I'm unable to lay claim to generations of pastoralists in my family tree. One of my grandfathers was a pie-man, the other a pineapple-farmer who due to ill health moved to town at a relatively young age. I do have fond memories of riding shotgun with Grandad Cec and being given the rather daunting responsibility of hanging the bell out the passenger side window of the pie-van to signal our arrival at various workshops around town. An important job for Grandad's 'little bush princess' at age four. And I'm still rather fond of a McHugh's Pie on a drizzly day in town.
I am no less proud of my heritage and equally proud of how far Matthew and I have come in our pursuit of a slice of the agricultural pie. My love of animals, and in particular cattle can be firmly blamed on my own parents who, like us, worked hard off-farm to buy their own small parcel of land and raise some cows. From an early age I can remember days spent with my family, working with horses and cattle and dogs, making do with antiquated machinery, fallen down yards, an often absentee-Dad (away driving a dozer, in an era when interest rates reached over 20%), experiencing anger and frustration throughout the day, and laughing around the dinner table that evening as issues were re-counted.
The agricultural industry can be a fickle one, and is more often a tough one. The vagaries of the weather being first and foremost a huge variable with which we dance each year. We are ever at the mercy of Mother Nature, rain being the integral ingredient necessary for all that we do, and a harsh reality of Australian agriculture is that we live on the driest inhabited continent in the world. It is a difficult business scenario when the most important aspect of that business (weather) is one over which you have absolutely no control. Thrown in the mix with world currency fluctuations and an inability to accurately guage forward pricing for our product, it's little wonder farm profitability is waning.
99% of Australian farms are family-owned and operated. And 2014 has been declared by the United Nations "International Year of Family Farming", a great time to recognise and celebrate the achievements of all those family farmers.
(Words from farmon.com/farmvoices)
The beef industry, our particular area of agriculture has endured some particularly hard times in recent years. In May 2011, Four Corners aired "A Bloody Business", the explosive expose which showed the horrific mistreatment of cattle exported to Indonesia, slaughtered in the most inhumane of ways. I clearly remember being unable to watch the footage, so saddened I was by the sight of such abhorrent cruelty.
However, the knee-jerk reaction of our government to suspend all live-cattle exportation did little to rectify the problem, but instead caused the most profound ripple effect through the northern beef industry, the consequences of which are still being felt, possibly even moreso now.
More incredible though than the financial woes, devastation, loss of income for graziers and all those associated industries and communities brought about by the suspension, was the tidal wave of anger, resentment and disdain cast upon those in the cattle industry. Truly hurtful, nasty, untruths hurled at cattle producers by some of those within the animal liberation movement. I spoke to cattlemen and women who said they'd never felt so lost, so misunderstood, so un-liked.
There is no greater advocate for cattle welfare than those people who breed, raise and manage them. They aren't just our source of income, they are our life, our love. No cattleman tires of witnessing the birth of a baby calf, hearing the loving murmurs of its mother, those first, unsteady steps as he moves towards Mum's udder. What cattleman hasn't sat on the edge of the water trough in the weaner yard, enjoying the company of all these babes, their curiosity inevitably leading them towards you for a sniff, a lick. What cattleman hasn't worked into the night, delivering lick, checking water troughs, ensuring the welfare of his charges. What child hasn't grown up in the bush, learning the simple rule that animals must be tended to before ourselves. From the age they could speak, our children have recited 'the golden rule' of our family "Look after your animals and be kind to each other", the latter not always strictly adhered to.
Combined with the drought that has since taken hold in the north and west of our state, graziers were forced to send cattle south, flooding southern markets and depressing prices statewide, a situation from which we are yet to recover. Some optimism is returning as the boats are again sailing, solid prices are being offered for export cattle, and at the same time our presence back in countries like Indonesia ensures high standards are adhered to and education processes are in place.
Farm debt has reached an all-time high. Though astute managers of costs, farmers are price-takers and thus struggle to remain profitable whilst expenses escalate. We will watch with interest as the government's white paper for agricultural competitiveness is developed, one issue being discussed is how to increase farm-gate profitability. Whilst politicians have a great gift for 'talking the talk', I'm unsure how they will implement the changes necessary to lift profitability for producers, or even what those changes will be.
Yet people in the agricultural sector will carry on, for they know no other way. It will rain again, interest payments will somehow be made and children will still feed the dogs and ride their ponies. Cattle will be tended, crops will be planted and life will go on.
And in this International Year of Family Farming I hope that all people will gain a greater understanding of agriculture and those who make it their life's work. For rural producers certainly aren't seeking sympathy, nor hand-outs, nor attention, but would very much like to be valued and understood. As everybody deserves to be.