Dr Pamela Parker, Australian Landscape Trust
Mr G Fitzhardinge
prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, 2006
The situation of rural Australia is difficult at best. Rural people compete in a globalised economy without many of the tools that would help them to do so. Many rural regions are experiencing declining quality, resilience and abundance of natural resources used for primary production. Rights of land tenure are changing, with water having become a tradable commodity dissociated from land in some parts of the country. The rural population is ageing and lacks many of the benefits that are available to the urban population. The recent Telstra statistics regarding services for rural Australia are an indication of the overall trend. Economic, social, knowledge, natural and other forms of ‘capital’ have been transferred over time from the countryside to urban centres (Beeton et al. in prep) and there is little indication that a reverse flow has seriously begun.
Land prices are high relative to the capacity for productivity from the land to service interest-bearing debt. This and other factors have fuelled cycles of hopeful land purchase, increased intensity of land use to drive more production, financial loss, recovery of financial loss through sale of the farm at an increased price for land, only to send the cycle around again. Although productivity has not fallen in many parts of Australia, the number of farming families has decreased over time and there has been little growth in the real gross value of agricultural production even though there have been substantial increases in the volume of agricultural production.
Meanwhile, in some parts of the rural sector, agribusiness has taken over farming on a large scale with high-input, high-capitalisation, and high-energy production systems. These businesses have more in common culturally with the urban sector than with the rural sector, and as successfully transform the social dimensions of a rural community as does pervasive rural poverty and bankruptcies.
Governments have made innovative forays into addressing some of these issues with Sustainable Regions programs and other approaches, including an example from Victoria in which the state government invites farmers to bid on conservation payments to the farmers to provide stewardship for the biodiversity and natural resources that are part of their land holdings. In New South Wales, under the WEST program, four property owners in western New South Wales have been paid to destock their properties and manage them for environmental outcomes. Other examples are organisations that assist rural land owners to covenant land for conservation and be assisted in maintaining conservation values that are in place (see Cutbush 2006). Australia has yet to codify the learning from these conservation and environmental investment experiments, but the experience is regarded as very positive by both government and farmers.
We have all been here before in terms of values and thinking. In Australia, the drivers in agricultural land use have been production and, later, productivity, and only lately has the concept of sustainability been included. The Progressive Party in the United States of America sought to combine a mosaic of on-farm production and on-farm ‘nature’ through retention of wildlife habitat, native plant communities and smaller wildlife species set against a background of social, economic and educational development in farming communities. This movement was a major force until World War II, when goals for maximising production for the war effort overshadowed the reality of the complexity of functional rural communities. The United States has never regained the lost ground of small-scale farming using low inputs and pursuing concepts of holistic self-sufficiency through diversified farm incomes and production systems that integrate with nature. The shaping influences of agrichemical companies and high-energy farming have driven agricultural education for the last half-century.
These same elements of commingled conservation, environmental considerations, diversified production, off-farm income to allow relaxed pressures for production, and rural integration have arisen in recent years in Australia from a variety of influences including innovative production systems, creative visioning within communities (such as those at Chinchilla and Dalby in Queensland that have integrated their urban and rural production systems into a melded work force for the benefits of both town and farming members of the community), diversified farm production and economic farm planning that embraces off-farm income and an essential part of the income stream that affords rural lifestyles.
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