Save our farmers

G Magazine

The responsibility for quality produce and sustainable land care lies not only with the farmers, but with us as consumers as well.

Farmer and sheep

Credit: iStockphoto

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I spoke to a farmer the other day. His name is Chris. He lives in Queensland growing peanuts on an organic
farm. Chris cares for his soil, avoiding the artificial herbicides that deplete micro-biodiversity. He looks after the waterways, keeping a good cover of native bush on the watercourses on his property.

He is also fighting for his family's survival. He has been forced to grind and market his own peanut butter to make ends meet. It's not a cheap product. It retails at about $14 for a 300 g jar. The cheapest supermarket peanut butter sells for around $4 for a 500 g jar. Those supermarket jars are labelled "Made in Australia from imported and local products".

"That is shorthand for 'Made from cheap Chinese peanuts'," says Chris with a grim laugh.

Australia imports 20 per cent of its peanuts from China. Ninety-five per cent of the garlic we consume comes from China. Some frozen vegetables in your supermarket are processed in China. Well-known brands of iced lollies have been outsourced to factories there, as well as biscuits, confectionary and frozen meals. Chinese apples could again be imported this year.

It's all about price. Australians have a sense that if they pay more than the lowest price, they are being ripped off. In shopping around for the ultimate bargain we are squeezing the margins out of all our products. When it comes to food, the big supermarket buyers squeeze their suppliers. (Coles and Woolies sell 80 per cent of the food consumed in Australia.)

Our farmers are not powerful. It takes a lot to get them to speak out. Generally the only time they get together is when there is a local catastrophe. But one by one they are slowly leaving the land; selling off to their neighbours or Sydney-based investment banks. These are the men and women who have generations of collective knowledge of our soils, our rivers, our trees, our native animals and our weather.

As they leave they are replaced, if at all, by itinerant managers working for big agribusinesses.

Our farmers are perhaps not always the best possible caretakers of our land. We have an appalling history of deforestation, salinity, erosion and loss of biodiversity. But farmers are what we have. Some do a brilliant job of caring for the land with what little resources they have. Some have replanted their farms with bush, restored wetlands and even turned over areas to endangered native species.

But they can't do any of this if they are constantly being screwed on price for every single kilogram of produce
that leaves their farm gate. These are the people who feed us. They grow the food that will eventually metabolise to become part of us.

The bulk of the population - mainly city-dwellers - expect farmers to protect the soils, waterways and remnant habitat. Prohibitive laws have been put in place to protect trees and irrigation farms have been bought up and closed down. The cooperative model where everyone takes responsibility for the land is another path. In it farmers are paid to 'farm' bush and maintain a 'natural' environment because a large portion of the population values those assets.

The food from the farms that have a good balance between farm profit and natural assets generally tastes better. It comes from farmers who not only strive for excellent produce, but also tend to look after their land,
have a sense of self-worth and good community interaction. And because of that, they live in some of the
most beautiful parts of the world.