We often hear about how different agriculture is in other parts of the world and as Australian farmers, it’s important to keep an eye on the bigger global picture as we plan for our businesses into the future. I took the opportunity recently swap the cotton fields of the Darling Downs for the farms of the Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Spain and Portugal to learn about some of the different technologies and practices in place to feed, clothe and provide amenity for the world. Below are my general observations and reflections.
Unlike Australian farmers, who are among the least subsidised in the world, the European Union provides direct support to farmers, and funds market measures and rural development. We witnessed subsidies being used in a variety of ways. From providing unviable Swiss dairy farms profitability in the high country so that they continue to care for the land. to a higher subsidy for organic farms in France that aren’t able to turn a profit. And a fellow cotton farmer in Spain who looked to be picking a good crop but was receiving a subsidy to the tune of $1,000AUD per hectare! It’s important to note that we don’t know the true cost of farming in these parts of the world and how it all balances out globally.
However, as all the farmers were quick to point out, there was a price to pay for receiving a government subsidy and many felt trapped in the red tape and exclusions that come with the handout. For example, despite Spain allowing genetically modified corn to be grown, their cotton farmers are not able to source the same technology, which results in higher production costs due to increased pesticide use.
Spain and Portugal both appeared particularly innovative in their ability to produce high quality fruit and vegetable crops under less than ideal conditions. Hot dry summers on steep and stony hillsides were set up with efficient drip irrigation systems which are a credit to their farmers’ skills. We were also impressed by a sweet potato farmer in Portugal using drip irrigation on his crop growing in four metres of loamy sand. It allowed the strategic placement of fertiliser and required just 50 minutes of water every four days. No doubt, being able to get your product into a market of millions of consumers within a couple hours must be a massive advantage, as a result, his land was values at over $50,000 AUD/ha.
The cost of agricultural land continues to soar in Europe and is often tightly held by families for generations. In the current market prime wheat country north of Paris is selling for $25,000AUD/ha and top-quality irrigated corn and cotton farmland in Spain is worth up to $60,000AUD/ha. While machinery costs appeared comparable to what we pay in Australia, generally labour costs were less than what we experience.
I believe Australia is a land of great opportunity, but we need to continue to innovate increase the efficiency with which we use the resources available to improve how we produce food, fibre and foliage. Being overloaded with onerous and inefficient legislation like Reef regulations only makes this harder and will reduce our ability to compete on the world market.