With what is effectively a tiny population of 22 million
, the Australian domestic market is too small to provide a commercially sustainable, vigorous, self-sufficient market in agricultural produce.
While one can argue that this is an ever changing variable and that the Australian population will continue to grow, a mere 2%
increase of such a small population base is insufficient for an enterprise to rely upon for continued organic growth.
There are a number of additional factors in play that place constraints on the size of the domestic market. I see two primary issues that choke the Australian market.
- All major agricultural industry branches within the Australian market have already reached 80:20 saturation. Simply put, every agricultural branch has 80% of the product provided by 20% of the producers. This thus creates a large “tail” industry where the remaining 20% of the product is provided by 80% of producers.
- The issue of the near duopolistic retail marketplace that is created by the Coles and Woolworths empires adds a further constraint to the local market. Recent acquisitions by the large supermarket chains (e.g. the Coles CRF deal) to seize greater control of the supply chain to funnel the produce and harvest profit at multiple points all under the guise of vertical integration further concentrates the size of the domestic market. In fact, this is a situation that not only affects producers, but manufacturers of food as well. From the production point, it becomes increasingly difficult for new producers to enter the market, while it will also create a squeeze on the larger enterprises to either further scale up or intensify production to meet the cost and supply demands which is likely to be at the peril of those businesses in the tail rather than in the head. Meanwhile, if warnings by the Australian Food and Grocery Council that food manufacturers are considering moving their operations offshore are realised (citing the higher dollar and discounting practices of the major supermarket chains as major causes) producers will feel a further constricting of the local market.
The conventional market landscape
Both the local and global markets present a range of challenges and opportunities to the Agricultural producer. In both cases, there are significant changes occurring in Australian agriculture which are mirrored across enterprises that target both the local and export markets.
Agricultural enterprises are increasing in size – usually via consolidation, though occasionally via leapfrogging their competition. Even traditional Australian broadacre grazing enterprises have undergone significant aggregations to meet market demands as well as offer a level of cushioning against environmental, market and economic movements.
All of this summarises to an observable pattern repetition across all Agricultural industries, namely that the volume of production has either stabilised or is rising while the number of enterprises servicing the industry has and (often) continues to decline.
Taking this trend into consideration, agricultural enterprises are, due to market forces, moving into some form of intensification as a production strategy.
In fact, a review of the broadacre industry over the last decade shows that beef enterprises have modified their practices from rearing calves on-site to “outsourcing” to a backgrounder or feedlot provider. Even in the oft cited “change resistant” and “conservative” lamb industry, this trend has been followed with larger enterprises establishing their own feedlot farm paddocks or establishing co-operative feedlots.
These practices have become all but compulsory to allow the industry to provide a smoothed out production and consistent market delivery.
The non-conventional Market
In looking around at the Agricultural landscape with a business eye, I discovered that all of the players (with only a small number of notable exceptions) classed within the realms of the non-conventional markets (niche or direct to consumer markets such as farmers Market, Paddock to Table and Mail Order enterprises) were small land holders or hobby farmers. In short, these are “tail end suppliers” who are ‘working smarter’ to improve their revenue and profitability.
In the majority of cases, the argument can be made that over 90% of these businesses are not commercially sustainable beyond a five to ten year lifespan with their existing operations. The reasons for this apparently limited commercial viability seem to be uniform.
- The median age of farmers in Australia is 52 years of age. However, more importantly, the proportion of farmers older than 65 years is 18% while the proportion of farmers under 35 years of age is just on 10%. In short, many agricultural businesses either do not have succession plans or anyone to take up the reigns, leaving the future of the business to succumb to the capital sale of the property.
- The fickle nature of the alternative markets with changing niche “fashions” can destroy a small business faster than it was established (e.g. Ostrich meat Industry). Even mainstream products can become unviable if warning signs such as a ‘single point of failure’ within the supply chain exists (e.g. the carpet wool industry collapse after the lone Geelong mill went into administration).
