A new look at agriculture after an US indoctrination

30 May, 2001 10:00 PM
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DURING the 1960s, the creation of farm management clubs was all the go throughout rural WA (and elsewhere to, I guess), with the employment of specialist consultants being the immediate aim.

Most of the early ones came from New Zealand, generally with a qualification in Valuation and Farm Management (VFM) from Lincoln College and they soon demonstrated the value of this discipline in Australia.

The supply of qualified New Zealanders who wanted to move westwards had temporarily dried up when our local group was formed and we were fortunate in obtaining the services of a young Englishman.

Dick was a wonderful acquisition for the district, once describing his job as "making farming a little bit less of an art and a little bit more of a science," a job he performed with effectiveness and flair.

He left after some years and headed for the US to continue his education, a task he must have performed well because he returned a few weeks ago, his first trip to WA in 30 odd years, as Dr Richard Howitt, Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Davis.

A group of his "old" clients caught up with him for lunch and "do you remembers" recently, being particularly interested in how someone with experience in British and Australian agriculture views the US farming scene.

It seems that US President George W Bush is caught in an ideological bind, wanting to be true to his free trade philosophy, but aware that he can't afford to offend his traditional supporters in the farm belt by doing so.

To confuse the issue even further, farmers in the US are also philosophically opposed to the application of subsidies, greeting with pleasure the Clinton "Right to Farm" legislation that removed many government controls.

These controls were glued into place with billions of taxpayer dollars and the "freeing up" involved removing many of these dollars, an easy enough task during a period of high commodity prices.

Now that prices have dropped and farmers are hurting financially, they have reverted to form by ignoring the belt tightening option, ringing their politicians in Washington instead and asking for the money flow to resume.

The Bush government is now facing the challenge of trying to appease all those traditional Republican Party supporters in the farm belt in a manner that will not distort markets and not offend the World Trade Organisation.

Although the simplest method would be to just send them each a cheque, even that option is complicated by the fact that farmers feel there is a stigma attached to accepting government handouts and they want to feel good about themselves as they pocket the money.

Dick Howitt believes that the US will go down the "clean green" route, reserving the big dollars for farmers and farm products that are "kind" to the environment and pleasing to the local green voters.

This could involve reserving most of the government dollars for those farmers who operate in an "environmentally responsible" manner, perhaps basing the assessment on the amount of chemical used or run-off caused.

This concept is already being used in Europe, with German growers being offered the option of higher wheat prices if they agree to produce the crop without the aid of growth promotants.

Paying farmers to set aside poorer land by placing it into "conservation reserves" has been a popular method of transferring money to farmers for many years, so they will probably resurrect - and enlarge - this system.

On the GMO front, Dick is somewhat bemused by the world's reaction to them, understanding the green shift of the affluent nations, but also being aware that the environment is the main winner from this new technology.

He agrees that the introduction of Genetically Modified crop varieties must be done only after full research and with great care, but he feels that Western Europe will regret its rush to ban such crops.

In an effort to keep food supply ahead of population growth, nations have cleared the land, irrigated where possible, mechanised operations and embraced new crop strains, fertilisers and chemicals.

Dick supports the widely publicised views of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Norman Borlaug, who believes that the adoption of GMOs is the only way that the world can stay ahead of the increasing global demand for food.

It is generally accepted that the long-term goal of stabilising world population will be achieved, but at a figure above the current population level, so it is far too early for food producers to become complacent.

During his time as our local Farm Management Consultant, Dick was always able to convey his feeling of confidence in the future to his clients, a gift that he obviously still has.

After our conversation, I was left wondering what it is about living in California because, although he must be about the same age as me, Dick now looks about 15 years younger than I do.

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