AUSTRALIAN family farms are the cornerstone of the nation’s multi-billion dollar agriculture industry for Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce, who’s taking a personal political interest in protecting their future fortunes.
The Nationals deputy-leader produced a burst of superlatives when speaking to media this week about the role of Australian family producers in relation to the International Year of the Family Farm promotion.
The media event was hosted on the Morrison family property, “Mt Campbell”, Royalla, NSW, just south of Canberra.
Mr Joyce said the fifth-generation farming enterprise – which started in the 1860s and today produces cattle and fat lambs –typified the Australian family farm his government is working to ensure reaches the next generation and beyond, though better farmgate returns.
“Family farms are the cornerstone of Australian agriculture,” he said.
“They are emblematic as to how we see ourselves as a nation.
“They’re the group of people, when things are going tough, that manage to lock everything down, to live without (and) to go without so they can see the better times coming.”
Mr Joyce said the Year of the Family Farm promotion seemed unusual but was also essential to communicate an important message about food production in a city-centric society.
“As our nation grows, as more and more people live in streets where they don’t have the uncle or the aunt or the grandparents back on the land, we’ve got to remind people that it’s people such as Tim and Kristi (Morrison) who actually produce the beef so you’ve got a steak to eat at night, who produce the eggs, who produce the milk, who produce the vegetables, who are the essence of your standard of living as reflected by what’s before you on your dinner table,” he said.
“And not only that, they put the fibre on your back, whether it’s the cotton they grow out at Moree or the wool they may grow around here.”
Mr Joyce said family farmers needed a commercial return but a sense of patriotism also underpins their work.
“People are doing this because they love the lifestyle but you’ve got to give people more than just a love of the lifestyle to survive,” he said.
“I’ve succeeded in my job if Tim and Kristi have a future.
“I’ve succeeded in my small part in doing something for our nation, if we have families that continue on the land.
“We’re doing our job as a government if those families are surviving on the farm and for all their hard work they’re actually making a decent return, back through the farmgate.”
Mr Joyce said Australian family farms were similar to others he’s observed on the international stage like the United States and China, where decent people are doing a decent thing, producing food.
He believes Australian farming has a great future given the nation’s close proximity to growing markets in Asia.
But while those markets provide an opportunity for profits from selling premium products, the ultimate test of success is ensuring those returns make their way back through the farmgate.
Australian farmers 'going without'
“As more and more of South East Asia make their way into the middle classes in the hundreds of millions, then their demand for their standard of living is going to be reflected in two things - the clothes they wear and the food they eat - and we’re in the right spot for both of them,” Mr Joyce said.
According to Mr Joyce, in the 1900s the Morrisons would have received, on a broad-based average of goods, about 85 per cent of the final retail price for the sheep and cattle they produce and other commodities, about 50pc by the 1950s but only about 10 to 15pc today.
He said farmers are making efficiency improvements but going without the improved retail returns.
“People can only reinvest back into their farms if they’re making a return and making a fair return from the produce they produce,” he said.
“Whether it’s sheep-meat, beef, whether it’s wool or whether it’s cotton, these are all products which if they’re at the premium end of the market will produce a very good return, because we know when we see it in its final price on the shelf there’s a lot of wealth in agricultural product.”
To improve farmgate returns, Mr Joyce said the government wanted to ensure farmers are being treated fairly and not exploited in markets.
He said the government was also working “as hard as it can” to develop markets, put a workable infrastructure plan in place to ensure fluid movement of produce to markets and to ports, and is spending $250 million per year to ensure industry research and development is “cutting edge”.
He said Australian family farms contributed to agriculture achieving $53 billion worth of production and $41 billion of exports in 2013-14.
Farming voices heard
Mr Morrison said the media event provided him with an opportunity to meet and congratulate Mr Joyce for his government’s work opening markets which have helped increase farmgate prices over the past six months.
He said cattle prices at saleyards are higher than he’s seen for several years at this time of year.
Ms Morrison said the key to family farming was maintaining a stable income from on-farm business without having to go off-farm to earn an income.
“Farming is a lifestyle and a way of life as much as it is a job,” she said.
”But nowadays, for farmers to realistically maintain a viable income, they don’t get a lot of recreational time, so you can’t blame people for leaving the land when it gets so hard.”
Ms Morrison said many supply chain segments - from supermarkets to the higher costs of making inputs like fertiliser and chemicals - were contributing to reduced farmgate returns.
“Our production costs are a lot higher than they would have been 100 years ago and realistically in comparison the prices aren’t that much better,” she said.
Mr Morrison said complying with red and green tape like environmental and regulations were becoming an increasing demand on family farms.