It’s not hard, in this fast-moving digital age, to feel some sympathy for the early 19th century weavers who joined the machine-smashing Luddite movement in protest at the march of technology.
They were fearful – with good reason – that the weaving machines being installed by the mill owners would render their own hard-gained skills redundant. The same fate, in the present century, has of course befallen many workers in other industries (not least the newspaper printing business!), this time thanks to the march of digital technology.
It was once naively imagined the human casualties of digital technology would be confined to repetitive manufacturing jobs, but today we’re looking at driverless cars, automated bricklaying and robotic surgery.
Readers of The Land would have seen an article about “Swagbot”, a robotic stockman developed by the Australian Centre for Field Robotics at the University of NSW.
A couple of weeks before that, The Land ran article reporting on an address by ANZ Bank’s agribusiness head, Mark Bennett, to an audience of Asian business types and Australian farmers in Tokyo.
He was lamenting the slowdown in Australian farm productivity growth since 2000, largely caused by the failure of small to mid-sized farms (those with annual turnover of less than $500,000) to keep pace with investment in new technology.
“We need to drag up those middle performers,” he said, “and encourage them to be more innovative and take risks which will help them generate more cash flow and invest in further technology advances.”
We are constantly reminded by ABARES, it’s the “large” farms - those with annual sales exceeding $1 million - that are the powerhouse of our agricultural production. They represent just 10 per cent of all broadacre and dairy farms, yet collectively account for 49pc of total sales.
However, I wonder if it has occurred to Mr Bennett, and other like-minded pep-talkers, that many of these ‘sub-performing’ small to mid-sized farmers may not really want to join the big league of agri-achievers.
Using ABARES’ definitions, “medium” farms (total annual sales of $450,000 to $1m) account for a further 20pc of farms and 27pc of sales, and “small” farms (under $450,000) the remaining 70pc of farms but just 24pc of sales. But while many economists and efficiency proponents would love to see these smaller farms disappear, through the relentless process of aggregation, I say “long live the under-performers!”. While generally not able to match the big farms on rates of return, these smaller farms put “bums on seats” in ever-shrinking rural communities, supporting local businesses, keeping schools alive and filling ranks of show committees, bushfire brigades and sports teams.
Farm aggregation will undoubtedly continue (and indeed some 7pc of broadacre farms expanded in 2015-16) but let’s also accept the fact that not all “small” farmers want to “get big”.