A plea for farm families

A plea for farming families

Opinion
After reading Gabrielle Chan's latest book, Stephen Burns contemplates the future of family farmers in Australia as the Murrumbidgee River rises in flood.

After reading Gabrielle Chan's latest book, Stephen Burns contemplates the future of family farmers in Australia as the Murrumbidgee River rises in flood.

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The family farm should be the base of our society

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Food and drink are the staff of life - without either there is no point in a career, and fashion and material aspirations are quite immaterial.

A holiday abroad is of no consequence and procreation is impossible.

Yet such is the seemingly endless supply and variety of food on supermarket shelves, in butcher shops and greengrocers, it is apparent the production of that food is taken for granted by its eaters.

Understand, dear eater, as you reach for your second latte and another scone with cream and jam on top, food security in this country is an illusion.

Our entire production system is based upon imported products, most notably oil, and without which food can neither be harvested nor delivered to your table.

That is one of the key messages Gabrielle Chan raises in her latest book "Why You Should Give A F*** About Farming".

In this plea for the family farm, Ms Chan comes to the current condition of Australian agriculture through the eyes of a career journalist, and one who has followed the cycles of federal politics for the past three decades.

She is also a 'farmer's wife', but she is not the traditional farmer's wife who does the books, cuts burrs and sometime times pushes lambs through the draft at sale time.

After a disastrous attempt early in her marriage when she was clearing out a flat bottomed silo of old grain, Ms Chan decided her contribution to the marriage was best served by continuing her career.

She therefore brings to this book a fair case for the family farm, one with its mix of enterprises and where the emotional attachment of generational owners to the land is greater than the need for great profit.

My father, during the 1950s, leased his uncle's farm in the Hunter Valley upon which he milked 30 cows and kept Berkshire pigs.

He said later, after a lifetime working on other farms, his income was the most he ever made and more than that of a middle manager in the nearby town.

The little community in which Dad farmed consisted of numerous families raising their small herds of cows and leading a relatively self-sufficient lifestyle, but still leaving enough to sell for profit.

Those families were not interested in feeding the world - their priority was to feed their families and anything left over went to feed the nation.

Imagine the diversity of that community, something which is being lost in the lemming-like rush to greater material aspirations.

The push to grow a $100 billion agricultural industry in this country is focused on those with scale and the temperament to apply themselves to single crop or animal enterprises, in other words, factory farms.

To be fair, Ms Chan has also made a case for the corporate farmers; but with her forensic eye, she has taken the prevailing economic push towards deregulation of food production and distribution systems leading to more competition and revealed the shallowness of the argument.

It has, she writes, been aided and abetted by political indifference and has not helped the family farmer - only entrenched the dominance of big corporations, whether they are in finance, food processing and marketing or retail.

If we look at history, the family farmer has been the base of every culture - and to think otherwise in our present social climate is to leave you very exposed to a food shortage - because it could happen that unless you are able to grow a portion of your food you will be hungry.

The COVID-19 pandemic panic has caused some disruption to food production, most notably the inability of farmers to attract sufficient labour, but further, the cyber attack on major global businesses, such as that on meat processor JBS earlier this year.

Might this book be an arbiter for change alongside the US best seller, Silent Spring, which documented its author, Rachael Carson's, analysis that humans were misusing powerful, persistent, chemical pesticides before knowing the full extent of their potential harm to the whole biota.

I think it has gone past Wilding and Call of the Reed Warbler, in it's cry for the production of healthy food.

In her opinion, Ms Chan wrote - "The time has come for more balance. The simple productivity solution that has reigned from the 1970s onwards is so last century. Farming is entering the next phase and it will require a thinking shift to integrate the natural world more fully for both our farming systems and our eaters".

Forget about the disconnect between the farmer and the eater - the decisions each make today directly affects the other tomorrow.

In that context, if you want to eat this evening, if you want your children to eat tomorrow, if you want your grandchildren to eat next week, you must read this book.

  • Stephen Burns is a journalist for The Land based in NSW's Riverina region.

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