Suck it up, princess and a farmer’s election year wishlist

There’s been a bit of biffo on Twitter and on dairy farming forums of late. Some people are clearly very angry with our leaders. Others are polite but rather bluntly say “suck it up, princess”.

I’m in between.

I want to be among the top 10 per cent of Australia’s dairy farmers. Not because I am a nutty type A personality but because only the top 10 per cent make a good living. So, tonight I’m up late wrangling spreadsheets, casting a sharp eye over our budgets and trying to benchmark our performance.

That doesn’t stop me from wanting better from our politicians so that Victorian dairy farmers get a fair go. We’re not subsidised like our US or European competitors and we don’t have a free trade agreement with China like the world’s best dairy farmers across the Tasman, so we need to be lean, efficient and smart to survive.

To do that, we need:

  • relief from the carbon tax that puts us at an instant disadvantage
  • a more level playing field. Forget subsidising cars and get on with the China FTA.
  • to deal with the duopoly
  • most of all, to invest in ag R&D.

Being smart has historically been our strength, but no longer. Sue Neales of The Australian reports that:

“Australia’s spending on agricultural R&D has also dropped internationally from 9th to 16th place, according to a global study presented at the same conference.”

“Treasury last year predicted the value of agriculture to the nation could grow from its current size equivalent to 2.5 per cent of national gross domestic product, to 5 per cent by 2050, surpassing the manufacturing sector.”

If we are destined to become agricultural dunces, dairy farmers battling to survive on a tilted playing field will never manage the growth needed to make Australia Asia’s food bowl.

Because diesel is the new asbestos

Diesel Bobcat without windscreen

Breezy is beautiful

Diesel fumes have always left me feeling sick and it turns out my queasiness is justified. A report in the West Australian explains:

“Researchers from the WA Institute for Medical Research and the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research found that children with fathers who were exposed to diesel exhaust fumes at work about the time of conception were 62 per cent more likely to have brain tumours.”

“The results, published in the International Journal of Cancer, also showed that children of women exposed to diesel fumes at work before the birth had twice the risk of brain tumours.”

Scary stuff? Yes. According to the WHO, diesel is the new asbestos.

“Experts at the World Health Organisation (WHO) say diesel engine exhaust fumes can cause cancer in humans. They say they belong in the same potentially deadly category as asbestos, arsenic and mustard gas.”

We are lucky to live far from city pollution but we do have a diesel car, diesel tractor and diesel UTV that gets me and the kids around the farm. That new UTV came with a roof and windscreen – a combination that, ironically, may have threatened our children’s health. Unfortunately, it seems the windscreen created negative pressure and built up a vacuum that sucks air from behind and around the UTV back over the cabin. With it came a lot of dust and a strong smell of diesel fumes.

The windscreen is now stacked neatly against a garage wall and we are breathing easy once more.

Farmers twice as likely to suicide

Farming is an addiction for many. Once you’re in it, you can hardly imagine another life. Sadly, it seems that is quite literally true for some. According to research reported in The Weekly Times, farmers are twice as likely to commit suicide than other Australians.

Research in 2010 showed farmers are among three occupations with significantly higher risk of male suicide, alongside transport and construction workers.

Between 1997 and 2002, suicide rates among Australian farmers were between 1.5 and 2.2 times higher than among the general population.

The researchers want to know why and so do I. My suspicion is that part of the cause may lie in one of the legendary strengths of the farmer psyche: resilience. We deal with drought, floods, price collapses and huge workloads by just getting on with it. I’ve often heard people refer to these stressful events by saying, “Ah, but that’s just part of farming”.

But what happens when they all happen at once, coincide with a tragedy or simply become too much? Does that mean we’re “not made of the right stuff to cut it”? Absolutely not. The flip side of the resilient farmer is the whinger. Maybe we ought to value those “whinges” more than we do. They might just save lives.

Ministers say DPI extension role is over: big mistake

The government has announced that the “DPI’s days of offering extension services to farmers were over with private-sector consultants taking on the role”. This is a mistake of gargantuan proportions. The farm is not the natural habitat of a propellor head but it wouldn’t be the same farm without them. And, dare I say it, their work wouldn’t be the same without continual and close working relationships with farmers.

Working together ensures the DPI’s work remains relevant and, perhaps even more importantly, we share ideas. Because farming is so practical, so low margin and framed in the unpredictability of nature, it’s critical that information flows back and forth between researchers and practitioners (farmers). In other words, researchers value our experience.

All this is aside from the fact that we simply can’t afford a highly paid buffer between the DPI and the farmers they serve.

According to the same Weekly Times article, Victorian Farmers Federation vice-president Peter Tuohey agreed DPI’s extension role was no longer needed. I’m gobsmacked. My VFF membership subs cheque is sitting on my desk. Should I send it with advocacy like this?

I hope it’s not too late to reverse this policy shift. Many of our brightest DPI people may already have been lost if these numbers quoted by the The Weekly Times are accurate:

“THE Victorian Department of Primary Industries has been stripped of 236 regional staff. But its Melbourne office has grown by 126 in the past three years.  Data seen by The Weekly Times shows DPI’s metropolitan Melbourne workforce surged to 1248 in June this year, equal to almost 48 per cent of all its 2693 employees and contractors.”

I’ll be writing to the VFF, my local member and the Minister. Please add your voice to support our regional DPI programs and experts.

Cows have best friends too

Here’s fascinating research reported in the Daily Mail:  Cows have herd mates and the bonds can affect yields, according to UK researchers.

Krista McLennan, an animal welfare researcher at Northampton University measured heart rates and cortisol levels of cows to see how they cope when isolated, penned with their best friend or with an unfamiliar cow. “When heifers have their preferred partner with them, their heart rates are reduced compared with if they were with a random individual,” McLennan said. “Keep an eye out for those cows which like to keep their friends with them. It could have some real benefits, such as improving their milk yields and reducing stress.”

I’ve noticed this myself. Just the other day, the herd was walked past a paddock of two-year-olds and I watched one of them gallop up to sniff noses across the fence with two herd members. The amazing thing was that their ear tags revealed they were all born in the same year. What I’d assumed was a two-year-old turned out to be a three-year-old late-calver conveniently paddocked with the younger ones. Old friends were catching up!