- The inability of the smaller enterprises to commoditise or provide a consistent year round (off season) product in a market where consumers have grown accustomed to continuous (off-season) product availability provided by supermarket chains and a global market.
- The inability of smaller and niche producers to establish a larger market share due to a lack of supply chain and utility infrastructure (e.g. meat suppliers unable to find suitable boning rooms for “non standard” carcasses or not having “commercial quantities”)
- Constantly changing regulatory and consumer requirements that increase the administrative and operational burden on smaller enterprises, decreasing the profitability of the venture by increasing overhead costs.
Increasingly, if a business wishes to ‘scale up’ to become commercially viable and sustainable, it must consider whether it plans to be a major local market player, trade in the global market, or make the decision to remain a small or niche player – in which efficiencies are the only means of increasing success and profitability.
Consumers and political regulations are forcing extensive, and often unnecessary to production requirements that result in small businesses being burdened with proportionally larger costs than their larger competitors.
Traditional market requirements have tended to influence consistency – consistent supply and consistent quality. Customarily, these requirements have been enforced via a penalty based matrix payment system.
However, consumer demands have been increasingly extending their reach from simply demanding a year round consistent product, to demanding year round, cheap consistent products that are based on specific production systems.
Achieving the requirements that are generally prescribed to market a product to the consumer as having undergone a specific production methodology (i.e. organic, free range, etc.) requires the enterprise to undergo a range of additional practices and activities above the production system itself. These are usually in the form of operational and management overheads (e.g. processes, training, reporting, documentation, auditing) and external consultancy or certification body costs to ascertain they meet the audit and certification requirements. These certifications of production systems are often costly to establish and costly to maintain with annual licence and audit fees.
These requirements are no longer simply factors of marketing or competitive differentiation between products, but are progressively becoming the expected norm.
In fact, it is becoming a global phenomenon that in an effort to meet real or perceived demands of the consumer, both political parties and super retailers have begun imposing production system standards and certifications. Sometimes these requirements are based on achieving a stated and measurable target (e.g. carbon footprint). However, there are also cases where requirements are enforced to meet a (oft misinformed) public perception issue.
In the local market, Coles Supermarkets have enforced a “no growth hormone” requirement on all meat produce, while ALDI have enforced a “no artificial colours” requirement on all products. Ignoring the often false and negative perception these labelling requirements place on the agricultural industry (the implication of such stickers is that these are common farming practices and the supermarket is defending the wellbeing of its customers) both of these requirements may otherwise seem innocuous to the majority of producers in Australia. Nevertheless, global trends hint it is the beginning of potentially tougher and more stringent restrictions to come.
Any export producer who wishes to sell any of their product within the United Kingdom will require a current, externally audited and unblemished ISO 14001 (EMS) certification be held by the enterprise. This requires an enterprise to spend at least a year to obtain and a further year to establish an “unblemished record”. Further, this adds significant annual audit and licensing fees that effectively preclude many smaller enterprises.
In some areas, the requirements are becoming prohibitively difficult and expensive to meet. Some countries (e.g. Singapore) have placed a “no genetically modified material” ban on produce, even requesting certification from importers on the feed provided to livestock was not GM. Stringent biosecurity requirements that were normally demanded from certain industries (e.g. egg producers for the pharmaceutical market) are becoming an essential aspect of the production system because of these requirements.
It is foreseeable that all of these examples will become the standard for food production requirements in the near future for all production suppliers – whether we are speaking of traditional, niche or direct to consumer producers.
External & Environmental Influences
Australia has an 80:20 split of urbanised to rural population spread. This is one of the highest per capita urbanisation rates in the world. A fact that is surprising as Australia prides itself on its rugged, rural image. Australia’s urban growth rate continues to grow at approximately 1.1% per year, and with it the metropolitan footprint into the outskirts of towns and cities.
Melbourne’s metropolitan footprint, as one example, shows an urban boundary extending up to 65 Kilometres from the CBD and spanning 80 kilometres across boundary to boundary.
