Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Australian farmers: victims, or perpetrators?

The Age ran an article yesterday under the headline "Farmers' voice needs to be loud and proud to bridge the city-country divide". The article was written by Deborah Bain, a Victorian wool grower who established Farm Day - "an annual event in which a city family is matched to a farm family for a day of fun, friendship and understanding".

Bain's article focused on the "rural-urban divide" - which I agree is both real and problematic in Australia. But Bain lost me when she stated that Australian farmers are "among the best producers in the world - from an environmental and animal welfare position."

Surely, she can't be serious? Just scroll down to see some photos from past Farm Days of Australian farming practices, and tell me if you honestly believe that this is the kind of environmentalism and animal welfare that Aussie farmers should be "loud and proud" about:

(Edited 8 May 2010: I have acquiesced to Deborah Bain's request to remove the Farm Day images from this post. The image above is from Wikimedia Commons).

Earlier in her article, Bain was complaining that "the consumer" is "easily manipulated by negative claims about farming practices." Maybe Bain needs to think a bit harder about why people make negative claims about Australian farming practices.

Personally, I can't think of a positive word to say about the farmers near where I live (and this is not to say that I think farmers further afield are generally any better - although there are certainly notable exceptions, such as Hazelcombe and Milkwood farms).

Our local farmers' "management" practices give me the impression that they are, by and large, unobservant people who consistently act in ways that are harmful to their land and their animals.

Are times tough for farmers? Yes! But that's an integral part of the big picture: farmers experiencing severe stress (which is often exacerbated by the degraded state of their land) make decisions based on perceived necessity, not on grounds of animal or environmental welfare.

For example, take this piece of formal advice from Angus Australia regarding drought management for beef producers: "Be careful that the decision [to provide maintenance feed] is made on a rational examination of costs and returns". The implied message is: let your cattle go hungry if it's "rational" to do so.

My home is surrounded by severely over-grazed, compacted, weed-infested farms. The animals (mostly sheep and cattle) are treated like mobile lumps of unfeeling protein. For example, the sheep are typically shorn in winter (which is stressful for them). Black steers are left in paddocks on scorching hot days without a stick of shade (which is stressful for them). These ordinary farming practices are a cruel parody of "animal welfare".

And then there are the agricultural abominations of factory farming, live sheep exports, and mulesing. (I have zero sympathy for farmers who mules their sheep, which is a cruel practice. If you "have to" flay lambs in order to prevent flystrike, then you're farming the wrong animals in the wrong place. Either move your farm, or grow something better suited to your environment - but don't tell me it's "animal welfare").

When I was 16 I did some work experience with a vet in rural NSW. During that time I learned that being a country vet was all about sex and death. The vet's job is basically to keep animals healthy enough to be reproduced, and/or killed, profitably. (Incidentally, I had the memorable experience of collecting a jar of bull semen that week - and let me tell you, that stuff doesn't come from a supermarket shelf!)

I understand and accept that farming livestock involves certain "practicalities" - typically culminating in the slaughter of the animal. So why can't farming spokespeople like Deborah Bain just acknowledge this fact, and stop pretending that farming is about animal welfare? Or, better yet, why can't they stop talking about animal welfare, and start practising it?

As for the common refrain that (to quote one of the people who commented on Bain's article): "The vast majority of today's farmers are extremely conscious of environmental issues - after all, our land is our income source."

Well, yes, that may indeed be the case. But being conscious of an issue is not the same thing as addressing that issue satisfactorily. After all, the vast majority of alcoholics are "extremely conscious" of alcohol - but that hardly means they handle alcohol responsibly.

And finally: earning income from a piece of land doesn't automatically make your land management practices good and/or sustainable. Heck, my great grandfather was a Welsh coal miner, and look what happened to his land-based income source. The Earth owes nobody an income.

As Jared Diamond observed in his book Collapse, Australian farmers have been "mining" the Australian landscape for generations - to the extent that "many problems that could eventually become crippling in other First World countries and already are so in some Third World countries - such as overgrazing, salinization, soil erosion, water shortages, and man-made droughts - have already become severe in Australia" (p.379).

Below are were some photos from Deborah Bain's pet project, Farm Day. These agricultural scenes don't look like shining examples of animal welfare and environmental sustainability to me. Rather, they look like the mining of Australia.

(Edited 8 May 2010: Deborah Bain was upset about me using Farm Day images in this post, so I have replaced those images with links to the original images on the Farm Day website, and I've added some alternative images from other sources below). 

A barren, overgrazed paddock:
(Image removed at request of Deborah Bain.
See original image on FarmDay website.)

Cute children in a barren, overgrazed paddock:
(Image removed at request of Deborah Bain.
See original image on FarmDay website.)

More cute children in yet another overgrazed paddock:
(Image removed at request of Deborah Bain.
See original image on FarmDay website.)

