I’m a rich farmer

Back before the beginning of time, when Wayne told an acquaintance he was soon to marry a dairy farmer’s daughter, her response was, “Ker-ching! You’ve found the pot at the end of the rainbow there!”

She was a city-slicker who thought simply being farmers qualified our family as wealthy. There’s some truth in that, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). In its feature on Australian farms and farmers, the ABS points out that:

“…the average weekly disposable income of farmers in 2009-10 ($568) was considerably lower than that of people working in other occupations ($921)…”

“While the reported income of farmers might have been relatively low, it is important to recognise that income is only one aspect of economic wellbeing. Wealth, in the form of bank accounts, shares, superannuation or property, is another important component, and can be drawn upon to smooth and support consumption over time, including during periods of low income. Indeed, wealth is particularly crucial for farming families given that farming income is often at the mercy of climatic conditions. The average equivalised net worth (taking into account both assets and liabilities) of farming households in 2009-10 was $1.3 million, much higher than the average across other households ($393,000). However, such high levels of wealth are not enjoyed by all farming households. In fact, 10% of farming households could be classified as having relatively low levels of wealth (i.e. in the lowest 40% of the wealth distribution). However, the bulk of farming households (71%) were in the top 20% of the wealth distribution. The high levels of wealth explain why, despite relatively low income, only a fraction (5%) of farming households are classified as having low economic resources, compared with a fifth (21%) of other households.”

One day, if my children decide not to become farmers and sell the place, all that wealth will come in handy! And while my postcode may not be prestigious, my home boasts a rather large backyard, unparalleled privacy and stunning views. But I have something even more priceless: a vocation, as the ABS explains.

“Farming as a vocation tends to be characterised by a high degree of self-employment and long working hours. In 2011, half (50%) of farmers worked 49 hours or more a week. Only 17% of other workers put in such long hours. More than half (56%) of Australia’s farmers were self-employed owner managers (compared with 15% of other workers), with a further 17% working as employees managing farms owned by someone else.”

“Although people who are self-employed generally work longer hours than others, this only goes part of the way to explaining the working hours of farmers. Even when comparing just among the self-employed, farmers were still much more likely to work long hours, with 56% farmers working 49 hours or more a week, compared with 30% of self-employed people in other occupations. This may in part reflect the nature of farm work which can necessitate tending to crops and animals at various times of the day and night.”

I think the last sentence is a little twee, don’t you? All sorts of people must attend to their work around the clock – firefighters, police, nurses, chefs, to name a few – but they share the workload with colleagues. The unvarnished truth is that because farm incomes are so low, few farmers can afford to employ enough help. That, my friend, is the downside of farming.

Still the upsides are pretty darned glorious and something a statistician could never hope to capture.

Coles wants video cameras on Aussie farms

In an ABC Radio interview yesterday, Coles quality manager Jackie Healing called for video cameras on Australian farms. I asked the Twitterverse to add to my list of questions for the retail superpower and sent the following email to Ms Healing and Coles PR contact, Jon Church:

Hi Jackie,

As a dairy farmer and blogger, I was fascinated to see that you are advocating a Tesco-style approach, including video cameras on farm. Would you care to answer some questions for http://www.milkmaidmarian.com? The blog is now quite popular with both farmers and consumers who would, I am sure, be equally as interested in exploring the topic further.

  1. What do you consider are the benefits of video cameras on farm?
  2. Do you see any potential problems?
  3. Do you have any concerns that practices in the best interests of animals (restraint for vaccinations or veterinary procedures, for example) could be misconstrued by viewers?
  4. Do you anticipate Australian farmers will volunteer to host the cameras?
  5. Have you discussed the possibility of cameras with farmer organisations? If so, what has been the response?
  6. If Australian farmers do not volunteer to host the cameras, how will Coles respond?
  7. Does Coles plan to offer education for consumers about animal husbandry practices?
  8. Where would cameras be mounted on a typical 500-acre dairy farm?
  9. How would the dairy supply chain need to be “remodelled”?
  10. Will Coles install cameras in the food preparation areas of supermarkets?

I shall post the questions online tomorrow and would be delighted to add your answers, provided they are no more than 100 words each and reach me by COB tomorrow. If this doesn’t suit, please let me know and I will do my best to provide a balanced response.

It will be interesting to see whether Coles is happy to elaborate, don’t you think?

Confidence to grow: could foreign ownership be a godsend?

Farmers are a little enigmatic.

On one hand, we must be the most optimistic people on earth: we don’t give up easily because a great season could be just around the corner. On the other hand, we’re not typically the type that goes out and buy lots of stuff in the good times: we know another bad season could be just around the corner.

One thing of which you can be certain is that we know how to pull our horns in and refuse to open the cheque book when times look a little shaky. This seems to be just one of those times. The bank tells me that business is “quiet”, dozens of farms are for sale but not selling and one rural financial counsellor noted that she’s seeing more and more depressed farmers.

The market for dairy farms is now so quiet that I can’t tell you how much our own farm is really worth because there’s simply no benchmark. This in itself leads to a lack of confidence and, so, a vicious cycle ensues.

It was with all this in mind that I read Jonathan Dyer’s (@dyerjonathan on Twitter) blog post on foreign ownership of Australian farmland this morning. Referring to the purchase of farmland near his own property by a Qatari corporation, Jonathan remarks:

“Perhaps because we don’t know just how amazing our natural wealth is we aren’t appreciative of it and are happy for it to be sold off. We don’t value it and look after it like we should. If that is the case, if we don’t value what we have and aren’t willing to develop it, then maybe it’s good that others who do value and need quality food production are getting a chance here in Australia.”

I couldn’t agree more. What I am hoping though, is that the interest of foreigners in our natural wealth will encourage Australians to reconsider the way we view our amazing land. If we are to remain one of the world’s leading food bowls, we must have the confidence to grow.