The impact on the landscape is undeniable. Urban growth can be seen and traced throughout history as occurring along the banks of waterways and fertile soils, and this trend has not been modified by modern planners.
It is also a sad but apparent truth that urban developers have traditionally targeted rich and fertile lands to cater for the poetic image of the new home owner to have a home in a beautiful landscape and with easy care gardens. The ability of a housing developer to purchase acreage in an agricultural zone as a “land bank” and then successfully petition to modify the zoning to residential, allow them to sub-divide and convert the region may seem logical for economic and population growth by local and state governments, but fails to consider the overall impact.
In fact, more land and forestry has been lost to urban growth than to agricultural practices. This is a pattern that can be seen across the globe. In Australia, the pattern is not only being repeated along city fringes, but in regional areas as well.
A recent CSIRO lead research project that was completed in 2010 clearly shows this pattern in the Cairns region. Of the 11,440 Hectares of land that makes up the Cairns region, a mere 839Ha (7%) was utilised as urban land in 1952 with 42% of land marked as Agricultural use and the remaining 51% as “natural land use”. By 2008, Natural land use had reduced to 2,680 Ha (23%) while Agricultural land was down to a slither at 1,030 Ha (9%) with urban land now claiming 68%. Current growth and pattern projections show that 100% of the land will be marked for urban use by 2031
Tree changers and Rural Lifestyles
With increasing regularity, tree changers and other lifestyle-seeking residents are making incursions into traditional agricultural landscapes. Peri-urban regions, in particular, have been affected the most by this trend.
Lifestyle residents who enter the region place a major strain on the existing agricultural and regional community via a combination of ignorance or misinformation. Existing enterprises now face increased levels of shire intervention into agricultural production practices due to an increased number of complaints. Often these complaints are due to matters of aesthetic amenities rather than issues of operational process. Shires are often involved to deal with matters of noise or “visual blight” when the colour of materials or buildings are objected to by new residents.
Often, shires have found in favour of the new lifestyle residents. One can only assume that the motivation is financial as new residents increase land values, which in turn increase rate valuations and provides a shire with increased levels of income.
For many existing enterprises, this has meant restrictions placed on their operational enterprises – sometimes with severe financial repercussions. Whilst some analysts have taken the unkind but seemingly logical view that an enterprise can “cash in” on its new found capital land value and shift to a new location, it fails to take into consideration land quality, utilities, services or climate suitability that the enterprise requires. Further, even if a suitable land parcel can be obtained, the cost of the infrastructure requirements are a hefty investment and one unlikely to be recouped from the sale of a property.
Unfortunately, the burden is on agricultural landowners to petition their shires to place protective covenants onto the region and thus safeguard agricultural industry in the region. In at least one case, successful petitioning by landowners has established the creation of a “special use zone” to protect the requirements of a range of intensive enterprises within the zone
. Shires need to determine their stance and answer the question of who are the owners and beneficiaries of amenities in rural farming areas
Private lands, Public Benefits
Due to the perception that agriculture utilises the vast majority of rural land, there is an expectation that agricultural enterprises should also deliver public benefits from their land management.
Programmes such as those offered by Landcare, DSE and water catchment authorities seek to facilitate natural resource outcomes from private land. Occasionally, this creates a disjunction between productive private land use and the expectations of public benefits they seek. This can vary from programme to programme with some programmes even demanding protective covenants on the land
These can create substantial uncertainty for the managers and developers of agricultural enterprises as they battle the production requirements of their land with the needs to maintain the natural environment. The latter is encouraged (and in some cases expected) by the community and the organisations in question. Whilst these programmes assist farmers with some of the costs, it is still a significant financial burden to the land owner to implement, with full revegetation projects costing $2,000/ha for plants alone, simple fencing starting from $3,000/km.
