Farming

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Farming

Australia's parched farmers are crying out for some of our rain

This week, on a visit to give a son and his fiancée in Australia the final push over the betrothal line, I tried to catch up on the wellbeing of the farmers on that southern continent. I began with an agricultural show at Toowoomba, which lies in good farming country 120km west of Queensland's capital, Brisbane.

I've always worked on the basis that Irish farmers are competing against both the ranchers of the world and the peasants of the world.

However, my antipathy to the ranching farmers in Australia was greatly dissipated when I read the struggles of a pioneering Irishman who emigrated to Oz aged 20 in 1922 and spent a lifetime carving a farm out of the native bush.

Before I even got into the show, a fat lady in a big hat said to me: "Isn't it terrible about Cubbie?" It transpired that she was referring to anger at the government for approving the sale of Queenland's biggest farm business to the Chinese.

The iconic Cubbie station holds the biggest irrigation licence in Australia and is the biggest farm business in the Murray Darling basin. It grows 10pc of the country's cotton and reportedly has two years' water supply on tap. The company had been in administration, but the sale of the 300,000ac farm to the Chinese company RuYi has caused a split in the Liberal opposition party.

Next to hit me at the show was the controversy between Australian farmers and the companies with licences to drill for gas. The volume of gas estimated to be lying in coal seams in this region is mind boggling. All told, the petro-gas companies are talking of sinking about 20,000 wells across what is probably the best basin of farm land in Australia. The wells (which can be quite noisy) will be placed as close as 0.6 km apart and are expected to keep flowing for 60 years.

Such is the level of hostility to the gas wells that some want the whole project scrapped. I was surprised to hear this sentiment from staff of the Department of Environment Resource Management, who manned a stand at the show.

The stand was headed 'Strategic Cropping Management' and when I asked what this was about, I was told: "It's about stopping the mining and gas drillers." A less militant colleague added that their role was to promote peaceful coexistence between the landowners and the companies, which include Shell, British Gas, Arrow Energy and the like.

No compensation deals have been struck yet, but there are suggestions that, in the early years, farmers may get an annual payment approaching 6pc of the value of the farm. But what is land in Australia worth?

As it happened a farm accounts expert was exhibiting close by. His take was that land prices were falling and the best farms in the area were making about AU$1,700/ac (€1,370).

He reckoned that good farmers can get an average return of 2.5pc on their investment, including the value of the land. Of course Australian farms and farm stations are huge, but he said family-run farms were consistently more profitable than those owned and run by corporations.

Then again, if you are heading for Australia, maybe you should forget about farming and go dingo hunting instead.

I met Bevan Wesener, who is a judge and expert breeder of border collies. However, his real income comes from trapping and killing dingos at AU$300 (€240) a head. He gets this bounty from local councils, as well as additional expenses from the relevant landowner. The dingos are caught in traps that include a lick of strychnine in order to give a dingo a quick death. The 'Greenies' in Australia object to the cruelty involved, but the other side of this coin is the loss of sheep or newly born calves to the dingos.

Australia has also installed thousands of miles to fencing to control dingos and rabbits. In addition to dingos and rabbits, wild pigs, wild cats, feral deer, wild goats and locusts have all been listed as Class 2 pests.

A stand at the show outlined how the keeping of these pest animals without a licence attracts heavy penalties. The same stand had a listing of plants that have been officially declared as 'pests' that are invading the country.

I continually encountered Irish names among the show exhibitors. Sean Morrissey told me that his great-grandfather emigrated from Tipperary to Queensland and set up as a blacksmith making branding irons and horse shoes for local farms.

Today the Morrissey Company still makes stainless steel branding and freeze branding irons, but the company has gone national and is famed for its calf and weaner branding crates.

Above all, farming in Australia is about the management of water and droughts.

The most recent picture is that a threatened drought in Western Australia is leading to cuts in Australia's 2012 wheat crop. The Northern Territory and western Queensland have had more rain than usual.

However, drought again threatens in the good farming country of southeast Queensland. Farmers are waiting for rain to get their crops planted, but, as I write, the weather forecast is for extended sunshine and drying winds.

Next week, I'll be visiting feedlots, a cattle market and farms with 1,000ac fields.

fair game: Dingo hunters take a strip of skin from head to tail to claim their bounty, then hang the carcass from a tree. Below, a bale of cotton

Indo Farming