When Old Macdonald retires, who should own the farm?

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Him (distracted by his new iPhone 6): A litre of milk, please.
Me: That’s $1.20, thanks.
Him: $1.20? No way, I can’t afford that. We go through four litres of milk a week. I’ll get it at $1.00 down the road.
Me: But $1.00 isn’t enough!
Him (wanders off, still looking at the iPhone)

Me (in 10 years): I’m tired of trying to make ends meet. I’m retiring.
Him (looks up from new iPhone 60): You’re selling the farm?
Me: Yep. Got a good price from a guy who says he can see the farm’s potential. I’m finally able to retire.
Him: But where will I get my milk from?
Me: The new owner, I guess.
Him: But he might sell it to someone else!
Me: Just get it from down the road then, like usual.
Him: But what if they decide to retire as well and sell it to this bloke?
Me: Relax. Not everyone’s going to sell to the same bloke.
Him (waving arms, stamping feet): But what if they do? It’s not fair. You are not to sell to him. This is MY milk. I demand food SE-CU-RI-TY!!!
Me: Maybe you could just offer him $1.20 for it?

Banning foreign ownership of Australian farms sounds nice in theory but it’s just not fair. Not to the farmers who want a fair price for their land and not to international investors who appreciate the true value of our farms.

There are two main arguments against foreign ownership of farms: ethical practices and food security.

Ethical practices are important and Australia has stringent rules governing almost every aspect of farm operations. In 2014, I wrote about my concerns regarding an overseas firm publicly railing against those laws but, even so, am dismayed to see Milk Maid Marian used as a rationale for preventing any foreign ownership. Farming well, no matter who by, should be supported. Farming badly, no matter who by, deserves concern.

Food security, on the other hand, is a privilege, not a right. Australians – among the globe’s wealthiest people – are in a great position to compete for our share of the world’s abundance of food. And there is no place for a peasant underclass here in Australia.

It’s dazzlingly hypocritical to gleefully buy cheap, high quality electronics from poor nations on one hand but refuse to allow them to buy affordable, high quality food from us in return. If Aussies really want food security, they need to start putting their money where their mouths are.

 

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.