Farm justice for Australians

What Aussie farmers really need is farm justice

was a great article recently written by Eric Holt-Giménez, Author and Executive Director of Food First and Eva Perroni, Independent Researcher and Writer. The article illustrates how the land of plenty’s food system is now focussed on profit, and not human need. According to the article, some people in the lucky country are in hunger and in health crisis. Farm debt has increased by almost 75% over the last decade. Australian farmers with less than $100,000 in annual output earn more than 90% of their income “off-farm”. This country’s capitalist food system overproduces food by "overusing resources and exploiting people. It consolidates wealth and power and passes off the costs to the rest of society in the form of poverty, hunger and environmental “externalities.”"

“These cumulative pressures have placed farmers in a cost-price squeeze that has accelerated a 40% decline in Australian family farms over the last 35 years, with equally disastrous flow-on effects to regional employment and rural communities.”

The article calls for farm justice and a new food system in which family farmers can make a dignified living producing a diversity of nutritious food. It calls for structural incentives, for environmentally sound production, and discourages large-scale mono-cropping and confined animal feedlot operations (CAFOs).

It calls for public investment in the countryside to secure the health, education and wellbeing of rural communities.

“Aussie battlers” are often characterised by the media as the lone rural underdogs competing with industry goliaths. This image emerged from the heroic and romanticised stories from the outback, that epitomises the values of hard work, struggle and self-sacrifice, but this is not an accurate picture. Despite the inconvenient truths of agrifood monopolies’ stranglehold, some farmers have decided that the victimhood stereotype is worth shedding once and for all. They have taken their power back by connecting directly with consumers over in-demand, ethically-raised, nutrient-dense food.

New food economies emerging in Australia

Independent researcher and writer Eva Perroni also recently wrote a beautiful article about dismantling dysfunctional food systems, and building food utopias. Eva explains how the industrial food system is at the centre of many crises, like environmental and ecosystem degradation, natural resource depletion, deforestation, unsustainable practices etc. While capitalism certainly structures the global food system, local change is possible…

Eva said that “alternate” food movements are rapidly growing all over the world, combining social, environmental and political activism through a philosophy that aligns cultural and planetary health. More citizens are becoming aware of the multiple negative impacts of industrialised agriculture, and what some call the corporate food regime. In Australia alone, there have been surges of interest in organic, locally and ethically produced food, animal rights and welfare, community supported agriculture (CSA), farmland preservation, healthier school and university campuses, youth food literacy and urban agriculture, to name just a few. These emerging social activities are often lumped together and labelled “the food movement.”

rm food freedom2.jpg

“As a movement of movements, the food movement represents a convergence of social movements surrounding social, economic, environmental and political debates by placing food and agriculture at their centre.”

These food systems are powerful for systematic transformation, and they build social equity and ecological integrity. Farmers love them because they can enjoy direct social interaction with consumers, and stay in business. Many sectors in agriculture are able to enjoy this abundance based on social interaction over valuable, ethical, nutrient-dense food, but one sector is somewhat cut off. In other countries, many farmers enjoy the option to produce raw drinking milk (RDM) and raw milk cheese because regulation paves the way for the production of these foods. It’s time Australia remove the prohibition on raw milk from cows for human consumption, and install a fair system for its production and availability. Regulated raw milk from goats are already allowed in four Australian states. The reason why raw dairies work is because there is real value, and the hard work pays off. Farmers get to sell at retail price, without a middleman or distributor taking the profit or benefits away. Many raw milk systems around the world are deliberately designed to enable direct farm-to-consumer sales because of this common problem.

Big dairy: an unsustainable food system

In a previous article, we questioned the profitability of dairy farming when farmers are put at an economic and financial disadvantage after following industry advice to ‘get big or get out’. Dairy farmers were advised to go big, borrow and expand because there were a Chinese market to cash in on. Some farmers, who have grown to monstrous thousand cow herds, have now discovered that it doesn’t seem to be a viable business anymore, despite the drought. Like many others, the Queensland farmers mentioned in the article, have borrowed heavily to stay afloat, and now face losing the family farm. It seems possible that many industries, like agriculture and financial lending, are responsible for funnelling farmers towards borrowing big, and then crashing big. Even large industrial feedlots are not immune as severe frost recently destroyed grain crops in Western Australia and northeast Victoria, and more a short time later. Drought is now spreading to more Australian states. South Australia now joins New South Wales and Queensland as officially in drought.

Regenerative farming will restore prosperity in Australia

To be truely resilient in drought, we need to return to pasture-based farming as food for livestock, so we can return soil fertility and sequester carbon. Regenerative farming restores more microbes to the soil and they help to increase the water holding capacity and drought-resistance, more here. It also produces nutrient-dense food that will help with our health crisis. Food is medicine. See the video above, with a leading expert in soil health and regenerative agriculture Dr. Allen Williams Ph.D, to learn how feedlots or CAFOs are negatively impacting us all, and why regenerative farming is the solution. Cows are not the problem… it is how they’re raised.

