Business Farming

Friday 29 August 2014

Beef industry Down Under gets injection of optimism

Ann Fitzgerald

Published 23/04/2014 | 02:30

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FEEDING TIME: Santa Gertrudis steers being supplemented with hay on Elgee Park in Victoria, Australia
PARK LIFE: A dingo at Healesville Wildlife Sanctuary in Victoria, Australia

The first thing that struck me on walking out of Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne is the economic boom. The city is buzzing, the skyline is dotted with cranes and, shortly after 6am, we encounter gridlock on the freeway.

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When the rest of the developed world was heading for recession, the Australian government adopted economic policies which have maintained the country's prosperity.

Even the beef sector got a recent injection of optimism with the signing of the Australia/Japan Free Trade Agreement (AJFTA). Last week's South Gippsland Sentinel Times reports that sales of Australian beef to Japan are expected to rise by Aus $5.5bn (€3.7bn) over the next two decades.

Tariffs on frozen Australian beef exports to Japan will fall from 38.5pc to 19.5pc over 18 years, while those on chilled beef will drop to 23.5pc over 15 years. This is a much-needed boost for Aussie beef farmers, who suffered almost two years of drought followed by other challenges such as floods, fire, a strong Australian dollar and trade disruptions.

Only a few million dollars of trade relief is anticipated, however, for Australia's dairy sector. Tyran Jones of the United Dairyfarmers of Victoria has warned that "the US and European Union are set to swamp the global marketplace with subsidised dairy products, making it even harder for Australia to compete on a level playing field".

Hopefully, the overall boom Down Under will continue for the thousands of Irish people who have emigrated there in search of opportunities. The population of Australia is 23.5m and is estimated to be growing by more than 400,000 per annum.

Ireland is seventh – after India, China, the UK, Philippines, South Africa and Vietnam – in the Australian immigrant figures. On a trip to see the famed penguin parade on Phillip Island, the introductory talk was in three languages: English and two Oriental languages, probably Cantonese and Mandarin.

I visited Australia 25 years ago on a year-long working holiday visa where I got to live what I saw as the outback dream, riding in a cattle drive of 1,300 head across a stretch of Queensland. This was no tourist trek. The hard work was real, as were the blisters on my bum.

Tour

It's very different being back with a young family on a three-week holiday. All our accommodation and travel had to be booked in advance, while the only occasion we will sleep in the million-star motel will be as part of an organised bus tour.

It's been wonderful to experience everything anew through the eyes of the girls and Robin; the 700 native species of gum trees – including rainbow, red, flooded and wavy – and the native wildlife, including platypus, koala, dingo and, of course, roos.

But the highlight so far has to be the amazing birdlife who easily match their colourful names: rainbow lorikeets, sulphur-crested cockatoos, noisy miners and crimson rosellas.

I am writing this travelling on the day train from Melbourne to Sydney, tended by as warm and helpful a staff as I have ever come across.

They were actively assisting elderly passengers with their luggage and onward travel arrangements. Many of the rural stations such as Wagga Wagga, Cootamundra and Harden remain colonially quaint. The landscape is dramatic, though there would be little work for a plate metre.

The scheduled travel time is 11 hours and 30 minutes.

However, after three hours in, we have already had a couple of unscheduled stops.

Apparently there are some issues with signalling and brakes, but we have been repeatedly reassured that it is only a parking brake.

Now we are being told that the driver has managed to make up five minutes, so we are only running 45 minutes late. If I was at home I mightn't be so tolerant, but right now, it's all just part of the adventure.

Australia the facts

* Australia is more than 90 times the size of the island of Ireland and just more than half of its 770 million hectares is suitable for agriculture.

* There are 134,000 farm businesses in Australia, of which 120,000 are solely dedicated to agriculture, 307,000 people are employed directly – 234,000 of these full time and 1.6m people are employed across the agri-food sector.

* Approximately one third of farms are less than 50ha, a further third are between 50-500ha and there are around 100 farms with over 500,000ha.

* Anna Creek in South Australia is the largest cattle station in the world; its area of 24,000 sq km is slightly larger than Israel. But drought means it sometimes has no stock at all.

* The age profile of farmers in Australia is very similar to Ireland. Median farmer age is variously described as 52 or 53 years (compared to 40 across all other sectors), while the average for Ireland is 54. There, as here, the over 65s are the largest cohort.

* At Aus$48.7bn (€33bn), agriculture accounts for 2.4pc of Australia's GDP. The main products are beef and veal, wheat, whole milk, wool, wine, sugar, barley and lamb.

* Around 60pc of Australia's food production is exported, split almost evenly between livestock and crops. Main export markets include the South East Asian nations (21pc), China (14pc), Japan (13pc) with the EU on 8pc.

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