Let’s make farming the new rock ‘n’ roll
A quote by Costa Georgiadis, landscape architect and host of ABC’s Gardening Australia, inspired Sustainable Table’s recent panel – “A local food system creates local employment, regional identity and national trade and food security.”
But challenges in the Australian farming landscape are working against a food system that is fair, humane, healthy and good for the environment.
The question put to the panel - made up of Matt and Lentil Purbrick, closed-loop farmers and owners of Grown and Gathered; Georgiadis; Jane Dixon, Senior Fellow at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health ANU; Sylvia Collett, a cattle farmer and owner of Bass Coast Farm and Matt Fowles, winemaker and owner of Fowles Wines – was how food growers can be valued in the same way as celebrity chefs and how can consumers support farming families to stay on their land.
The good news is there are many things we can do as consumers to use purchasing power to contribute to the type of food system we want. We can also grow our own food and buy as directly as possible from growers.
You can listen to a recording of the discussion on Radio National, but here’s a summary of the issues facing our farming future:
1. Farm succession and inheritance
“My family’s farm had been handed down through many generations. But by the time the farm got to my parents, there wasn’t a farm left. So they went to the city to make a living.”
– Matt Fowles, wine maker and owner of Fowles Wines
In the past, farms were handed down from parent to offspring for generations. For many children of farming families today, it’s more attractive to move to the city and take on a corporate job than it is to inherit the degraded soil, low farm gate prices and huge debt that now cripple so many Australian farms due to a combo of synthetic fertiliser/pesticide use, extreme weather conditions and supermarket competition.
With the decline of farm succession come two major implications: a growth in corporate ownership of farms that can mean more aggressive practices in achieving economic gain (at the cost of environmental sustainability or animal ethics); and loss of valuable knowledge about farming that can only come from generations of living off the land.
2. Unfair pay
“If we look at the rise in profits of supermarkets, vis-a-vis the money the farms are receiving from those supermarkets, its supermarket profits up there, farmer incomes down here.”
- Jane Dixon, Senior Fellow at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, ANU
“Last week we received $3.00/kg of beef at the sale yard yet the big retailers who buy direct from us are selling on some beef cuts for more than $39/kg.” - Sylvia Collett, cattle farmer
“For a grower at the moment after packing we are getting about 30 cents per kilo and most of the supermarkets are selling onions around $2 per kilo.” - South Australian onion grower Steve Rathjen
Making a living from farming is challenging. Average debt across the broad acre (export-oriented farms) and dairy sectors has doubled in a decade and stood at $546,000 per farm in 2009-2010; and almost half of smaller beef and sheep farms derived more than half their household cash income off-farm. Many factors come in to play including export competition and the grocery market duopoly but as consumers we do respond to (and even demand) cheap produce that fuels price competition and drives farm gates prices further down.
3. A cultural issue
“We have this national self-perception of ourselves as ‘on the land’ - that kind of dusty mental picture of what an Australian looks likes in high culture. In reality, culturally there is no currency in being a farmer or market gardener.” - Michael Williams
Perhaps we see life on the land as too hard or perhaps we perceive it to be something you do when tertiary education isn’t an option… is there a class issue at play here? Regardless of the cause, we’re not putting our money where our mouth is when it comes to matching our careers with our Australiana brand.
How much do we value the food we eat and the variety on offer? Are we prepared to see a decline in quality and variety without doing something about it?
4. Government support
“In Europe, farmers are recognised as custodians of the land, as stewards of biodiversity… they are recognised as more than simply food producers and are paid incentives through subsidies to sustainably manage their land – it’s called multifunction agriculture.”
– Jane Dixon
While Australian farmers are good at adapting to climate changes, they aren’t being rewarded for it. There is no reward for farming ecologically (e.g. biodynamically, organically). There is no government support to assist farmers in transitioning from conventional to organic farming. In Germany, for instance, farmers are paid for having wind turbines on their farms. If we are to progress, the Australian government needs to start officially recognising our farmers as more than just a food bowl.
5. The duopoly
Our grocery market is dominated by two major players. This means that farmers and suppliers are at the whim of two enormous organisations locked in a price competition. That doesn’t leave farmers with a lot of power when it comes to advocating for a fair farm gate price.
As shoppers, we’re happy to get our groceries for a bargain and with unprecedented convenience… but at what cost?
The duopoly has also meant that the small grocer, butcher or fishmonger is no longer a financially viable model. These stores have disappeared from our neighbourhoods and along with them, the certain romantic character this style of establishment affords the streets of European villages we so love visiting.
So what can we consumers do?
6. Make food a priority
“When we get to the point where my grandmother was, where we’re asking our kids not where are you going but what are you going to eat, then I think we’re getting to a cultural position of prioritising food and growers.” - Costa Georgiadis, Landscape Architect and host of ABC’s Gardening Australia
7. Understand that we are powerful
“We need to understand our power. As consumers, we underestimate the power we have every day.” – Costa
Every time we spend money, we’re casting a vote on the sort of food system we want. Our dollar is king and where we choose to spend it sends a strong message to market players.
8. Shop as direct from farmers as possible
That might mean heading to a local farmers’ market on a Saturday morning or signing up to a food box delivery service. It might mean joining a local co-op or CSA, buying in bulk from farm gates or simply finding a nearby greengrocer that has the same food philosophy as you. There are plenty of options to buy as direct as possible – check out our guide here.
9. Grow your own food
“We’re making the switch from providing people with food to teaching people how to grow their own food because we think that’s a far more powerful political manoeuvre; if you can empower people to reduce the pressure on requiring things like supermarkets, you can really start to make change in a big way.” – Matt Purbrick, Grown and Gathered
You don’t need to have a lot of space to grow some of your own food. Most vegies, some fruit and all herbs can be easily grown in containers, on balconies or even sunny windowsills. Start with easy-to-grow things like herbs and lettuces and grow from there.
10. Lease land to start your own farm
Make the connection, join the dots - one of the best, more direct ways to do good for the environment is to become a sustainable farmer! You don’t have to stump up the big bucks to purchase land – many land owners will lease land to you so that you can dip your toe into farming before taking the plunge.
For more information on supporting a food system that is fair, humane, healthy and good for the environment, visit sustainabletable.org.au