13/02/2008 - 22:00

Get big or get off the land

13/02/2008 - 22:00


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Many readers of State Scene will remember Pete Seeger’s popular and catchy song of the 1960s, ‘Where have all the Flowers Gone’. It’s perhaps because the word, flowers, seems to rhyme with ‘farmers’ that I’ve found myself humming it lately.

Get big or get off the land

Many readers of State Scene will remember Pete Seeger’s popular and catchy song of the 1960s, ‘Where have all the Flowers Gone’.

It’s perhaps because the word, flowers, seems to rhyme with ‘farmers’ that I’ve found myself humming it lately.

For some time, State Scene has been wondering, where have all the farmers gone?

Not widely appreciated, especially by those who have lived all their lives in the metropolitan area, is the fact that the state’s Wheatbelt, which extends from around Geraldton in the north to Esperance in the south east, and westwards towards Albany, is in rapid demographic decline.

I can recall my childhood in a central Wheatbelt town, when the main street was congested on Friday evenings and the pub, with its main and saloon bars plus beer garden, crowded.

Today you’d be lucky to see a utility or two on that same street, where once there were 100 or more of the latest model automobiles.

The same applies in other once-sizable Wheatbelt towns.

So, to ask the question, or to sing it Seeger-style, “Where have all the farmers gone” isn’t as strange as may initially seem.

The fact is that Western Australia has witnessed a major demographic shift from Wheatbelt to metropolitan area and the South West since the late 1950s.

A decade earlier, in the late 1940s, this huge triangular-shaped region had a population roughly equal to Perth and Fremantle.

So, yes, where have all the farmers gone?

Or perhaps more pertinently, why have so many been leaving the Wheatbelt during the past five decades?

And what does the future hold for this region if there are even fewer of them in coming decades?

To find answers to such questions, State Scene had a lengthy chat with Co-operative Bulk Handling’s retiring chairman Tony Critch, and ongoing chief executive Imre Mencshelyi.

Mr Critch, a Northampton farmer is very much your long-term man on the land while Mr Mencshelyi, although now an executive, has a background and memories similar to mine.

Both he and I grew up in the central Wheatbelt, in Merredin and Wyalkatchem, respectively.

Both of us have worked as farm hands – ploughing and scarifying from sundown to sun up, so we regularly saw the lights of scores of tractors being worked by other farmers cultivating paddocks.

Mr Critch and Mr Mencshelyi, pointed out that, in the mid-1960s, a sizeable farm was about 2,000 acres, or 810 hectares in today’s terminology, (the three of us more at ease with the old measure, which certainly dates us).

Today, they pointed out, it’s closer to 20,000 acres.

And what’s more, the trend is upwards. They called this process of ever fewer but larger farms, and thus fewer farmers, consolidation.

And it’s consolidation that explains why the number of grain growers delivering to CBH – its shareholders – now stands at 5,508 compared with the post-war peak, in 1969-70, of 14,777.

A decade after that peak was reached, in 1979-80, the number delivering to CBH silos had slipped to 12,038; by 1989-90 it was 9,790.

The big slide has come since 2000-01, declining dramatically each season, from 9,508 that year to the present 5,508.

It’s quite difficult to believe the number of farmers has virtually halved since 1999-2000, when the number delivering to CBH stood at 10,070.

But that’s precisely what’s happened.

Farmers in WA are a vanishing breed.

And if the trend continues, we can expect to have only about 2,500 by around the middle of next decade.

Put differently, there’s been an exodus of about 10,000 farmers – most of them part of family units – since 1959-60.

Little wonder Mr Critch could say: “I could quite easily take you to places where there are up to 10 or so deserted homesteads all very near each other.”

WA’s bush is being rapidly vacated, even though the paddocks continue being cultivated.

Farmers’ homes are being left deserted. And this is a trend that’s being witnessed across the entire Wheatbelt.

Mr Critch added that most of the homes he’s got in mind were recently built brick-and-tile residences, not ramshackle abodes.

With all this in mind it’s difficult not to suspect that the days of the family farm may well be approaching the end.

And if that’s so, we can safely predict that most of the towns that formed the backbone of so many Wheatbelt communities will, in a decade or two, either be ghost towns or have only a handful of residents.

Churches, schools, shops, tennis courts, town halls, and football ovals will be largely left unused.

The Wheatbelt’s halcyon days were from 1910 to 1950, just four decades that included the difficult years either side of and including the Great Depression.

By the 1960s, consolidation was taking over, as CBH’s statistics so clearly show, with 14,777 farmers delivering grain in 1969-70 compared with just 5,508 in 2007-08.

Until about 1960 it was still common for farmers to have a full-time employee, often with family, living in separate homestead on farms that were less than 2,000 acres.

Today, a single farmer with contractors can cultivate 10 times that.

Mr Mencshelyi hastened to add that it mustn’t be assumed this collapse in farmer numbers has meant a decline in annual grain output.

On the contrary, as farmer numbers have fallen, output has been rising; significantly.

An average WA grain crop since the mid-1990s has hovered around 10 million tonnes, with 14.7mt produced in 2003-04 and 6.4mt in 2006-07.

Weather and the timing of rainfall – over which farmers have no control – largely determine output.

According to Mr Critch, city folk tend not to appreciate just how mechanised modern farming has become.

For instance, tractor driving – ploughing, seeding and harvesting – today is largely controlled by on-board geostationary satellite equipment, which means tractor drivers only do the U-turns at the end of each ploughing run up and down paddocks.

After the U-turns a tractor’s GST system locks in and it directs itself.

Mr Critch said the days of tractor driving were also well and truly numbered, because tractor manufacturers are on the verge of producing machines more aptly called mobile robots that will plough the paddocks themselves.

They’ll simply be programmed to cultivate land they’ve been instructed to work.

But change is set to go beyond the futuristic technologies like robotic or driver-less tractors.

The financing of WA’s farm sector is also on the verge of major corporate involvement.

Already, large corporate entities have emerged to provide opportunities in financing large-scale farmers – grain co-production it’s being called – to expand even more, to possibly 40,000 acres or more.

This new breed of rural financial entity is looking to meet the world’s ever-growing demand for food, and WA’s Wheatbelt is being targeted as a major international breadbasket; just with fewer farmers.


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