The Guardian 2 November, 2005

Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

The family farmer

In the early 1960s, my wife and I went driving around parts of South Australia. A quick run through the Barossa and then we were off up to the Murray as it wriggles its way across South Australia between Renmark and Morgan where it turns sharply to the left and heads down towards Lake Alexandrina and the sea.

I don't know what the banks of the Murray between Renmark and Morgan are like now, but half a century ago they were startlingly high. We stood on this high riverbank and looked down on a pelican flying upstream below us. A magic moment.

When the river turned south, we headed north-west to Peterburgh and the Flinders Ranges by whatever back roads we could find (the more deserted the roads, the better I liked it).

While mooching around in the area between the Flinders and the approaches to Lake Frome, a dry salt lake after the manner of Lake Eyre, we were struck by the extraordinary preponderance of ruins.

Inhabited homesteads were few and far between, but ruined ones were commonplace. Built of local stone, they all looked of an age. None were large, more a farm house than a homestead.

They were built, I gather, in the late 19th Century, when good seasons produced plentiful tall grass and the impression that this was rich farming land. The number of these derelict, deserted farmhouses bore mute testimony to the dashed hopes of the settlers who built them.

For the seasons changed, as they always do, and the tall grass vanished and the settlers had to walk off their properties, abandoning the stone houses they had built with such care and hope.

In a good season, even the Simpson Desert will bloom. To expect Australia's fragile, ancient soil and variable but for most of the continent generally poor rainfall to sustain intensive agriculture, however, is to ask too much.

The present drought, the worst on record, is bringing the experience of those South Australian settlers to increasing numbers of people in areas not generally considered "desert fringe". Once again, but over a much larger area, farmers are walking off their land because they cannot afford to stay there.

For the farmers, it is a tragedy, but a tragedy that is peculiar to capitalism, for only capitalism treats farming not as an essential service but as merely a form of commodity production.

Only under capitalism does each individual farmer have to go deeply into debt to meet the heavy capital cost of the complex machinery needed for modern farming. A farm in Australia may not be labour-intensive it may not have many staff these days, although that's usually because the farmer cannot afford any but a modern farm is invariably capital-intensive.

Modern farms are, of necessity, highly mechanised, and the machinery is hideously expensive. Every thing on a farm from feed to fertiliser, stock to slaughter-house charges, tractors to trucks, quads to fencing costs a small fortune.

And the farmer must borrow from the banks to acquire these essential items and pay interest on the debt whether they get a saleable crop or not.

When farmers facing economic ruin round on the government and demand debt relief, they may get some concessions to ease their plight, depending on the extent of their campaign and the strength of their revolt.

But for capitalism as a system, the ruin of individual farmers merely opens the way for business to move into whatever section of the rural economy those farmers occupied.

Agribusiness is the capitalist solution: throw family farms off the land and replace them with corporate-owned agricultural enterprises or reduce the former family farmers to tenants of the same agribusinesses.

Like all businesses, however, agribusiness is primarily concerned not with the land and certainly not with care of the land but with making a profit. In these conditions, the long-term good will always lose out to immediate gains.

A corporation does not have a vision of leaving the farm to its sons and daughters to carry on a family presence and tradition. Environmental protection, too, takes second place to maintaining shareholders' dividends.

When the Australian people achieve socialism, agribusinesses will provide a useful basis for state farms. In the meantime, however, the family farmer exploited by banks, wholesalers and retail distributors, expected to battle drought and rapacious agribusinesses alike is a natural ally of the exploited worker.

Workers, and especially unions, should take a strong and sympathetic interest in the problems of the family farmer today.

Back to index page