Milk levy for dairy farmers in drought considered a ‘con job’

Mathew Trace, vice president of the Queensland Dairy Farmers Organisation had been campaigning for the modest 10 cents milk levy. He and others are devastated by the latest shenanigans of the supermarkets and processors who fail to deliver a better solution for farmers. Mathew is one of many who now accuse supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths of 'tricking' consumers with their introduction of a drought levy on milk for dairy farmers. According to this interview, he said they have put the levy on only a small volume of milk, only a couple of lines, rather than 10 cents a litre across all milk. The latest shenanigans have led to more farmers contacting real estate agents to sell up and leave the industry. Farmers are now realising that despite public support for a levy, it is by no means certain that dairy farmers will receive more money in their pockets to survive the next few months. Listen to the interview below:

Audio: Interview is streamed from source, 25 Sep 2018.

According to this article, Brian Tessmann from QDF said young farmers are not optimistic about whether they would be operational in two years, or even 12 month’s time because of the drought, and the unsustainable price paid for milk. "These weren’t the old farmers who are ready to hang up their boots; these were farmers in their 20s and 30s who are giving up hope." The odds against most dairy farmers are so vast in Australia right now. They are herded into one direction, by a seemingly invisible hand, to give up their financially-stressed farms so the banks can take full ownership.

Australian drought levy milk scandal and calls for a royal commission

“I couldn’t give a rats if Coles want to criticise me for calling out their media stunt - they make millions of dollars a year from farmers and if I have to go to the media to call out their slippery corporate behaviour then bad luck.” - Agriculture Minister David Littleproud.

Agriculture Minister David Littleproud recently tore into supermarkets over a “disappointing” drought levy on in-house milk. According to this article, he called out Coles on Monday, criticising what he called their ‘media stunt’. He also criticised Aldi which sells cheap milk without participating in any dairy reform at all. He said the milk market was clearly broken and the big supermarkets could no longer “wash their hands and claim the fact farmers are going broke is nothing to do with them”. Major milk market reforms are in the wind in a bid to bring the powerful retailers to heel. Reform proposal details are likely to be released by February and are expected to receive sympathetic backing from federal cabinet.

Members of the government are also calling for a royal commission into Australian supermarkets. In parliament yesterday, Queensland Nationals MP Lew O'Brien, who is a big supporter of the QLD dairy industry, said there is nearly enough outcry to support a royal commission into Aussie supermarket chains Coles and Woolworths. He said:

“The evidence is mounting for a royal commission into the predatory purchasing practices and pricing policies by these supermarket giants that are destroying farmers.”
“Those who deal with these supermarkets are fearful of speaking out about unfair practices, and a royal commission would change this oppressive culture.”

Royal Banking Commission interim report released

“Too often the answer seems to be greed - the pursuit of short term profit at the expense of basic standards of honesty...” - Commissioner Kenneth Hayne

On Friday, 28th of September 2018, the Banking Royal Commission interim report was released covering consumer lending, financial planning, business lending, farm finance and Indigenous finance.

See the video below:

The report was scathing and it basically blames greed for misconduct in the financial industry. Others like treasurer Josh Frydenberg echoed that banks and other financial institutions have put profits before people. Commissioner Kennith Hayne said that bank staff performance was measured and rewarded based on profit and sales. He asked whether existing laws should be simplified. He said the financial institutions were not solely to blame, with the regulators also failing to check their greed. "When misconduct was revealed, it either went unpunished or the consequences did not meet the seriousness of what had been done," Commissioner Hayne wrote. Regulators, Asic and Apra, were too close to the sector they were meant to be policing and rarely took full advantage of their powers.

In addition, Labor has announced that it will, if elected, implement a royal commission ‘taskforce’ and called for the royal commission to be extended. Labor's deputy leader Tanya Plibersek said the royal commission needed to be extended to hear from more of the victims of bank misconduct. According to this ABC article, she said: "More than 9,000 submissions have been received by the royal commission, but so far only 27 customers have had the chance to tell their stories publicly." Farmers were about a handful of these, and they were predominantly cattle farmers, but no dairy farmers.

"Given this damning interim report, we believe that there is a strong case to consider extending the banking royal commission in order to hear from more victims in more places, in more parts of Australia."

In the community there has been a huge disintegration of trust for the sector because it clearly lacks integrity, and a sense of responsibility. It’s not certain if public faith in the financial sector can be recovered because some examples of misconduct are extremely serious. The bad behaviour is clearly greed-driven.

Royal banking commission: Farmers

A farmer who lost her farm after missing a few payments, said the commissioner “has hit the nail on the head.” Ross Waller told The Sydney Morning Herald in this article that:

“The old tradition was that the banks were your friend, but not anymore. Now it's all about greed and the basic standards of honesty have gone awry."

Ross sold her big farm and bought a smaller one in 2002 just as the drought hit, and borrowed money from a specialist farm lender, to keep her farm. However, she missed a few payments due to prolonged drought, and went to mediation but lost her farm in 2013. She said she was a victim of predatory lending and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission should have done more to stop it, as it is against the law, but it didn't. Ross said: "The royal commission is exposing what they [lenders] have been doing. And to take people's life savings - that is just absolutely dreadful." She has been living in a rental property on an age pension since. Many farmers wanted to get the opportunity to speak but never got a chance. According to this article, the royal commission focussed on the cattle farmers in particular. More needs to be said.

