Hi everyone and thanks for coming along to the Annual General Meeting of the Huon Producers Network, and thank you also for giving me this opportunity to speak.
The topic I’ve chosen for tonight is “Living on the Land” — which basically makes it easy for me to bang on about the things closest to my heart for half an hour. So here we go….
So here we all are, trying to make a living off the land, on our own terms, in the Huon Valley, on a smallish scale, in this modern age of multinationals and industrial agriculture, and for me this raises the question: is this realistic? How viable are our expectations of living on the land?
Are we a bunch of hopeless romantics befuddled by this dream of life on the land, of gentle rains and growing plants and sunny afternoons, and a good ache at the end of the day? Of bounteous harvests and being beholden to no man or woman? Of a sustainable life close to nature?….sounds lovely, doesn't it!
Well, statistically speaking, people, this is all looking pretty dreamy…
What a lot of us here are trying to do — make an income from a small scale farm — is bucking a long-term trend that is still accelerating. In the last three decades the number of farmers in Australia has dropped by 40% as small-scale farmers sell out …and as the big guys get bigger.
Even in the last few years I’ve watched this happen around Cygnet, where two mid-size orchardists on my road are pulling out trees while in Nicholls Rivulet the Harvey orchard continues to expand with new plantings.
Economies of scale are one reason for the decline of the small farms. The farms on my road just weren’t making enough money anymore as the price of apples dropped and the price of diesel rose. Imports and interstate competition dropped apple prices, and fuel is only going to become more expensive as the wells decline. To turn a profit from margins reduced by global factors, you’ve got to get bigger or sell out.
Another reasons for the decline of the small-scale farm is an ageing population of farmers: When you think of a farmer, you imaging a leathery old bloke in dusty clothes on a tractor, and this is largely a true image. Farmers are significantly older than the average Australian worker, and as these farmers retire, there are fewer of the following generation who choose to farm for a living.
There’s a reason for this. Farmers work bloody hard, significantly harder than the average Australian, more hours for significantly less income. I am a prime example of this. Last financial year, I worked between 50-60 hours a week for an income of $35,000, which equates to the princely sum of $13 dollars per hour. I am not in the big league. I could earn more managing a McDonalds. Or just working in one!
So to earn a living from a farm you have to work physically harder, for longer hours, for less money. It’s not sounding great, is it?
Maybe I won’t go on to talk about the far higher than average death rates of farmers due to accident? Suicide? I won’t talk about drought or crop failure. Or of the winter days at the market when everybody has stayed at home, and it’s raining and you’ve lost money?
Or those seemingly endless summer days when you drag yourself out of bed in the dark, again, to tend to your crops, and don’t get back to the house until after sunset, again, and you talk to your mates from the mainland with city jobs who are spending the weekend at the beach. Again.
It’s fraught, living on the land, it’s hard work with little recognition and less pay….so why do we do it? Why? Are we engaged in some delusive pursuit of a romantic notion?
Or are there ameliorating factors? We are all here having a go at this, so what is it that makes living on the land worthwhile, against all this evidence?
Well, I’ve been farming on a small scale for almost five years now, and am planning to continue to do so, so I obviously I do think there are factors that make living on the land worthwhile.
But money is not one of them! If you are gunning for the millions, you might want to look elsewhere!
It’s not about the money. Money is not a way of keeping score, it is a way of continuing to do what you love. The money is not an end in itself, it is a means to keep the farm going, and to provide for the poor times, and to build up a bank for when you retire. So financial considerations aside, what is there to love about living on the land?
I reckon there’s a few things worth mentioning. Lifestyle comes to mind straight away. I mean, I have these mates in the city who do get weekends at the beach, and trips overseas, and who eat out a lot — but they are stuck in an office all week. Some of them even like their jobs — but every one of them would give it up if they had the money not to work.
Whereas if I had a million or two, I would still be gardening and farming. Probably on a larger scale, and certainly with more employees. Or employees at all, in fact. And holidays, ahhh holidays… I'd take holidays! But I’d still be farming, still living on the land. So it’s about lifestyle, but what else?
Sometimes I think about the personality traits that drive some people to take up farming, and not others.
Independence would be one; not wanting to work for a boss, enjoying making your own mistakes, and the challenge of fixing things that are broke (often by yourself). Maybe also an aversion to crowds, or a dislike of hustle, bustle and noise, such as you find in the city. What about a contented nature? A desire to live simply?
But most of all I reckon your small-scale farmer is characterised by excessive optimism. So much optimism. And if you are not well endowed with optimism, then I don’t think you’d last long!
Because you have to believe you can do better next year. That you will remember to water all those carrot sowings, and therefore have a crop for winter, that you will put up netting over the peas before the damn ducks eat them all, and you will keep the weeds down so there isn’t a plague of cutworms that eats your entire corn crop for the year.
And yes, that's all happened to me.
Optimism. This is the same optimism that gets you out of the bed in the dark on market morning despite last week’s miserable takings: It’s sure to be better this week!
This same optimism carries you through the wet months of spring when the farm is a quagmire and you are carrying a couple of kilos of mud on each boot and your ‘waterproofs’ are proving to be misnamed: Just think of how the seedlings will pop up when the sun returns!
