Till death us do part

The trials and tribulations of the last 18 months have left us questioning our resolve to get up every day to help feed the world. See previous post

2011 started with a supermarket price war instigated by Coles that used “free” milk as a customer traffic driver with a laughable promise by Coles that this would not affect farmers

In March we had the 1 in 50 year flood and the heartbreak that brings including being utterly powerless to save one of our most adorable cows when she was swept into the floodwaters and found herself stuck in a drain with no chance of survival.

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Simola (pictured with Emma) lost her life in the March 2011 flood

Then all the Dairy Farmers (who supply National Foods) suppliers in our region felt the impact of the milk price wars with a 30% drop in their allocated quotas as well as a drop in farm gate milk price

Always looking for the opportunity we rose to the challenge and managed after much haggling to convince Dairy Farmers to allow us to bring both our Dairy Farmers contracts to the Clover Hill farm. In the first instance this required a $170,000 investment in a new milk vat. We were then able to grow our business, keep the staff we had and employ one more by supplying Parmalat from our Lemon Grove Farm.

This also required the purchase of 100 more cows and the need to grow enough pasture to graze 6 cows to the hectare which is almost three times the industry average. This is very doable in paradise but along came the 1 in 25 year flood with us now finding ourselves 4 weeks behind with pasture sowing and feeding our cows twice a day on bought in feed with the help of the mixer wagon which adds two hours to Michael’s day .

Michael uses the mixer wagon to supplement the milking cows feed when pasture levels are low

We have pushed the boundaries in the last twelve months at all levels and it isn’t just the landscape feeling the pressure. Every night Michael comes in and spends two hours with his knees elevated wrapped in ice doing his best to give everyone who walks in the door that big smile he is so famous for and it breaks my heart to see him in so much pain from the rigors of his job

On Friday some-one on twitter shared this article with me and this breakout piece so resonated with me.

Why don’t farmers retire?

“Agriculture is notorious for having a skewed age structure,” says Dr Matt Lobley, of the Centre for Rural Policy Research, University of Exeter.

“Unlike any other profession, there is not much separation between what somebody does for a living and their whole personality.

“They can literally go outside and walk around the farm and see the products of their labours written into the landscape – in the shape of the walls, the hedges and in the fields.

“It can be very difficult to face up to that time when they have to let go either partially, or fully.

“These farmers are also socially embedded into their communities, and they have an intimate knowledge of the land.

“They understand micro-climates of individual fields – which are the last to warm up, where you get frost pockets or flooding. That knowledge is often under-estimated, even by the farmers themselves.”

My family is proud to farm. We are committed to supplying affordable, nutritious, ethically produced milk to over 50,000 Australian everyday but we cant do it for free

In the words of Louise Fresco “Food is as important as energy, as security, as the environment. Everything is linked together.”

All Australians must value food at its true value and be prepared to pay for it.  Yet we continue to ignore this at our peril and we are denying these young people a future as part of the noblest profession and this wont happen either Julia if we don’t have the farmers to fuel the agribusiness sector.

Stand up Australia and be counted. May I suggest we all start with a signature on this petition to send to the Victorian Government to try & stop the National Centre for Farmer Health from closing. http://www.change.org/petitions/state-government-of-victoria-stop-the-national-centre-for-farmer-health-from-closing

I am not feeling the love

When I was invited to speak at 2012 Agricultural Land Conference  “Managing the future of Australian farm land” being held by Australian Farm Institute at the end of May I was very excited and honoured

“This two-day conference brings together policy-makers, industry representatives and landholders to consider the most up-to-date information on these issues, and to engage in discussions about what future Australian farm land policy should aim to achieve”.

We recently hostedDr John Keniry in his role as NSW Natural Resources Commissioner who also just happens to be chairman of the board of Australian Farm Institute and you should have seen his eyes light up when he spoke about the work the institute does and what it achieves and I don’t blame him I am very proud of it too

So why did I get this gig and why I am struggling.

Well I got the gig because I am expert in the joys and challenges of farming in a peri urban landscape with both our farmshaving a high rural urban interface.

The tentative title of my talk is “Farming in a Goldfish Bowl – is it doable” Well at the moment it is but it’s not getting any easier and I am starting to question our resilience and why we bother. Now as anyone who knows me or has heard me speak there is no-one more upbeat about farming and proud of farmers being part of the noblest profession than me

In fact I started a Youth Movementto shout it far and wide but at the moment I am not feeling the love and I am angry

Let me share with you why

I normally start my talks with “I have big picture vision for agriculture in this country. I want a dynamic, innovative and exciting agrifood sector that the next generation best and brightest see as a career of first choice but agriculture has a number of internal issues to address before this will happen”

The elephant in the room is farmers lacking the very necessary skills sets to effectively and productively engage with consumers and policy and decision makers and come to the decision making table with the solutions.

Farmers are less than 1% of the population and we know as little about the other 99% as they know about us and that’s dangerous. Sadly it is becoming very dangerous for food security in this country.