Utilities and Infrastructure
While the state government land planning scheme created “farming zones” within the Victorian landscape nominally provisioned under the need to “encourage the retention of productive agricultural land
” the existing use planning processes and guidelines are generally designed to serve the needs of traditional low intensity and broad acre agricultural industries.
Permits are often required for the development of intensive agricultural systems. The existing strategy by shires seems to be to distance producers from each other and influence businesses to be located further from city fringes, towns and peri-urban regions.
This practice creates issues relating to the integration of the enterprises into the community, and it is problematic to resource each enterprise as it is created. The provision of appropriate infrastructure and services to rural regions whether it is gas, electricity, water, telecommunications or roads can place significant costs on the shire and on the business itself. The characteristic result is expensive delays, controversial difficulties at the permit stage, then expensive infrastructure provision when it is slowly provisioned.
The shift to the development and operation of aggregated, intensive, agricultural production systems is likely to be the future of agricultural enterprises, with this model likely to be replicated on small landholdings as well. This will likely create a number of issues for land use and shire planners. At this stage, the only risk mitigation a business can undertake is to confirm with shire planning departments what long-term regional plans exist prior to purchasing a parcel of land for a new enterprise.
ETS & Other Schemes
The issue of carbon sequestration through an Emission Trading Scheme, carbon trading or commercial offerings such as those offered by Carbon Neutral and Men of the Trees are a popular, if not heavily debated, topic of the age.
At this stage, the majority of carbon sequestration schemes are based on tree planting schemes.
Due to the nature of the schemas, they can not take place in areas of public land such as existing national or state parks, designated forests, or any waterway regions and their associated reserves. Further, the planting of trees for sequestration cannot utilise any urban land or any land given to road or rail use, government reserves or Defence force sites.
In practice, this leaves only existing agricultural lands to be made available for the purpose of planting trees with a 100 year legally binding protection covenant for this form of sequestration.
Other forms of carbon sequestering (e.g. from pulsed grazed grasses, biochar, etc) have not been fully explored as methods of management, commercial viability and regulatory compliance.
The issue of climate change is an ongoing debate. Whether the issue is one of natural cycles or human based activity is irrelevant to the agricultural producer. The issues of ongoing climatic uncertainty are ones that farmers have dealt with throughout history. The only difference is the speed of the changes in recent times.
The fact that climate change is occurring is not up for debate, with local enterprises dealing with temperature and rainfall changes that have altered seasonal frosts, traditional gathering times or available chilling times. Even New Zealand has swapped its primary industries from sheep and wool to dairy farming as the climate becomes far wetter than historically experienced.
Climate change is also driving a reduction in the area of land on which agriculture can be practised, with flooding, fire and droughts all making long lasting impacts on the landscape and altering the ability for agricultural productivity
With all of these changes comes a range of adaptation strategies, which also has an array of implications for the infrastructure and land-use planning requirements of regional areas.
Animal Welfare vs. Anthropomorphisation issues
A common mistake made by humans, is the anthropomorphising of the animals and the expectations of their welfare requirements.
Often, the search for humane practices in livestock keeping, those who question or protest against farming practices may indeed be doing so from the best of intentions, however, they too fall for this error in logic. The poetic image of sun swept open fields with plenty of room and a small handful of animals to share it may seem like the ideal lifestyle, however, it is a view based on human idealism and not on the actual physical (nor mental) requirements of the stock.
To understand the true welfare requirements of an animal, one needs to take into consideration the evolution and origin of the domesticated animal as part of the assessment of the psychological well being and thus overall happiness of the animals in the producer’s care. Happy animals are stress free animals. Stress free animals tend to be healthy animals. Healthy animals tend to perform best for the producers end market goal.
For instance, the poetic image that is popular with animal activists at the moment – that of a free range pig browsing along the green grasses, in between carefully laid out mud baths, while the scene is bathed with a crystal blue, cloudless, sun-filled sky and a breeze gently nudges the grass blades. Idyllic isn’t it Almost makes one wish that they themselves could have this care and stress free life.
