At a time like this, I should probably be offering comment on the government’s latest drought aid package, the energy crisis or our political merry-go-round, but instead I’ll indulge in some reflection. This month marks exactly 40 years since my first article – a report on the Lower Northern Slopes division of the Royal Agricultural Society’s annual field wheat competition - appeared in The Land.
That was in November 1978, and many of the farmers reading The Land back then would have been grandfathers of the present crop of farmers, which makes this hoary old scribe feel his age! I was then on a steep learning curve, having only joined The Land a few weeks earlier as a raw recruit to journalism following an earlier career in stock and station agency. But at least it was an opportune time then to be embarking on a career of rural reporting, as it was good news all round in 1978. The Bureau of Agricultural Economics (now ABARES) was predicting a 32 per cent rise in average farm incomes for 1978-79, while the gross value of farm production was expected to be a record.
Much of this was due to the bounce-back of the cattle market after the market crash of 1974, and a good season that produced a bumper wheat harvest, second only to the record crop of 1968-69. Little did we know that the buoyant times of 1978 would be followed in turn by a decade of low grain prices and soaring interest rates, the wool shakeout of the 1990s, and the noughties drought.
But despite the prevailing mood of prosperity in 1978, some big issues were looming large, not least the so-called Great Wheat Debate concerning the future role of the (ultimately doomed) Australian Wheat Board. Woolgrowers too were divided, by a controversial proposal of the Australian Wool Corporation for wool acquisition and by plans to end the export embargo on Merino rams. Meanwhile in Adelaide an up-and-coming firebrand grazier named Ian McLachlan was rallying his fellow producers as unionists tried to block live sheep exports. It was largely the agreed need for farmers to speak with a common voice on these and other divisive issues that resulted in the last obstacles to farm organisation unity being surmounted in 1978.
The Livestock and Grain Producers Association (now NSW Farmers) had come into being in January of that year, ending decades of inter-organisational rivalry, and 12 months later would see the birth of the National Farmers Federation. Not that the new-found agri-political unity could do much to stop the rot of farm rationalisation. The number of “agricultural establishments” has fallen from around 179,000 to fewer than 90,000 (using present criteria) since 1978, and the exodus continues. But the land remains – and appreciates. In November 1978 we reported the sale of Deltroit Station near Gundagai for just under $1m. When last sold, in 2016, it was for (a rumoured) close to $17m, and the buyer this time wasn’t a Farmer Brown, but a UK investor.
- Peter Austin