And, inevitably, the sun does return. Not everything fails. Some of the crops even turn out better than expected. And sometimes you take a moment to lean on your hoe and look around, sunlight on your shoulders and warm earth at your feet. Things are looking good and you gaze around and wonder “they let me do this for a living? How good is that?”
And indeed it is good. And in yet another incidence of scientists going to great lengths to tell us what we already knew intuitively, there are now studies confirming that time spent in nature is beneficial to human health and happiness.
One such study showed that mental and physical recovery from an operation was significantly better when patients had access to natural surroundings. Another study showed that people were significantly happier if they had been outdoors during any given day.
We kind of knew this already, I think? And the farming life — living on the land — is replete with good air, good exercise, and being outdoors. There is goodness gained from being in nature even on the most miserable day — you may not be ready to admit to this until you are back inside, dry, by the fire, sipping tea, but it is so. Even an unexpected and foul-falling November frost has it’s beauty.
So there are indisputable personal and aesthetic reasons for living on the land. And beyond the personal and aesthetic I think there are other considerations that make living on the land worthwhile. Community. I think part of living on the land is being embedded in a local, rural community where you see the same faces week after week and month after month. Year after year.
Where you know and have a relationship with the people who serve you at the garage, the library and the shop, as well as the people you sell your produce to. Where even if you are not particularly fond of someone, you make an effort. You live in the same valley, you’ve got to learn to get along.
And you end up with friendships with people you’d probably never be friends with if you lived in the city, and you form relationships that can be challenging but are always worthwhile. It seems to me that living on the land, we are far more dependent on those around us than are city dwellers.
I have a neighbour who is very different to me, and whom I find difficult occasionally, and we’ve had our small disagreements, but when something goes wrong — and on the land things do go wrong more often than elsewhere — there’s no question. Pitch in an help out. Do what is necessary.
When I tipped up my tractor bringing in the hay last year, I had no idea how to right it, or whether it would be broken or how to fix it. A couple of my neighbours convened at the scene the next day. One neighbour brought his big tractor along. My other neighbour, the one I find difficult, brought along expertise and advice. He helped right the tractor, cigarette in mouth the whole time, and assured me it’d be fine in a few days once I’d ‘let the oil settle’. He was right.
I’m never going to be invited into this man’s home, nor he mine (except in an emergency), but we acknowledge each other on the road, and there is trust, if not friendship, between us. We each can be relied upon.
More recently, I separated from my wife, and although I felt I’d made some good friends over my 4 or 5 years here, I was surprised, and gladdened, by the amount of support received by me — and my now ex-wife — from the community around us. I think sometimes I still have a hangover from being city-bred, that my default setting is ‘impersonal’, while long-time country residents are used to being a known entity in a knowing community, where local news is not just ‘gossip’, it is the basis for sympathy or action.
So living in a rural community — living on the land — brings it’s own challenges and rewards, and invests meaning in the everyday.
But apart from the personal and community aspects, for me there’s a wider reason for living on the land too, a philosophical reason that is a reflection of the current state of the world to the best of my knowledge.
As far as I can tell, we as a species need to act on behalf of the planet. Fundamentally, this comes down to carbon. There’s too much of it in the atmosphere, and the best place for it is the soil.
We put more carbon into the atmosphere every time we use fossil fuels, and most fossil fuels are used for feeding humans. Fossil fuels to manufacture fertiliser. Also, many conventional fertilisers are made from fossil fuels. Fossil fuels power agricultural machinery to till the soil and spread the fertiliser. Fossil fuels are used to harvest plants, and process them into food-like substances, and to manufacture food packaging made from fossil fuels, then to package the food-like substances, then for the temperature control and transport of food and food-ish stuffs. That’s a lot of oil and coal and gas right there.
So this is a systemic issue.
This is a big picture, really big, and I’m only a small guy. I don’t feel up to challenging Monsanto or Shell. I don’t like shouting and protest. So when I came to this realisation about where the world stands, and thought about what I could do to help, what was the rational response, I came to the conclusion that growing vegetables for a local market ticks a lot of boxes.
Managed properly, organic farming returns carbon to the soil, sequestering it. Better still, more carbon in the soil is better for plants as well as the planet, so it’s win - win. If I farm right then I’m putting carbon back in the soil, and growing better vegetables.
Then, if I sell these fresh vegetables locally, then not only is my produce carbon neutral (or better), every sale I make is one less beetroot or bunch of carrots that has been grown, washed, packaged and transported by the carbon intensive conventional food network. Hopefully, it’s one less item of packaged, food-like-substance sold. And because my produce is fresh, it's retained it's nutrient value. So that’s a me-customer-planet win-win-win also.
So growing organically and selling locally is living on the land with an eye to the global situation.
And those three reasons for living on the land - the personal, the community and the global, is what I see here tonight in this community called the Huon Producers Network.
And despite the hardships physical and financial, the lack of holidays or spending money, there’s something about living on the land you just won’t find anywhere else. All the toil and drudgery is more than made up for by the joys of a bountiful crop, the cheerfulness of the friend/customer, the help of a neighbour, the beauty of the day around you, the optimistic knowledge that what you are doing is good for the earth.
Living on the Land — why wouldn’t you?