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Opening address

Dennis E Toohey CPAg

President AAAC
2001-2003

Some observations on trends in rural Australia

Neil Barr, Department of Natural Resources and Environment Victoria, writing in Connections in May of this year, likens the modern farmer as one engaged in a continuing prisoner’s dilemma game called innovation. “If all farmers refused to improve their farming productivity and no-one else wanted to start a farm, there would be no pressure on their terms of trade. But few farmers can afford to sit still if their competitors are improving their productivity”.

Farm numbers are declining at around 1.5 per cent a year. Crase and Maybery from La Trobe University at Wodonga in reporting upon a 2001 survey of farmers in the NSW Murray Catchment found that the Catchment’s farmers’ average age is 52 and most have plans to retire in more than ten years. These two factors, the researchers speculated, may have important implications for the effectiveness of policy intervention as age is a significant impediment to the adoption of best practice. These same researchers typed the farmers based upon their values and objectives. These were economic objectives, lifestyle objectives and environmental objectives. Those farmers with strong economic objectives were less inclined to adopt best practice on pastures and remnant bush and native vegetation. Farmers seldom adopted best practice for a single enterprise where they found that a person who had adopted best practice for cropping were more likely to score higher on best practice for pastures or remnant bush and revegetation. Not surprising, these best practice farmers are more likely to continue seeking out information to maintain their standard of farm practices. Finally, this research supports the findings of others that the level of farm income holds the key to the future in terms of land stewardship.

Landcare has created unprecedented awareness about environmental issues and good farm management. But can landcare bring real and lasting benefit to rural landscapes, rural communities and rural livelihoods?

The renewal of emphasis on the customer, wherever they are, has lead to some fundamental changes of practices and attitudes of farmers and value-adding food and fibre businesses.

In table 1 (below), I present my interpretations of these trends in three time scales, albeit with a very broad brush.

Some reflections on the consulting profession

In 1963 a small number of farm management consultants formed the Farm Management Section of the Institute. From these quite modest beginnings emerged the Australian Association of Agricultural Consultants (AAAC), which is now a Section of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science and Technology (AIAST).

The scope of services offered in those early days by AAAC members was very much farmer centred where consultants provided financial and production advice to the leading farmers of the time. Many consultants offered ‘whole farm advice’ but again the emphasis was on optimising the productivity of the farm’s enterprises.

Increasing diversity of consulting opportunities

Consultants of today are offering a much broader scope of services in response to the changing scene both on the farms, in industry and in government.

There are now increasing demands for whole farm advice that addresses the productivity, environmental and people resources of the business.

For much of the period since the 1960’s agricultural policies of governments were pro-development which enabled farmers to utilise their land and assets in a manner largely free of controls. The rural landscape had a high degree of sameness in terms of crops and livestock. Industries like aquaculture, private forestry were a rarity. Horticulture - trees, vines, berries and flowers - were confined to the outskirts of the large cities or the government-controlled irrigation areas of the Murray-Darling Basin. Tropical horticulture was characterised by bananas and pineapple.

This pro-development position of government has changed to one of viewing agriculture as an industry that has to account for its use and management of natural resources, the welfare of farm animals and the safety of workers. The previous real and in some situations perceived exemptions or enforcement latitudes have created a demand for every expanding specialisation of consultants.

Table 1. Some observations on trends in rural Australia

Issue

Yesteryear
(circa. 1980)

Today

Tomorrow
(near future)

Big ‘E’ environment

‘green’ - native forests wood chips

‘Brown and blue’ - salinity and water flows

Landscape major reduction in water for irrigation

Little ‘e’ environment - farmers

Farm voices of disquiet being heard and rising in volume

Landcare burnout.
Love has become mechanistic and planned
Tension between ‘e’ and catchment ‘E’

Farmers reclaim initiative via innovation and experimentation with $ from local farm-dependent businesses

Farm natural resource asset

Visually better having repaired landscape from rabbits.
Run down of N and P arrested.
Abundance of government initiated research, development and extension

Non farm organisations questioning farm management.
A regulatory framework.
Public good on private land.
Government extension away from productivity to public benefit programs

Market based resource management mechanisms.
NRM + productivity + social = market access, public $.
Lessening of resource use impact: footprint - softer and smaller.
Farmer initiated and controlled research, development and extension.

Trading

Power politics

Rules, World Trade Organisation

Rules + sustainable production systems

Australian farmers - maintaining profitability

Productivity to address rapid decline in terms of trade

Productivity + customer-focused segregation of products

Marketing based on loyalty. Customer relations. Input -output technology, eg precision agriculture. Managing risk

Farmer - customer relations

This is what I have to sell!

Courtship phase - I am interested in knowing performance of my product against other suppliers

Customer-focused: farmer and processing working side by side

Food quality and safety

Minimum standards set by government regulation.
End-point production inspection

Market access programs, eg Cattlecare.
HACCP

Paddock to fork electronic labelling and tracing

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