In fact, that is indeed the truth. This is the lifestyle chosen by a human and not the lifestyle a member of the swine family would ever choose for itself.
A forest animal by natural selection, it developed without the need for fur, scales or other protective covering other than it’s own thick, passive heat diffusion skin. Foraging in the undergrowth and litter that makes up the cool temperatures of the forest floor, the pig was protected from both sun and wind. If by working too hard, it began overheating, it could easily and quickly utilise behavioural thermoregulation by burying itself in litter, or wallowing in water or mud. This is the physical environment that a pig requires – a low, covered, temperate environment with availability of materials to allow it to maintain its own thermoregulation. Placing a pig in a paddock at the mercy of the wind, rain and the Australian sun is actually barbaric and torturous.
The psychological needs of a pig are also quite substantial. They require high levels of social and physical interaction, play and an ability to feel like they are in control of their immediate needs of food and sleep. The image of a few pigs given a large paddock may seem humane, but to the mental health of a pig, is akin to placing a social butterfly into a hermitage.
All livestock have different physical and mental requirements. The care of the livestock requires an understanding of the attributes that make up their total wellbeing.
If a producer is to achieve the greatest level of production from their stock, then they need to ensure the greatest level of fitness, health and happiness. The benefits of such a practice are obvious for the bottom line, but perhaps by being so educated themselves, it can lead the producer to demonstrate the humane practices and benefits of the system they run to those that otherwise are under the impression of inhumane practices.
As a side effect to many of the aforementioned issues but predominantly the difficulty of purchasing their own land due to ever-increasing land prices combined with the aggregation of producers and the cost-price squeeze of the market, many of the next generation of rural families are seeking to not follow in the footsteps of the family business.
Combined with greater access to educational streams and higher degrees of education, many have opted to specialise and offer their services back to the rural sector.
This has created a new “contract class” labour force that suits the larger players in the aggregated market by providing a specialised, on-demand set of workers that fits in with the business cycles.
This new labour market has already faced some hurdles, with the largest players able to schedule and book labour, many seasons in advance. Further, larger enterprises are in a position to offer additional payment awards that smaller enterprises may be unable to meet.
These place smaller enterprises wishing to scale up their production at risk of being unable to book labour when they require it, or simply be unable to find workers they can afford. Seeking to meet the manpower that increased production needs, they may resort to seeking any form of labour and thus resort to untrained or casual staff. This practice could lead to a new class of untrained but “experienced” cheaper labourers in the industry, but requires additional care (and risk) on the part of the enterprise owner.
For the smaller enterprise owner, non-intensive agriculturalist and small landholder, labour workforces may not have been an issue to contend with in the past. However, as the market continues to force enterprises into intensifying production and scaling up their business, hiring labour – and specifically task-based contract labour – will become a necessary skill and administrative overhead that needs to be part of the enterprise arsenal.
In many areas of Australia (and Victoria in particular), high land values are making it extremely difficult (and in some areas near impossible) for new farmers to afford their first farm.
Even if an entrant to agriculture manages to secure a loan and purchase the land, they are hit by stamp duty fees (5% of the property sales price in Victoria) and are then placed into a situation where they are solely relying on the lands potential to make an income to ensure they make the repayments.
Young people under the age of forty should be seen as a wise investment by the nation. However, with the service economy view dominating the policies of all levels of government along with the voting weights being urban centric often means that objective and future proofing policies to ensure an agricultural industry exists as an ageing farming demographic begins to statistically (and very much realistically) fade away into the margins, are not taken.
Looking at the “free market” to solve some of these issues also produces a disappointing lack of support. A false perception that consolidation is inevitable in a globalised free market economy creates situations where large corporate purchases of competitors or of up or down stream suppliers are common with the common argument that these mergers create stronger companies which “improve efficiencies”. The declaration is often followed up with claims that producer returns and consumer pricing will also benefit. This may be true, at least in intention, however with no regulatory imperative that compels a company to either make the pricing structure transparent, nor to pass gains onto producers. This often creates an environment where producers increasingly have less market intelligence than the retailers and processors which, in turn, can lead to unfair trading, constricted pricing and even anti-competitive behaviour in a small economic market like Australia where duopolies are easily created and maintained.
