Drought Relief

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The older I get the more I find I know very little about. This post is about something I know about only at a superficial level. The reason for expounding my views is to give a city version of how we see a country that is in drought. We all pay taxes so should have a vested interest in what the government is paying to farmers.

As I see it, there are three types of payment. To farmers, farms, and future funds.

The payments to farmers are basically to meet their day to day needs. Things such as food and clothing. Kids school fees and medical expenses. Just as we have benefits for other people out of work, or restricted in their employment, we should have funds for farmers. It might be direct payments, tax relief or loans but if people are unable to earn a living, they have a social right to be helped. I have not heard any objection from the public to these payments.

Next is payment to support the farms. Things like loans and financial support for cattle fodder. There is a shadow over this area that has the name “Tariffs”. In trade negotiations, we object to tariffs paid to foreign farmers as it gives them an unfair advantage. Providing funds to buy feed for cattle could well be seen as tariff support. I have heard tariffs in Australia are amongst the lowest in the developed world so perhaps we will not be accused of funding farmers by our trading partners.

On the other hand, we have a government who will not take action on climate change so perhaps we can look at this as the penalty they pay for not spending money on a changing climate.

Another shadow, or more like a fog, hangs over these payments as well. That cloud is called “Purpose”. What is the purpose of farms in Australia?

If the purpose is purely profit, then we should close down those that cannot make a profit, and consolidate smaller properties. But is this the only reason, or even a major reason?

Another more government-oriented reason may be food security. We need farms to produce enough food to feed the population. I think most politicians would agree we do need food security, but the question then remains as to the efficiency of producing the food. On one extreme is an approach of let the market decide who produces what. Leave farmers alone and let them work out what to produce.

The other extreme, of course, is communism. The state dictates what is grown, when it is grown, and the price. You would expect the conservative end of government would gravitate to the “let the market rip” approach. If you listen to farmers being interviewed on TV, they are saying there is a lot of talk, but little action from the Morrison government. Perhaps this is what is happening.

Then there are jobs. It is happening now, but unemployment is going to rise as the drought increases. Unemployment means social benefits which come out of the total tax revenue. Are farms seen by the government as primarily employers?

The third form of assistance is for the future. What can be spent to ensure the viability of farms into the future?

Farming infrastructure is one potential source of improvement. Things like covered water channels and planting trees to cut down wind erosion. Better equipment including automation of many tasks. I would think most farmers are doing this anyway but more money can make the work happen earlier.

Another thing that seems wrong to me as a city person is a constraint on what farmers can charge for their goods. I am thinking in particular about dairy farms. The retailers dictate the price they will sell milk for, and the dairy farmers have to sell at a price that enables retailers to make a profit. I am perfectly happy to pay more for my milk if it means the farmers get a realistic return.

External to the farms, the biggest issue is water management. I had my thinking turned on its head when I heard a farmer saying “Just tell me how much water I can have, and I will work out which crop will give me the biggest return”. In a sense, it is not about wanting to get more and more water. It is about having an allocation that will determine the best crop to plant.

I have heard numerous people say we should not grow cotton in Australia as it uses too much water. I noticed Cubbie station which was a big cotton grower, recently threw open its doors to show they had no water and had not grown cotton for about 3 years. Maybe this issue is just another uninformed city view.

We have the Murray Darling plan which is constantly criticised for either diverting too much or not enough water to the environment. We have money going into building more dams. We have desalination plants being fired up or new ones planned. Is this helping or hindering?

Let’s start with a fact. The only way to return the environment to how it was 300 years ago is to tear down the cities, pack our bags and all go back to the land our ancestors came from. The moment the first European settlers arrived in Australia, the water usage started to change.

A question I have not heard answered by those who want to restore the environment is to what point? 1770? 1870? 1970? It is not so much about restoring the environment, but about selecting parts of the environment to preserve or restore, and allocating water to those areas. It will never be like it was when only Aboriginals inhabited the continent. We cannot restore the whole environment without removing farming and cities completely.

To me, the question of new dams has some long term risks. The danger is that once the dams are full, it will encourage more farming on marginal land. If the water is there this year, plant a crop and use the water in the dams. In bad years we are back to where we are today, or probably worse.

I have also heard the argument that “our family has been on this property for 150 years. We deserve to be supported.” I can see the emotional attachment that some families have to their property but given how we have disregarded people who have been on the land for 65,000 years, 150 years is a short stay. Maybe after 150 years, they have a right to be supported, or maybe the land is no longer viable. I don’t know.

This is also related to the move off the land by many young people. The average age of farmers is 56 and rising. So is there a trend for many farmers to follow a different path? Is it a natural reduction in the number of family farms? Seems so.

Finally, there is the question of paying farmers to leave the land. If the land is marginal, some say the farmers should be subsidised to leave. I can see some sense in this but on the other hand, it may be marginal this year and not so marginal in the future. New strains of crops are constantly being developed. Imagine giving up your family farm and in five years time someone taking it over and using a new drought-resistant variety of wheat to make it viable again.

From a city dweller’s point of view, there are some questions that I would like to see answered before I could in any way claim to have an informed position.

  • What is the purpose of the farm sector? Is it profitability, food security, employment or something else?
  • How much of a driver is efficiency? Are we prepared to support small farmers or do we only want big players?
  • What is the priority for water between towns, farms and the environment?
  • How much would it cost, and how much would we save by pouring money into farm infrastructure?

Of course, the elephant in the room has become the elephant in the closet. Whether you believe climate change is man-made or natural, it is happening. Just look at the statistics. What is this going to do to our food production? The current Liberal government seems to be ignoring this factor when looking at farming. They pay lip service to the future of farming and seem only concerned with looking good in the country by making announcements about all they are doing today.

I started by saying I don’t really understand the ins and outs of the drought impact on farming. All I can identify are lots of situations and questions. I would need to live in the country to really understand the issues. I would need to talk to farmers and experts in the field. My opinion is limited and probably wrong and I am happy to admit it.

I wonder how many politicians have an understanding that extends beyond the next PR release?

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