Adam Bedford: Australia farm trip opens the eyes

I have recently returned from a trip to Australia. The excessively long flight soon reminds you how far away the place is, but I was unprepared for the travelling distances involved when you are there. By anyone’s standards, Australia is colossal.

Australia is also an island, a country and a continent all at the same time. A cheesy yet informative tourism video which was probably called G’day and welcome to our wonderful country! informed me that 80% of the population live on 1% of the land area. There are evidently oodles of acres. A lot of it is bush, a lot of it is desert, and a lot of it is farmed. I thought it best to take a look.

Travelling abroad and seeing how agriculture operates there is enlightening as you get a different perspective on what you do at home. While it was possible to see plenty of similarities between what goes on here in comparison to Australia, the differences were stark.

As pointed out by people I met, Australia has a relatively young farmed landscape. European settlers and their farming practices only began to arrive at the turn of the 19th century. With the introduction of hard-footed animals such as sheep and cattle and a range of far less useful four-legged friends such as rabbits, the landscape of Australia changed forever.

This change is still happening, and in a country so diverse, the farming seemed anything but easy going. What was refreshing though was the sense that the Aussie psyche – the constantly upbeat attitude and general agreement that “everybody here gets a fair go” – also applies to the farming industry.

The similarities with the UK in terms of agricultural policy, though, were strikingly similar. Discussions around sheep tagging and sheep ID (what, here as well?), lack of research funding and even serious animal health debates after a recent quarantine rules report suggested the import of live FMD virus into research stations for modeling and vaccine work, were all on the agenda.

On the flipside, the water restrictions and a landscape that looks almost barren in comparison to the UK makes Australia very different. After 10 years of little significant rainfall in many areas and a drought two years ago, livestock numbers were reduced significantly as a result.

Water, and the lack of it, seemed to be the overriding concern for most farmers I spoke to. It seemed clear that Australian farmers are experiencing a changing climate. This much was obvious to a farmer in Victoria I met. ‘We always used to be able to plan the farm around when the rain would come,’ he commented, standing on the edge of his long-empty farm dam, ‘but now the rain doesn’t come any more when it used to, and we have no idea throughout different times of the year when it will, if at all.’

Things are happening though, with more than 4000 groups of communities and farmers working together voluntarily to look after their landscape to make it productive, profitable and environmentally sound under the banner of “Farmcare”. Australia also recently finally signed the Kyoto Protocol.

A carbon trading scheme will be in operation by 2010, but will initially exclude farmers. You get the feeling we will need to watch Australian agriculture to see how carbon trading pans out for them.

As I left, having thankfully kept away from creepy things that can kill you, almost cooked in temperatures of 47 degrees one day and with my carbon footprint significantly larger, I thought Australia was fantastic. It did make me ponder though. UK agriculture may have a lot of very real and justifiable headaches to deal with, but we also have a lot to be thankful for.


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