Ann Fitzgerald: We must take steps to save the future of the family farm
The family farm has traditionally been the main unit of production. That has been changing in the developed world.
I’m now wondering whether its demise is becoming inevitable.
A recent Facebook video made by a young South Australian dairy farmer explaining that her family are selling up their herd because they could no longer shoulder their debt burden quickly notched up hundreds of thousands of views.
“The clock has run out and it’s time to say goodbye,” Casey Treloar said in a tearful farewell.
“We are getting 38 cents a litre (equivalent to 24 cent in the EU) across the year and it’s completely unsustainable.”
A dollar-a-litre motto was introduced in Australia supermarkets in 2011 and, eight years on, that landmark price is still being widely implemented.
Ms Treloar said she did not blame dollar-a-litre milk but said it has “devalued our product.”
“This is the future of farming, where we’re going to get to a point where there won’t be these family farms anymore,” she said.
Farmers from across the developed world responded to the poignant narrative, many with similar stories. One from Ohio said: “We are still going but not sure how much longer.”
Last year, I came across a story about a dairy farmer in New Zealand that has stuck with me.
He was selling his 152ha farm, after 170 years of family ownership. The farm was making money but he was thinking about retirement. His two adult children had jobs in the city and were not interested in taking over the farm.
One of the points he made is that “the farm has to be bought every generation”. What he meant is that this level of continuous investment is required to stay in the race.
Irish dairy farming seems to be copying that in New Zealand, where the average herd size is now 419 cows, but the talk is still about “ever-increasing cow numbers and ballooning herd sizes”.
The average herd in Ireland is now approaching 100 cows and, at that kind of number, they can still be managed by a family unit.
But, given the rate of herd size growth seen over the past four years, continued growth seems inevitable. Herds will increasingly move beyond the management capacity of the family unit.
So why do herds keep growing?
Capitalism is a factor and, on the other hand, the percentage of income that consumers spend on food across the developed world has been plummeting. In Ireland, for example, it has halved in the past 40 years.
As a consequence, farmers have had to become ever more efficient, led by increasing scale, (with consequent pressure on the elements of the production chain – environment, animal husbandry, human wellbeing, etc).
To my mind, there is a bigger picture than efficiency-is-all-that-matters – family farms are about a lot more than producing food.
I recently came across an interest concept called Crowdfarming (see crowdfarming.com).
This focuses on producing a prime-quality product and getting it directly from the farmer to the consumer.
It recognises the need to reconnect people to those who produce their food. Key features are sustainability of the environment and the farmer.
One such farmer is Sergio Muñoz, a young orange grower in Valencia, Spain. His father had previously sold his oranges in the traditional market for below the cost of production. Joining Crowdfarming is turning their business around.
This may help some people in the medium term but what’s really needed is a broader recognition by policy makers of the perils of the path we are on.
We can learn from the New Zealand experience; we don’t have to copy it.
If the family farm is lost, I fear the day is not far behind when food loses all value in the eyes of the consumer. That is not an appealing prospect for the planet.