AUSTRALIAN Workers' Union boss Paul Howes has certainly created a stir this week with
his comments on Sky News on Sunday that “the day of ma and pa farming has come to an end”.
First of all, it sounds like he’s been spending a bit too much time watching US television, with his patronising, stereotypical US Deep South term with redneck connotations, “ma and pa” – something most Aussies, let alone farmers, would no doubt take offence to.
But that aside, farming families collectively are big employers and still produce the majority of Australia’s food and an enormous amount of produce for export.
When a big company like Elders sees its way out of trouble through selling many of its diversified enterprises to refocus on its agricultural core, it begs the question why others would rush in and grow more “large scale diversified companies” as Mr Howes suggests we need.
It’s more likely we need a restructure of our marketing, not who’s doing the growing, and to address country-of-origin labelling and monopolistic behaviour that drives down farmgate prices.
If we shift completely to a corporatised ag model such as Mr Howes suggests, the companies will most likely have to answer to shareholders and therefore target profits as a priority.
This wouldn’t work too well to keep Australians in jobs as seen in recent years with companies like Heinz, Simplot, SPC and McCain shedding jobs or closing down plants to remain competitive.
And even if we did move to predominantly corporate farming, the farms aren’t going to run themselves.
They would still rely on families to move to where those farms are, to bring their agricultural knowledge with them to run these businesses.
And it is families which make up the majority of our communities.
Longer term, a family farm model (albeit the business model might look different from what we traditionally recognise) has the potential to be more sustainable because the investment is more than just shareholder commitments.
It’s about emotional attachment, an understanding of the land, the friends and family that make up the communities and leaving a legacy for your kids.
Family farms are masters at innovation and are nimble in a way that a business driven by board decisions never will be.