Australia’s agriculture sector is entering a “golden era” of prosperity and growth, boosting the national economy, farmers’ incomes and the fortunes of sluggish regional towns and struggling country businesses. Source: The Australian
National agricultural production will exceed $60 billion in value this year, for the first time.
Food and rural exports are already worth $48bn to the economy, cattle and sheep prices are at an all time high and an unprecedented 52.4 million tonnes of wheat, grain and pulse crops have just been harvested.
Farmers who have been struggling for years with drought are starting to pay down debt, restock their grassed properties and even put away savings.
While farm machinery sales are booming, a record $5 billion is now stored in special farm savings accounts, and new fences and other farm infrastructure are being upgraded across the country.
Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce describes this year as the dawn of a “golden era” for Australian agriculture that he expects to last at least five years.
“Agricultural exports are now second only to iron ore and bigger than coal, in importance to the national economy; most Australians don’t realise that,” Mr Joyce said.
“We haven’t seen anything like this right across all regions and sectors – beef, lamb, grains, wool, sugar, kangaroo meat, live cattle, chickpeas, even the dairy industry is recovering – for almost a century. The good times are finally here.”
Mr Joyce said the green shoots of recovery started a couple of years ago in some parts of southern Australia, but it had taken a stunning cropping season and good rains throughout 2016 that had broken the drought in Queensland and northern NSW, to bring widespread prosperity to farming communities.
Higher prices on the back of surging export demand are also directing a greater share of profits to Australia’s 135,000 farmers.
“People are getting back on their feet and that (farm money) is starting to flow through to the smaller towns, the regional centres and almost every rural business – it’s been a tough haul but you can feel the confidence returning,” said Mr Joyce, who farms close to Tamworth, in northern NSW.
“There is always lag of one to two years from the time farmers start seeing some better returns to it flowing through to the wider community because the first focus is always rightly on paying off debt and getting the banks off your back,” he said.
“But we are getting there; now the focus has to be on making sure we invest to improve our road, rail and water infrastructure while we have this period of unprecedented prosperity, so we can continue to grow and take advantage of the enormous opportunities out there.”
Last year there were record beef, lamb and grain prices and a turn around in the wool market. There was also a good harvest season.
Mr Joyce said farmers have been recovering from drought and were benefiting from tariff cuts from free trade deals.
“Across the board we’re doing well,” he said.
“This brings money back not just to Coonamble and Coonabarabran (both in NSW) but to Martin Place (Sydney), Collins Street (Melbourne) and Queens Street in Brisbane it’s good for the nation.”
The next challenge ahead for Australian farming is to significantly boost production and turn the agricultural sector into a $100bn powerhouse by 2025, selling premium food to more than 120 million Asian consumers, rather than 60 million now.
Mr Joyce believes visionary thinking is needed to make this happen, alongside the current government’s focus on sealing highways and roads across the nation, building new irrigation dams and improving rail infrastructure
“Water is what it is all about; if we want to grow more food we can’t take productive water out of the Murray Darling Basin (under the Murray Darling Basin Plan to improve river and environmental health) and not find another source of water,” the Deputy Prime Minister said.
“People will say I’m crazy but we might have to look at bringing water down from Papua New Guinea across Torres Strait to Augathella (in central west Queensland) and into the top of the Darling Basin; if we thinks it’s feasible to do with gas, why not water?”
Mr Joyce also said the long touted Bradfield Scheme to divert water from tropical north Queensland and big coastal rivers such as the Tully, Herbert and Burdekin west across the coastal escarpment to irrigate inland Queensland should be looked at again.
“Anything can be done – the only issue is cost and funding – but there are plenty of private investors out there looking for piece of the action.
“These might be good times now but we have to keep them that way; that means making sure agriculture can continue to grow and prosper.”
National Farmers Federation president Fiona Simson agreed that “big picture” thinking was vital to make the most of rural Australia’s “once in a lifetime” prosperity.
But she warned against too much focus on visionary schemes and northern Australia development, when other initiatives that might not seem as grand might deliver better returns and food production gains, without the political fanfare.
“The farm mood is buoyant — although dairying has had an overly tough time — but agriculture has the potential to do so much more for Australia and the regions if we can capture, grow and really build on that optimism,” Ms Simson said.
“Big thinking is important but all the focus shouldn’t be on … northern Australia, when providing farmers in southern Australia better digital, road and rail infrastructure to do what they do now better and at a lower cost, might double our food production in a much shorter time frame.”