Internationally renowned agriculture sustainability expert Louise Fresco points this out very well.

“Never before has the responsibility of feeding the world been in the hands of so few people. Never before have so many people been oblivious of this and have the luxury of taking food for granted” Hear her insightful TED talk here

How does this relate to our story?

Setting the scene. We farm in paradise on possibly the most fertile soil with highly reliable rain fed pastures in Australia – there is no denying that

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View from my front verandah

We supply more than 50,000 Australian with milk every day on just 118 ha and to top it all off we do this in a highly sensitive rainforest environment

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Wow I just love bringing those cows home through Picasso Corner and taking in what we have achieved through strong natural resource management community partnerships

We do it in the middle of a dairy centric rural residential subdivision where houses sell for in excess of 2.5 million and even include a Glenn Murcutt house

Dining court yard with lights

We do it on the edge of Jamberoo where not only do the thousand people who live in the village see our farming practices everyday so too do the tens of thousands of people who travel by on the highway each year .

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Now don’t get me wrong our region loves its farmers and so does the local council. Sadly in the main they love their farmers not because they produce food but because they maintain the landscape and paradise. We do such a good job the local real estate agent took a picture of the Lemon Grovefarm and splashed it right across one of their exterior walls. (must get a picture of that myself)

My Clover Hill neighbours are gorgeous but there a number of them who say privately they love the vista the cows provide but would prefer the cows and their manure had a virtual presence. There are times I cant blame them – turned up to a few events with manure on my shoes myself.  We know reality says you can’t have one without the other. I do hope the ever declining farmer terms of trade and external pressures out of our control don’t determine my neighbours actually witness the ramifications of a cow free landscape shortly.

But I can live with these minor frustrations what I am really angry about is despite successful farming in this country requiring ongoing innovation, efficiency gains, increasing intensification and active farmer/community/decision policy maker engagement this isn’t happening.

Why isn’t it happening you ask?

At a regional level farmers find themselves locked into a system where they are unable to free up capital constrained by archaic planning systems based on prohibition and mathematical exercises. We have regulators who impose urban ideas of separation and rigid rules which they apply in isolation with no understanding of the landscape or landforms.

Too often so called agricultural experts are selected by tender not expertise leading to regulators being ill-informed. The one size fits all and a lack of collaborative ethos stymies diversification and innovation. Well-meaning green councillors have preconceived ideas and prejudices of farmer motivations and are driven to reinvent the landscape into what they think it should look like. In fact this was recently played out when all of the “prime agricultural land” in Jamberoo was zoned landscape or environmental land and because of lack understanding of how our local dairy farmers farm the dictionary definition of dairy farming actually precluded dairy farming. Just as well we identified and reversed that impending disaster before it was too late.

Most of all I am angry with Coles. $1/litre milk is not sustainable. Food has not been realistically priced in this country for a long time and now Coles is hell bent on devaluing it to the level where farmers feel worthless.

What is the answer?

Well Coles and their partner in crime in this race to the bottom to demoralise farmers and destroy agriculture’s viability in this country are out of my control.

However engaging with, and convincing the community and the regulators that fostering the rural idyll of 1950’s style agriculture is unrealistic and counterproductive to innovative, dynamic, profitable sustainable agriculture in the 21stcentury is one I will pursue fervently.

We all have a role to play Australia. Countries who do value food because they can’t grow it themselves will continue to buy farmland in this country. Don’t get angry with them instead recognise valuing your farmers is not enough. Firstly we must be prepared to vigorously lobby our regulators to give our farmers a mandate to innovate, achieve efficiency gains and intensify their businesses. Most importantly we must realistically value the food our farmers produce and be prepared to pay for it.

In the words of Louise Fresco “Food is as important as energy, as security, as the environment. Everything is linked together.” Yet we continue to ignore this at our peril and we are denying these young people a future as part of the noblest profession and this wont happen eitherJulia if we don’t have the farmers to fuel the agribusiness sector.

Thank you Australian Farm Institute for the opportunity to be heard and vent and hopefully help bring the solutions to the table

Some other food for thought can be found here

Richard Black – Farming needs “Climate Smart” Revolution

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-17495031

Geraldine Doogue – Foreign Investment in Australian Agriculture

http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/rn/podcast/2012/05/sea_20120505_0810.mp3

Shaun Coffey – What Price Cheap Food

http://shauncoffey.blogspot.com.au/2012/03/what-prices-cheap-food-or-do-we-want.html?spref=fb

Marian MacDonald – Confidence to Grow

http://milkmaidmarian.com/2012/05/04/confidence-to-grow-could-foreign-ownership-be-a-godsend/

Lynne Strong – I must be a good person because I am a Christian

http://chdairiesdiary.wordpress.com/2012/02/23/i-must-be-a-good-person-because-i-am-a-christian/

Nate Berg – One things missing from the Urban Farm Movement – Farmers

http://www.theatlanticcities.com/neighborhoods/2012/04/one-thing-missing-urban-farms-farmers/1834/