IF you only read the headlines in this week’s rural news coverage, you’d think Australian farmers should just pack up and move to the city, or take a job in car manufacturing.
Public enemy number one, Animals Australia, reported alleged breaches of the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS) for sheep sold for slaughter around the religious festival of sacrifice, Eid al Adha, in the Middle East.
The animal rights group remains bitterly determined to drive a stake through the heart of the $1 billion per year live export trade, by exposing alleged “cruelty” to livestock no longer owned by Australian farmers, perpetrated by citizens in foreign countries operating under their own domestic laws and regulations.
Ongoing ESCAS breaches will endanger the future of Australian sheep exports to the lucrative Middle East markets or cattle to other destinations.
But those countries will probably still find suitable supplies from other countries, less vigilant about animal welfare standards.
On Tuesday, a devastating outbreak of poultry specific H7 Avian Influenza was confirmed in a flock of 400,000 layer hens near Young in NSW.
The outbreak prompted a phone call from the new Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce to console the farm owners after their property was quarantined to cull birds remaining in the flock, in line with national agreements.
Last weekend, Minister Joyce spent time in northern Queensland meeting with farm groups and cattle producers who are facing severe seasonal conditions, with more than 60 per cent of the State drought declared.
He’s now trying to push an emergency response plan through cabinet, to re-jig the $420 million farm finance package to assist drought stricken producers to save their livestock from dire feed shortages.
In the West, the Commercial Egg Producers Association of WA said it was seeking a meeting with Woolworths and Minister Joyce to discuss the retail giant’s plan to phase out caged eggs sold in-store by 2018.
The Commercial Egg Producers accused the retail giant of restricting consumer choice and ignoring producers’ needs and multi-million dollar investments in supply chain improvements in recent years.
Rising labour and electricity costs, coupled with a flood of cheap foreign imported product, were blamed on McCain Foods announcing the closure of its Penola potato processing plant in December, which will see 59 jobs axed.
McCain Foods regional president Louis Wolthers said in just 10 years, imports of cheaper processed potatoes had risen from 10,000 tonnes to 130,000 tonnes.
He said the industry was “unsustainable in the long term” due to increasing costs and surplus capacity, which all contributed to the company’s closure decision.
“Cheaper potato imports are seriously threatening the future of the processing industry in Australia and will place further cost pressures on Australia’s growers,” he said.
Firebrand Queensland Independent Bob Katter said the McCain’s potato factory closure was “another nail in the coffin of Australian jobs and industry”.
He said it added to other high profile food processing facility shutdowns like the Rosella tomato soup and sauce factory and Heinz factories, while the SPC Goulburn Valley and Simplot factories are “struggling to survive”.
“Temporary tariffs need to be immediately enforced on the flood of cheap imports which are squeezing locals off the shelves and threatening the viability of Australian food producers,” he said.
A leaked report outlined the widespread economic damage facing the Goulburn Valley in Victoria if leading fruit processor SPC Ardmona fails to receive a $50 million support package ($25 million each from state and federal government).
The Essential Economics report said the Goulburn Valley would lose 2000 jobs and $165 million a year from the local economy, while Victorian Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie said “devastation would be wrought on growers and their families” if the facility closed.
But she said safeguards would give SPC Ardmona “time for innovation and adjustment”.
“Governments have supported car manufacturing to the tune of about $10 billion over seven years, while agriculture subsidies remain very low compared to international standards,” she said.
During the week, the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) called on the federal government to prioritise finalisation of free trade agreements with key markets like Korea, Japan and China to provide commercial outcomes for the entire agricultural industry.
“We, and our members, are becoming increasingly concerned that our competitors are gaining advantages over Australian farmers in key markets such as Korea and Japan,” NFF president Duncan Fraser said.
However, at the RIRDC Rural Women’s Awards night in Canberra on Wednesday, the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women – WA Senator Michaelia Cash – made a speech that probably didn’t attract the headlines it deserved.
Senator Cash summed up why rural Australia is so strong and resilient, and of course that strength of character is largely due to the “can do” attitude of its women.
The Senator’s speech referred to a discussion earlier in the day with some strong rural women, who set her straight about the challenges they face.
“They said, ‘we don’t face any challenges - something’s put in front of us, it’s an obstacle and we overcome it’,” Senator Cash said.
It was a timely reminder of the attitude that keeps Australian agriculture rolling on, despite the daily hurdles thrown up in front of it.