Steve Cumper, Country Style columnist and owner/chef of the brilliant Red Velvet Lounge in Cygnet Tasmania (where I had the pleasure of lunching while on my island odyssey, back in November), has an excellent post on his personal blog about farming. Have a read. It’s a pithy insight into the black cloud hanging over Australian agriculture. Steve writes about sharing the stage at the MiddletonFair with Alec Dean, a veteran spud farmer. Recalling the end of the conversation, he says:
I asked Alec where he thinks the food will come from in the future and looked at me for a while, straining to find purchase on an answer and the room became very still. ‘I dunno’ he said wearily and we all sat for what seemed an age as the words sagged in the air.
Steve goes on to discuss the loss of apple orchards in the Huon Valley. You only need to have a quick glance at Google Maps to realise how many have been grubbed out. Former tree rows scar the landscape, which is rapidly being subdivided, turned over to tree changers and hobby farmers. It’s actually quite tragic when you see the destruction of a productive landscape with your own eyes, knowing in the back of your mind that millions of Chinese orchardists, working for wages cheaper than dirt, would love nothing better than to pack their fruit into containers bound for Australia. In fact they already do, in the form of apple juice concentrate. Given that New Zealand apples are now being imported, despite the risk of disease, it’s a safe bet that “fresh” Chinese apples will be landing on Australian, perhaps even Tasmanian docks, in the near future.
My own area isn’t immune from the agricultural exodus. Despite Hampton’s enviable soil, there are four commercially viable properties up for sale just in our immediate vicinity. Some of the farms are being sold off to fund retirement, but others are owned by young families looking to move on. Two are medium sized grazing properties, the others horticulture crops. The most expensive has been listed at $2.5 million, the cheapest, a shade under $700K.
To be honest, I don’t blame people for wanting out. The climate has become increasingly erratic in recent years. One of the farms for sale, an avocado orchard and market garden, has been through a decade of horrendous drought, killing frosts, and disease inducing floods. It’s really, really tough, and it’s happening right across the country. Up at Gayndah citrus growers have had thousands of trees obliterated by the January flood. Down in Victoria, apricot growers letting their fruit rot on the trees because of the closure of the local cannery. What was once a tough, but rewarding way to live has, for some people, become soul destroying. The most noble of all occupations, feeding your fellow human, is being crushed by corporate greed and government ignorance.
Steve argues that “this might be the last generation we see working the land in this country”. My view on the future of farming is this: Some farms will get bigger, and they will probably be run by robotic machinery, albeit with the occasional “farmer” pulling the strings (or tapping touch screens, as the case may be). But unless there’s a massive crash in rural property prices, most farms will get smaller. Some will be viable, especially those that produce high value crops to sell directly to local customers. The majority of these small farms, however, will revert to subsistence. This is the only farming model that has been truly viable since human beings built permanent settlements and began to cultivate the land. And here, of course, is the rub. Given that we all need to eat, the implication is that nearly everyone will need to grow at least some of their food.
Personally, I think this is a positive thing, but the transition is going to be uncomfortable, painful, and and at times, devastatingly tragic. For what it’s worth, my advice is to get hold of some land (or secure a plot in a community garden, city or country), reduce debts, secure water, build soil and learn how to grow and cook. It’s harder than I make it appear, but growing food is still at the heart of the good life.