Heavy machinery - totally unsustainable in the long term. Apparently this farmer hasn't embraced the looming reality of Peak Oil yet:
(Image removed at request of Deborah Bain.
See original image on FarmDay website.)


Below are a few Australian farming images to replace the ones that Deborah Bain didn't want me to share with you ...

Livestock transport: the journey to the abattoir (or to the dock, for sheep unfortunate enough to be shipped alive to the Middle East) is typically stressful for livestock.

Image source: Live Export Shame

Native fauna and flora: I have never met a sheep farmer who doesn't regard the kangaroo as an enemy. Australian farmers are generally so tightly bound to their traditional British farming roots that they still (after more than 200 years) generally treat the native Australian flora and fauna as foes to be destroyed and replaced. I have witnessed a typical kangaroo cull on a typical Aussie farm, whereby hundreds of roos are shot, and left to rot on the ground. This is not animal welfare, nor is it a clever and sustainable way to live in the Australian environment.

The image below is from the roo cull in Belconnen in 2008. These roos were buried in a large pit.

Image source: Kangaroo protection coalition

Factory farming: most chickens in Australia spend the majority of their lives in cramped cages that don't even allow birds the simple "luxury" of stretching their wings. Most pigs are treated just as cruelly. Most people wouldn't dream of treating a budgerigar or a dog in such a horrible way.

Image source: No caged eggs 

Exacerbating the problems of drought: "There is a huge amount of dust in the air from the dry conditions and farmers ploughing the soil when it is dry, hoping for some follow up rain".

Text and image source: Wikimedia Commons

"Dust storm covers the city of Wagga Wagga reducing visibility to 2 kilometres. The dust storm was caused by strong winds moving though south-eastern Australia whipping up valuable top soil from drought affected paddocks" .

Text and image source: Wikimedia Commons


  1. "Farmers' voice needs to be loud and proud to bridge the city-country divide"

    Perhaps this would be better phrased as follows:

    "Farmer's voices need to be loud and proud to stop people questioning the sustainability and ethics of their food production".

    There are farmers in this country who do the right thing. But all you have to do is look at the battle that people like Peter Andrews and P. A. Yeomans have had to get uptake of their idea to see how entrenched "traditional" farming practices (that are destroying the soil) are.

    If farmers want respect, then they need to earn it by demonstrating how well they are managing their land and animals. Not by going on a marketing crusade.

  2. We have similar farmers around here. They hate the influx of 'bleeding-heart' city people who 'don't know anything about farming' and come in to tell them how it's done.

    Funnily enough, our land (we're some of those city people) looks the best - we have the fewest cows (people keep on telling us we can have so many more on our land and why don't we), our cows do not need injections, worming washes and so forth. They are happy and healthy.

    I have found the old style farmers to be overly cruel and hard to animals, their answer to anything and everything is poison (the 1080 program here to eradicate the non-existent fox has had a success rate of 80%, only 20% of farmers don't want it on their land - SIGH!) and they generally seem to be at war with nature around them.

    They also tend to be pigheaded and a discussion with them would be impossible, as we found out at the local 1080 meeting. Still, once all the sprays, pesticides, herbicides and other cides become prohibitively expensive, perhaps then there might be a way forward. Time will tell.

  3. Sam, neither I, nor these families, have given you permission to use these photos. I am asking you nicely to please remove them from your website. Surely you feel strongly enough about your position that you do not need innocent children as an emotive addition to your argument
    Deb Bain

  4. Why not participate and try and help this urban divide rather than trying to find the bad apples to drag the whole project down. To be honest the reason farmers are where they are is because for the most part urban consumers and their constant push for lower prices and thus forcing farmers to become more productive with what they have. This is exactly why Farm Day is a good idea, to get city people on the farm and educate them as to why things are they way they are and what they can do to help. Farmers are being pushed into corners and yes some have made unfortunate environmental decisions. But dont tarnish everyone with the same brush, there are many farmers now looking to turn this around but you cant turn a super tanker around on a dime. Come with solutions not problems. There is a lot of good coming from Farmday.
    As an agricultural scientist what would you do to help this project?

  5. @Anthony: you said ... "To be honest the reason farmers are where they are is because for the most part urban consumers and their constant push for lower prices and thus forcing farmers to become more productive with what they have"

    Anthony, this is called the "Nuremberg defence" i.e. "it's not my fault, I was told/made to do it by someone else".

    Saying this just undermines the Farm Day case that farmers in this country really care and do the right thing. So which is it? Do they do the right thing? Or are they forced to do the convenient thing that is ruining our land?

    You are confirming what Sam is saying: farmers are part of the economic system and that system is grinding our planet's ecosystems into dust (literally in many cases).

    The sad thing about all of this is that the solutions to salinity, soil degradation, dropping productivity, and animal welfare are out there and have been known for decades.