Tasmanian farmers Michael and Dimity Hirst told the commission that ANZ’s conduct left them “destitute” after losing their farm eight years ago. They are still struggling to pay off debt every month. According to this article, they are renting because they cannot get a loan. Dimity said there were thousands of other Australians in a similar position, struggling to get their lives back on track. "I don't think you can just draw a line in the sand when you've got living breathing people that have been so badly affected," she said.

Dimity understood that when the commission was established, its purpose was to look forward, rather than consider redress. Still, she said compensation should assess financial hardship as well as the humanitarian cost. "But I think as the commission has unfolded and the complexity of what actually went on, what the banks were doing, in a premeditated way, to access funds from people who are in severe distress, I just think it has to be considered now." She said there are many cases where people’s lives were ruined without any fault of their own.

Royal banking commission: Nailing farmers affected by drought

Queensland grazier Deborah Smith was in the spotlight in June when she gave evidence at the royal banking commission hearings into farm finance. The hearings were littered with tales of drought-stricken farmers who were treated badly by banks as they tried to save their businesses. Deborah said strict rules need to be imposed on banks to stop them from driving farmers off the land during times of drought and financial distress. She added banks should be banned from charging default interest on struggling farmers altogether.

Royal commissioner Kenneth Hayne has raised the prospect of other big banks following the National Australia Bank's lead and scrapping default interest payments for rural customers affected by drought. According to this article, the interim report raised questions about the merits of banks charging default interest on struggling farmers. Commissioner Hayne said the payments only added to borrowers' difficulties, and were often used by banks to get farmers to sell up.

This interim report is only the beginning of the process of taking responsibility. There are more hearings to be heard in November and the final report is said to be released in February 2019. The interim report released can be found here.

Who knows what the political and financial climate will look like next year, as harsh bank repayments may kick in if Australia’s debt bomb explodes and banks seek repayment. If house prices drop we’re going to see more financial stress in Australian cities. Farmer Phil Ryan warns that dairy farmers won’t be able to produce milk cost-effectively if grain and hay prices continue to rise in the next 12 - 18 months. He said that farmers will go broke if they cannot produce half their own cheap feed. If it doesn’t rain significantly, farmers won’t be able to grow grain or hay harvests, see the video to the right. According to Dairy Australia, more than 40pc of Australia’s dairy farms are located in drought-affected regions, with more than 2000 dairy farms affected across New South Wales, Queensland and the Murray and East Gippsland dairying regions of Victoria.

According to Vic Country hour, Australia's national suicide rate has climbed nearly 10 per cent in one year, with regional areas seeing the biggest increases. One analyst has put it down to the long lasting effects of drought, but it may be the long lasting effects of being held at a disadvantage that is really behind rural suicide, more here. Big business interests are too self-serving and ambitious. They are selfish and want to be the only ones making a profit. They are apathetic and indifferent to the suffering of small-scale farmers who they see as the competition. They are cold and harsh to consumers' needs, values and desires. They only care about the dollars, the power and position. This has to change.

Solutions for Australian farmers and eaters?

We need new investment in the countryside to secure the health and wellbeing of rural and urban communities.

Regenerative farming policies, opening more direct farm-to-consumer sale avenues, and enabling the fair regulation of high-value products like raw drinking milk and raw milk cheese, will be a good start. Today Minister for Agriculture and Regional Development Jaala Pulford announced a $100,000 Food Source Victoria grant to provide a network facilitator to the Victorian Farmers Market Association (VFMA). She said the funding would help employ a network facilitator to draw on the expertise of Victoria’s farmers’ market network to identify tangible, feasible opportunities for growth in regional Victoria. VFMA’s goal is to expand and grow paddock to plate business.

“As more and more farmers leave the land because of the tough conditions, Australia’s food security is increasingly under threat.”

“Australia’s grocery market is the second most concentrated in the world.” - Dr. Alana Mann

Yesterday the University of Sydney event Building Food Utopias, was be co-presented with the Sydney Environment Institute and chaired by Dr Alana Mann from the Department of Media and Communications. Mann said policymakers and academics alike need to get better at listening to farmers. Farmer Joel Orchard, who also joined the discussion, said that farming has historically been such an individual and isolating pursuit. This has to change. Consumers also want to dictate how farmers grow food and the direct relationship is the only way forward.

The supermarket giants are currently enjoying a near monopoly on food sales. The prohibition on high-value foods that small-scale farmers excel at, is working in supermarket giant’s favour, and it is also putting farmers at a huge disadvantage. This has to change.

“At the moment, many small-scale and agroecological farmers don’t have a say in the policies that make a difference to their own working lives.” - Farmer Joel Orchard
“As the food system has become privatised, our social institutions have become weakened. It’s in policy-makers’ best interests to strengthen them so that truly transformative and effective public policy is achieved,” - Dr. Eric Holt-Giménez.