Australia needs a farming revolution

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I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror
The wide brown land for me…
Core of my heart, my country!
Her pitiless blue sky,
When, sick at heart, around us
We see the cattle die
But then the grey clouds gather,
And we can bless again
The drumming of an army,
The steady soaking rain.

Australia is a continent of extreme conditions. Dorothea Mackeller knew it in 1908 when she wrote “My Country”, and the situation has only worsened in more recent times due to climate change. Aussie farmers inevitably do it tough in times of drought, and as the son of a farmer, I sympathise with their plight.

However, I’m also a small business owner. I see Australian politicians throwing cash at drought-affected farmers, as they do each time, and I wonder why no other industry in Australia receives the same sympathy or handouts as the agricultural sector. It was just last year Australia’s automobile industry ceased to exist because the government ceased support, resulting in 50,000 lost jobs. And almost a decade earlier, politicians chose not to support our country’s textile industry. Why then do we continue to support farmers who grow the wrong crops in the wrong parts of this sunburnt country?

September 2018 was Australia’s driest on record, and this year the periods of low rainfall have increased in both their extent and severity. Unusually high daytime temperatures add to the impact of reduced rainfall, sucking moisture from the soil and rendering it to dust. Both New South Wales and the Murray-Darling Basin have experienced their warmest Jan-Sep on record.

In many of these areas, farmers grow thirsty crops such as rice and cotton. Beef cattle is produced at its highest rates in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria. To me this is illogical. Why would we produce our most water-intensive crops in our driest regions? It simply doesn’t make sense.

To give credit where it’s due, Australian farmers are water efficient when compared to many other regions in the world. A quick review of the UNESCO-IHE water footprint report for nations shows Australia can produce rice, cotton and beef with sometimes half the amount of water as other countries (take a look at page 41 for a comparison chart). But is efficiency enough when farming on the world’s driest continent?

While cash handouts drought after drought seems a generous and patriotic act, to me it is nothing more than a band-aid solution for a bigger problem. I question whether our farmers even want handouts. Instead, I believe the government should be encouraging and supporting farmers to move towards more sustainable farming options, and guarantee farmers receive a fair price for their products.

Just like the fashion industry, customers have become conditioned to paying less. Supermarkets exploit the Australian farmer and then attempt to show support by offering superficial initiatives such as the ‘drought levy milk’ available in major supermarkets. If farmers were paid a fair price for their products in the first place, they would be better equipped to support themselves through the tough times.

Instead of offering drought relief, the government should be creating the framework for a shift in agriculture. They should be demanding supermarkets pay our farmers properly, and they should be shaking down the agricultural sector to support sustainable changes. Australia needs to sever its ties with European farming techniques and embrace all that is native to our land.

Without meaning offence to our vegan supporters, let’s momentarily compare beef and kangaroo as an example of how native species are beneficial. Kangaroo is much lower in fat, they are less destructive to the land, and are naturally adapted to hold water in their bodies for longer. They breed efficiently and recover physically from drought conditions in a matter of weeks. They’re a sustainable food source for meat-loving Aussies.

When it comes to making flour, Aboriginal Australians have been grinding the stuff for more than 30,000 years. They utilised seeds from highly-drought tolerant grasses like kangaroo grass, a crop with 20% higher protein content than wheat which can be made into bread. Kangaroo grass can also be harvested for animal feed, lessening the water footprint of the animal.

If every dollar we spend can be considered a vote in support of our beliefs and ethics, let’s start consuming more native products, and supporting the brands which pay our farmers a fair price. Let’s increase demand and help create a need for farmers to fulfil, so when this drought ends farmers have more options.  We also need to show our politicians we want a long-term plan to help our farmers, not just assistance in the bad times. Let’s make it clear that Australians want a sustainable farming future.

Author: Niko - Founder of Etiko

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Comments


  • This is a good post and unfortunately true. I used to work in environment protection, particularly relating to rivers and catchments, and you are so right that we are using the limited water we have inefficiently. Many of the water uses are low value (beef & dairy) or medium value (cotton, rice), but iff we could move a lot more agriculture to higher value uses (vegetables, horticulture, viticulture) we could make more profit for less water use. Also, Jonathan is right, Alan Savory’s grazing management methods (rotation al grazing, etc) and other regenerative farming practices could also help save our farmers by increasing profits significantly and preserve our natural environment. Glad to see Etiko onto this.

    Eric Hatfield on
  • Niko
    All due respects Niko but that was written by a city dweller with little knowledge on farming techniques. This blog is what drives a wedge that is growing wider by the day between the city and the bush
    Rice has been grown in the Murray Darling basin for the last seventy years. I totally get the lack of understanding surrounding growing rice and it’s use of water. I’ll be brief
    The areas where rice is grown is restricted to areas of heavy clay soils that do not allow water to leak to the lower ground water. This allows water to be well utilised by the crop and allow a grain crop to be grown in the soil once the rice is harvested I.e two crops with the one lot of water
    Australian grown rice produces a greater yield per megalitre of water than any other country and is exported to 50 plus countries. Rice provides wonderful nutrition per megalitre if water- better than grape vines for wine or nuts- alternative crops in the area
    What you need to understand is that in times of drought very little rice is grown. Australian farmers invest heavily in growing rice and in those periods of drought still have the committment to finance yet gave no income. If there is no allocation of water there is no irrigation.
    I wonder what would happen if all those on the land moved off to the city
    What would you eat
    Where do you think money comes from – Australian agriculture adds over 60 billion dollars to the GDP
    You’ll find that much of the drought assistance comes in the form of assistance to better manage water and low interest loans. Don’t worry Niko , they get very little yet provide so much. A small proportion goes to putting food on the table- often like the dole. Believe me, many farmers would prefer to grow crops than to get drought relief.
    So if you want more information talk to a farmer( I know you know one) or read

    Susan Ellis on
  • Hi Niko, you raise a lot of valid points about the problems surrounding farming in Australia, however before we turn to kangaroos (have you ever tried herding them into a stockyard or fencing them in!?!) there are plenty of options to explore which could vastly improve the performance of our existing livestock systems. Regenerative agriculture, a method of grazing management pioneered by Zimbabwean ecologist Allan Savory utilises the dynamics of dense livestock herds on long period rotations to actively build soil fertility and sequester carbon in the form of grass roots and organic matter. These and other related techniques are currently being used effectively by a small but growing number of progressive farmers in Australia, including on at least one huge scale grazing property in the NT. And although the benefits include higher outputs per hectare, reduced water usage, greatly increased drought protection and an increase in biodiversity and soil carbon storage, there is basically zero media coverage or political support from any party in Australia. Why? Because the vast majority of us live within the protective bubble of our large cities, and politicians only value the mileage they can wring out of a ‘disaster event’ like drought by appearing, briefly, to care and offer band aid support, as you correctly point out. A great resource to find out more about this potential renaissance in agriculture is Charles Massy’s brilliant book ‘Call of the reed warbler’ – a synopsis of the current state of regenerative agriculture in Australia. It should be mandatory reading for every politician, farmer and environmental manager in the country! Cheers, Jonathan

    Jonathan Cruickshank on

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