    If Australian farmers are really interested in finding a solution to the problems that our land suffers, then every one of them should start by watching this Jordanian Permaculture project:

    I grew up on a conventional industrial farm using fertilisers, large paddock grazing, drenching etc. So I have lived with the bad practices and seen the sheer bloodymindedness of people who (despite all of the evidence) refuse to change their farming practices. I have also seen farmers like my grandfather reclaim badly degraded land, while being called a fool and an idiot by his neighbours.

    I think that getting "city people" out on farms to see where there food comes from is great. But anyone who expects that to make a difference to consumer habits is delusional.

    Hence the whole "Farm Day" idea smacks so badly of greenwashing.

    If farmers really want to make a difference to the sustainability and ethics of their farms, then they need to embrace systems like Permaculture, P. A. Yeomans' Key Line, and Peter Andrews' Natural Sequence Farming. Sadly the typical response I hear to these things is "that's just hippy bullshit", or "oh that's fine, but it will never work for me because of XYZ".

    No-one likes changing, or admitting that they were wrong. But time is up for agriculture in this country. Time for real change, no marketing gimics.

  6. Deborah,

    The FarmDay photos have been removed from my post, and replaced with open source images. It's easy to find images of dubious farming practices in Australia - but it took FarmDay to place "innocent" children in those damaged landscapes.

    Hence, to criticise *me* for using "innocent children as an emotive addition to your argument" is a classic case of hypocrisy.

    I'm quite certain that FarmDay would quickly lose its appeal if you took away those *many* images of adorable children with adorable baby animals.

    Why not take the children to see a factory farm, a feedlot, a roo shoot, or an abattoir instead? Show 'em what Australian farming is *really* like!

    Maybe *then* Australian consumers would agree to pay a bit more for ethically produced food.

  7. Anthony,

    You criticise me for "tarnishing everyone with the same brush", and you ask me to provide some solutions and education.

    If you had actually read my post, you might have noticed that I provided links to two "notable exceptions" who are farming here in central west NSW, namely: Hazelcombe and Milkwood farms.

    I linked to Hazelcombe and Milkwood for two reasons:

    1) to avoid "tarnishing everybody with the same brush", and

    2) to provide solutions and eduction.

    The owners of both Milkwood and Hazelcombe are passionate educators who act in strong alignment with their stated concerns about environmentalism and animal welfare. Their websites are well worth a look.

    Personally, I'm very pessimistic about the future of Australian agriculture. Farmers generally only change their ways when they're forced to - and some serious change is blowing in the wind, courtesy of Peak Oil, salinity, climate change, nutrient depletion, water shortages ... the list goes on. Sadly, nothing I say or do is going to change the course of Australian farming.

  8. Thank you Samantha for removing those photos that were posted by the families themselves in good faith as a token of their memorable day on a primary production farm.
    I hope one day you are also able to find good faith and happiness in this challenging, "tumultuous" world. Best of luck in your chosen role as an agricultural "scientist"!

  9. Deborah,

    Best of luck to *you* in your chosen role as an agricultural "educator"!

  10. We've just bought a tiny (3 acre) farmlet which we're converting to permaculture organics.

    The previous owner (a traditional farmer) told me "I never met a chemical I didn't like".

    That's what we're up against, and that's what we're working hard to rescue our land from here in New Zealand.

    I'm an Aussie who moved here, so I know a little about what the Aussie idea of farming is like: battle over water "rights", and grab every cent the government gives you when you kill off your land to the point it stops producing, then claim that you have a God-given right to "farm" because your father and grandfather trashed the land before you.

    Not that I have any opinion on the matter at all of course!

    Without government subsidies, bailouts and handouts, Australian "farms" would almost ALL go under.

    Real farms are sustainable, financially and environmentally.

    And yes, even on our small 3 acre farmlet, we're already turning a nice croppage and profit, and doing well.

    Organic permaculture: the only way to fly :-)

  11. Hi Daharja. All I can say is, I agree!

  12. It’s great to have somebody so articulate on the right side of the debate, Samantha. One can be forgiven for thinking that the conversation is between sanctimonious inner-city lefties and ‘Omniscient Farmers’. Well, that’s what the vocal (and savvy) agriculture community would have you believe. But in this piece you do well to demonstrate that this isn’t necessarily so. I think it’s fair to say that most land one passes on a drive in the country resembles the bad stuff you reference.

    In response to Anthony, who puts blame on urbanites for the mess we are in – it’s misdirected. The Big Bad Duopoly has everything to do with that demand. It’s they who have convinced simple-minded consumers that it is okay to buy cheap. Cheap only at the checkout; expensive at every other point of the supply chain. Consumers are simple-minded – thankfully this is dissipating – they are gullible. They’ll happily lap up whatever marketing copy is thrown at them, oblivious to the intent behind it.