The wide gap between urban and agricultural interests in Australia has been a longstanding fact of life. Matthew Cawood explores what part the media plays in that, and to what effect. Illustration by Rocco Fazzari.
Most tribes are “discovered” and drawn into engagement with the world, usually bloodily and sorrowfully. It can sometimes seem like farmers are evolving the other way: a strata of Australian society that is tribalising and pulling away into its inland fastness. Perhaps one day, a team from National Geographic will rediscover the lost Farmer tribe, and we will marvel at the oddity of its rites, and the fashions of its women.
It may not quite come to that, but the ever-present gulf between urban and rural life is growing like a crevasse on a warming ice sheet. The street and the farm have always been separate worlds, subject to their own laws and rhythms, but that old divide is being redrawn in new ways. City and country are each becoming more self-referential.
On appearances, matters are trending the other way. Over the past two decades, Australia has emerged from a meat-and-three-veg cuisine into a place where culinary excellence (and good coffee) can be found almost
everywhere. Cooking shows are a television staple, and chefs have become some of the biggest personal brands on the planet. Largely because of the chefs, concerns about food quality, environmental sustainability and animal welfare are changing retail marketing of food across the Western world.
In a sense, though, much of this new appreciation of food is formalising the relationship most of us no longer have with the land. Like the Japanese celebration of cherry blossom, grown more important as Japan has grown more urbanised, Australia’s retreat from handson engagement with the land is being replaced by an ideal. Few urban shoppers want to trade places with the farmer on the supermarket ad banner – a man who stands amid grass the green of synthetic turf – even if they admire him. Farmers were ranked 10th in the Reader’s Digest “Australia’s Most Trusted Professions 2013” survey, behind doctors and firefighters, but well ahead of plumbers (28th) and journalists. Sadly, journalists sit at the other end of the scale.
Out here in “the bush” where I live and work, the world is seen from the other side of the mirror. The capital city is a haze-shrouded island on the edge of everything else. Its pulsing commuters, its obsessions with transport and image, its very raison d’être are matters that are of less importance than rain and sun, insects and livestock, wild dogs and broken gaskets.
But farmers understand the city much better than the city understands the land: it’s where their sons and daughters tend to end up.
Media has the job of translating between these two worlds – or, more accurately, being almost wholly urban-focused, it has the job of translating agriculture to the urban population. When this is in the hands of specialist reporters, as it is on the major newspapers and the ABC, the translation is good – often very good – within the narrow frame imposed by news media.
The best media bridge between rural and urban has long been the ABC’s Landline program.
Landline’s reporting manages to convey the complexity and sophistication of farming, without leaving its urban audience behind. My own stable, Fairfax Agricultural Media, has a large urban readership, but its reporting is aimed squarely at those who speak the language of agriculture.
If there are failings in the media’s reporting of agriculture, it lies with the structure of media itself. Inevitably, audiences see agriculture through different prisms. Readers of the business media see farming as agribusiness, with Australia as a player in the global trade of agricultural commodities. At the other end of the scale, the food and organic set celebrates the small, specialist farm that focuses on a modest output of niche product. Between commodity and niche lie the mass of farmers – the families who manage most of Australia’s land and produce most of its food. When these people become visible in the mainstream media, in the hands of generalist reporters, it is too often to reinforce a stereotype of farming as an occupation made hazardous by drought, flood and debt. This is true, but it’s a truth that is as old as agriculture. Inevitably, much of the richness and sophistication
Inevitably, much of the richness and sophistication of agriculture is left behind as journalists cut around a story to ensure its appeal to a wide audience. Some understanding is lost along the way. A machinery dealer on the north-west plains of NSW told me he is now reluctant to employ mine-machinery mechanics because they don’t understand the digital technology that is at the heart of today’s farm machinery. On the other hand, he is finding a rich vein of talent in high school computer geeks. This sophistication doesn’t come through in stories of drought and flooding rain.
