Farms get bigger as kids head for town

Opinion: Farms get bigger as kids head for town

Opinion
Peter Austin says the state government needs to invest in dams and other vital infrastructure in the bush, instead of squandering money on sports stadiums.

Peter Austin says the state government needs to invest in dams and other vital infrastructure in the bush, instead of squandering money on sports stadiums.

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So many rural properties now listed for sale are today aggregations of several farms which, a generation or two ago, would have sustained multiple families.

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One thing I can't help noticing when I write up properties for sale each week in our Domain section of the paper is the increasing trend towards larger aggregations, which of course is a sign of the times.

So many rural properties now listed for sale (apart from the so-called 'lifestyle' ones) are today aggregations of several farms which, a generation or two ago, would have sustained multiple families.

In fact, if you went to the 1960s when I started work, many of the farms which are now components of larger aggregations would have supported not just the families that owned them, but a worker as well.

Farms are getting bigger, of course, for two main reasons: because modern farming methods and equipment enable one person to manage far more land than in the past, and because ever-rising costs are forcing farmers to seek economies of scale.

This might have been okay while the rural economy was humming and there was plenty of activity: sheep to shear, crops to grow and harvest, machinery to service, infrastructure to upgrade, and so on.

All of this activity was what kept regional towns and their various businesses alive, in turn ensuring the viability and continuity of sporting clubs, schools, hospitals and other service facilities.

But today, with most of eastern Australian in the grip of drought, the only rural activity showing any signs of growth is water carting, and if the drought doesn't soon break there will be nowhere left in regional areas from which to cart it.

The real tragedy of it all is that this drought, in its severity and longevity, is seeing another exodus of young people from the land, raising questions of who (or what) will take over the running of today's larger, aggregated farms.

We lost a generation of young people from farms during the nineties wool crisis, which continued into the 'noughties' drought. After that, blessed by better seasons and high community prices, young people again saw a future on the land - until this.

And whereas once they might have accepted the drought as an unfortunate but regularly recurring hazard of Australian farming, today they may be more inclined to see it in the context of climate change, as a grim pointer to what lies ahead.

If nothing else, this drought will trigger some serious thinking - and debate - about how in future we should be managing our precious land and water resources.

We will need to reassess what crops and pastures we can reliably grow, and where. Clearly we have pushed the boundaries too far in many places, while some of our more marginal country might be better used sequestering carbon.

Meanwhile, our state government must re-order its priorities, and instead of squandering money on Sydney sports stadiums, start building the dams and related infrastructure the bush will need to cope with a changing climate.

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