continue. According to Mike Yarrow, the heart of the issue lies in what he calls ‘the deliberately destroyed profitability’ of farmers.
In Mike’s view, successive Federal Governments wanted ‘to keep the lid on industrial unrest by keeping the gap between a worker’s income and the cost of living apart’. He recalls that when he and his wife arrived in Australia in 1974, petrol was 7 cents a litre, and the minimum wage was $1 an hour. Both have since risen about 20-fold, in line with general cost of living increases. A box of fruit, on the other hand, was $10 in 1974 – and hasn’t gone up much.
You could take issue with Mike; dismiss him as a conspiracy theorist; say that the Government has never intended to screw farmers; that it’s simply a case of the way the markets (and supermarkets) operate. But that’s exactly his point.
By de-regulating rural industries, opening Australia to cheaper imported produce, and generally ‘letting market forces rip’, the market has done what it always does. It’s a competitive system, and it produces winners and losers. In this case, the losers happen to be the majority of Australia’s farmers, and the big winners have been Australia’s two major supermarkets, whose market share has more than doubled since the mid-1970s.
You could argue that in delivering ‘cheap food’ for shoppers, the Australian public as a whole have also ‘won’ in this process. Yet as five farmers continue to leave the land every day, and very few are stepping into their shoes, the question remains: who is going to produce our food for the rest of this century, and beyond? Agriculture may be less than 3% of Australia’s GDP, but to understand its significance only through an economist’s eyes is unbelievably naïve and short-sighted.
At a deeper level, Mike is quite right. The market system – capitalism – has always depended on ‘cheap food’, in one form or another, to drive its major cycles of expansion. In the Industrial Revolution, it was sugar from the slave plantations of the Caribbean. Last century, it was the mountains of corn made possible by hybrid seeds, agro-chemicals and cheap oil. This century they tell us agricultural productivity will be driven by ‘environmentally-benign’ GM technologies. Meanwhile, food prices are starting to rise, and food riots are becoming more common. Food is too important to take for granted, and so are farmers. We need to be asking some hard questions.