Nor do many journalists appreciate the public relations knife-edge that Australian agriculture treads as a global exporter. Reputation is everything, as the US beef industry found when one-off cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in the early 2000s got it locked out of lucrative Asian and Middle Eastern markets (to Australia’s great advantage). A story is a story, but stories with the potential to damage Australia’s reputation as a supplier of clean, safe food will = reverberate far wider and longer than their short time in the news cycle. In airing a wrong, media can too easily provoke a cascade of wrongs ABC Four Corners’ shocking 2011 exposé of the abuse of Australian cattle shipped to Indonesia was a story that had to be told, and it was told with devastating effect. I don’t know of anyone who wasn’t shocked and angered at what they saw. That obviously included the agriculture minister Joe Ludwig, who suspended the live export trade. The echoes of that decision are still rolling around the rangelands.
Suddenly, hundreds of thousands of cattle bred to go on ships had nowhere to go. Some station owners were trucking cattle 3000km south to get them off their country. The flow of cattle that was redirected south crushed stock prices across the eastern states. When the monsoon failed in 2012-2013, the north was still in cattle gridlock. One grazier, upheld for his conservative management over the past 30 years, told me his country was in its worst shape for decades because of the difficulty of unloading cattle. The drought relief package announced earlier this year by the Coalition owes some of its urgency to that massive interruption to the cattle market.
One splashy media report; an enormous social, animal welfare and environmental cost. It was socially responsible of Four Corners to tell the story, and it was Joe Ludwig who shut down the trade, but perhaps in the future, social responsibility should extend to consideration of the fallout of such industry-shaking events. No media is an island.
Agriculture needs the vigour of digital start-up culture… the business smarts of Apple
As the Australian public is occasionally reminded of its agricultural sector by such reports out of the wilderness, the sector itself is undergoing massive change. Profits are harder to make. Decades of post-war productivity increases based on new technology have plateaued, but costs rise inexorably. In global terms, Australia is a high-cost farmer: we don’t have cheap labour from Mexicans or Eastern Europeans. We have turned to technology to supplant human labour, at a financial and social cost. Small towns that once thrived on the people needed to staff a district’s farms are dead or dying. In the pretty little town of Galong, NSW, a couple of hours north-west of Canberra, the pub and post office are for sale, along with all the houses not occupied by renters, but no-one is buying.
There are other, profound challenges for agriculture, not least climate change, about which there is widespread scepticism in the bush. Not necessarily the scepticism of the professional denialist, but about the value of looking decades ahead when managing weather month to month is about all a farmer can reliably do.
There is the digital divide: the digital torrent is barely a trickle in many farmhouses connected to overloaded satellites. There is the dissonance between a society that places a premium on youth, versus agriculture where a farmer’s average age is somewhere in the 60s. There is the feeling, not wholly mollified by the current crop of Coalition Nationals, that the bush is increasingly irrelevant to the state and federal political classes.
Together, these things add up to the sense that rural areas belong to a different country; that prosperity is being vacuumed into the cities, along with youth, and the bush is being left to struggle on diminished human and financial capital.
It’s true, and not true. The decay of rural townships is real, and a big swathe of farmers is struggling to survive. But the top 20 per cent of farmers are making enviable returns for any business, and a crop of ag-entrepreneurs is eyeing the colossal possibilities of Asia.
There is opportunity here for media to bring it all together by recognising agriculture as being at the root of all our endeavour. How we conduct agriculture shapes the environment we live in, the quality of our water, our health, the aesthetic of our landscapes and our terms of trade.
To maintain these goods, agriculture needs the vigour of digital start-up culture, the passion of environmental activists, the business smarts of Apple. All those elements are already there. It just needs people to tell those stories more often, and better, in recognition that really, there are no farmers– just people.
Matthew Cawood has worked as a journalist for 20 years. He is national beef writer, and science and environment writer, for Fairfax Agricultural Media. He lives mostly on a farm in New England with his family. Follow Matthew on Twitter.