One only has to see the impact on industries such as Dairy farming to see the consequences of the culmination of these factors. The number of dairy farms has fallen by 66% over the last three decades. In years where strong farmgate milk prices occur (as was experienced during the 2007/08 season) we see a greatly reduced the rate of attrition occurring, however, the opening of the 2009/10 season with the lowest milk prices in the last decade along with the impact of the retail duopoly milk price war saw the rate of attrition increase accordingly.
This creates an environment where new entrants are effectively dissuaded from becoming a primary producer. If the entrant does decide to take on the opportunity, they may very well find themselves (and often their partner as well) in a situation where they are required to gain off-property employment to meet the needs of the mortgage. This, naturally, will limit the income producing capability of the property and creates (at best) a disillusion of the potential of the enterprise or (at worst) a view to exploit the capital value of the property to gain a return and thus leave the industry early.
Often, as in the dairy industry example, one can find a pattern in these regions. In the peri-urban regions, the exploitation of the capital value is marketed and actively marketed to property investment firms and private developers who are quick to purchase the properties for the land banking opportunity.
Where these farms exist in more distant locations, they are often re-packaged for alternative enterprises (e.g. dairy farm remarketed as cropping land) or (increasingly) the individual rights of the land (e.g. water bore licenses, irrigation rights, etc) are sold off and then the remaining land subdivided into smaller parcels to be sold off piecemeal.
This combination of factors simultaneously creates an environment that not only creates barriers to new entrants into the industry, but actively rewards a declination in both enterprises and land improvement.
What future do these sets of facts mean to a new starter in the Agricultural industry
On the one hand, there will always be a need for food, so there will always be the need to produce it. On the other, there are a great many challenges an agricultural producer must rise to, and it is no easy ride by any stretch of the imagination.
Land prices have placed those seeking to purchase an agricultural enterprise in a compromised position. Smaller land parcels with increased buyer competition and inflated pricing are the challenges facing entry-level players. Those seeking an established enterprise face competition from “land bank” investors, superannuation and investment firms, multinationals and overseas interests. The end result is potentially paying far more than the traditional business valuation would suggest, placing a new agricultural producer in the position of paying a mortgage over an extended period, only to find that the business’ value is ignorable when compared to the capital value of the land below it.
It is unfortunate fact that the community at large is so abstracted from the rural view and the links of the land that they are quick to judge all farmers as environmental terrorists, ready to clear the land and mishandle livestock. As I hope I have shown, there are a great number of issues facing every agricultural enterprise, large or small.
Infrastructure, market drivers, urban encroachment, animal welfare and environmental management are only the tips of the icebergs that are visible in the current waters. These trends have and will continue to produce serious issues for the Agricultural industry in Australia.
The rapid loss of agricultural lands is prevalent throughout the world and regardless of the efficiencies, intensification or even genetic manipulation being made to increase the output of these enterprises; agriculture simply cannot compete with the sprawl that is characteristic of urban growth.
Geoff Bell, managing director of the Australian Year of the Farmer, recently pointed out that “farming is integral to our daily lives” and he is right.
Australian farmers are far from the simple, resistant and irresponsible community that much of the media and the naysayers wish to portray them as.
Geoff Bell drew attention to this fact by stating, “Australian farmers used 7.3 per cent less land than they did 60 years ago, but are producing 220 per cent more product and use 50-80 per cent less water than before.”
While the Agriculture industry is an easy target for activists and political groups alike, the reality is that the impact on Agriculture will affect society far more than they wish to admit.
When faced with all of these issues, why would one choose to enter the agricultural industry Whatever the stated reason, it seems there can only be one motivation that drives those in the industry – passion.