WA farmers split over foreign investment

17 Feb, 2012 03:00 AM
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Lake King farmer Tim Cattle.
Lake King farmer Tim Cattle.

WHEN it comes to the 'foreign investment in WA agriculture' debate Lake King farmer Tim Cattle (pictured left), has his local community at the forefront of his mind.

He makes no secret of the fact his farms are on the market and he would prefer to see a young married couple with children take the reigns, without the help of foreign investors.

Mr Cattle said a part of his purchase criteria revolved around the buyer's ability to become an asset within the small Lake King community.

He believed large corporate investors who searched for big aggregations of land were well suited to the eastern Wheatbelt because scale provided them with everyday efficiency.

And in the large majority of situations those charged with management and the daily running of corporate enterprises in the eastern Wheatbelt made an extremely valuable contribution to their local communities.

But corporate agriculture didn't always keep young families, money and jobs in the bush.

Which, for small Wheatbelt townships like Lake King, could sometimes be a problem.

"We live in a really good area but we lack population," Mr Cattle said.

"It's a real shame that it's going that way.

"But fortunately for us Lake King still has a really good community.

"It appears that in the last three or four years there has been a resurgence of young married couples settling back into the community and it's great to see the new generation coming through.

"If you project the numbers at the local school they've probably hit rock bottom in the last few years but they're going to increase again in the next couple.

"It's not prudent for me to say I don't like foreign investment because in some cases, who else is going to come up with the capital?

"It would be a sad day for Australian agricultural if after developing the land and developing more productive and sustainable techniques that the profit margins projected were not great enough to allow us to retain our own land ownership."

LAKE Grace farmer Doug Clarke (pictured right), crops about 4000 hectares and believes foreign investment in agriculture is the key to remaining relevant and competitive on the world stage.

He said foreign-owned companies made up the majority of a number of industries in WA except for the agricultural sector and it need not be feared.

Mr Clarke said over the next 10 years billions of dollars were set to be spent on WA's booming mining industry, most of which would come from overseas.

"If nothing else foreign investment allows for massive growth and employment opportunity within any industry," he said.

"And there's just such a massive paradox between agriculture and the other industries."

Mr Clarke said it was a double standard for farmers to support foreign ownership within mining but not in agriculture and believed if WA wanted to boast the best supply chains in the world it would need more foreign input.

"If the WA agricultural industry isn't prepared to look at foreign investment those investors will spend their money elsewhere, like Brazil, Argentina or northern Africa," he said.

"At the moment a rail link is being built in northern Africa for the transport of oil.

"Infrastructure like that will open up the land to agriculture because the rail line will go all the way to the coast.

"Africa will have the cheap labour force to sustain their agricultural activities and before we know it WA will be competing against them."

Mr Clarke said scenarios like this were taking place all around the world and questioned why foreign investment sparked such paranoia.

"I understand some of the worries farmers have but we need to have a bit of a vision about where you want our industry to go," he said.

"We're paying more for our shipping than our competitors, we're paying more for our finance than our competitors and we're paying more for our machinery than our competitors.

"How are we supposed to compete on a global scale in a world where we have less and less farmers?"

He said about $80b came into Australia's mining industry last year which would be unheard of in WA's agricultural industry.

"It's mind boggling to think some farmers are happy to see their industry sit in the stone age while others charge ahead on the world scale," Mr Clarke said.

"We're in an industry that's consolidating very quickly and it's not because farmers want to go and play golf on the coast.

"There is an economic reason."

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