Farming

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The top 3 problems for farmers in Oz? Water, water and water...

Australian farmers are pragmatists who plot their fortunes on the basis of a five-year cycle varying from one bountiful year to one disastrous year with a few break-even seasons in between

AFTER my trip Down Under I have been asked: "Would I like to farm in Australia?" Half of Ireland seems to be over there so why not a few farmers as well?

Certainly there are many similarities between Australia and Ireland and it should be an easy country in which to feel at home.

Their language is English. They drive on the left. They are mad about sport. Their politicians spend most of their time talking trivia and spin. Supermarkets and trade unions bully everybody including the Government. Tails are wagging dogs in the rush to political correctness on issues such as the environment, animal welfare, gender balance, etc. Yes, when listening to the news in Australia you would think you were back home were it not for the accents.

A lifestyle incorporating barbecues, beaches, beer and beef looks attractive when viewed from rainy Ireland. However, rainy Ireland does not harbour eight of the world's 10 most deadly snakes and you can swim in our seas without the threat of a shark attack.

When it comes to farming in Oz their top three problems are water, water and water.

Driving along the roads in Queensland I was struck by the contradictory signs. You have the signs warning of fire risk. A kilometre later you have posts on the roadside showing the water depth during a flood. In recent weeks the flood warnings looked bizarre against a backdrop of parched brown fields and farmers waiting for sufficient rain to plant their spring crops.

Herein lies the problem that afflicts much of Australia; water is mostly in deficit but when it comes, it comes in a rush and is then gone. Average rainfall figures for a region can look adequate, but the rain is not predictable from year to year and the scorching heat and dry winds cause massive evaporation.

Sinking wells is not an option in much of the country because of ground water salinity, so roof water is almost universally harvested on farms.

Farmers in Oz talk of a five-year cycle. This will include one bountiful year, two years of breaking even, one year of slight losses and a debacle year.

For many the year gone by was the bountiful one with goodish prices and enough moisture around to help crops and pastures.

In the outback, especially, suckler cow herds and some sheep flocks are being rebuilt after the record drought of five years back.

scale

The other striking feature of farming in Australia is the massive scale of the enterprise. One thousand acres is seen as a small holding, especially in livestock terms. I encountered a case where two brothers were farming almost 4,000 acres, most of which was arable and being irrigated.

The next generation was coming through. One brother had two in his family. The eldest, a son, was already working with him on the farm. The younger, a daughter, would also have loved to farm, but was told that the farm wasn't big enough. She studied agriculture and was working with a local agricultural merchant.

The other brother had twin 18-year-old sons. I wonder how he will decide between the two, should both want to farm.

On an Irish livestock farm we spend the summer half of the year saving fodder and the other half feeding this fodder back out. On the typical livestock farm, or cattle station, in Oz the only building will be the cattle race and handling unit.

In the north, cattle are dipped to control the insect threats.

The saving of fodder for a period of scarcity (be it in the winter or during a summer drought) is minimal.

The stocking rates are mostly low enough for the cattle to survive the periods and years of scarcity. On the really big cattle stations, the cattle or sheep would only be seen and handled a couple of times a year.

When it comes to gathering times, planes and helicopters assist those at ground level working with quads and on horseback.

On such farms, remoteness from civilisation must be a huge issue, but when I mentioned this I was told that between private planes and Virgin Airlines (the Aussie version of Ryanair) anybody can be in a state capital city within an hour.

However, children on remote farms are taught through correspondence courses. Others will use private boarding schools but these cost about €25,000 a year.

Over the past 14 years I have paid four visits to Australia. The biggest change from my latest visit is that the cost of living has skyrocketed. This is partly due to the strength of their dollar, but living costs in Oz are now higher than in Ireland.

vital

The boom in property prices, reminiscent of our Celtic Tiger bubble, seems to be waning, but it didn't include farm land in the first place. Unlike Ireland, you can get a commercial return on investment in Australian farmland.

However, the timing is vital. You need to be making your move just before the land emerges from a drought rather than just entering one.

Getting residency in Australia is far from easy. One avenue is to have a skill and get local sponsorship. I was told that if you knock on their door with a bundle of money to make an investment you will also get nodded in.

Good land in Oz costs about €1,400/ac but you need to buy into hundreds of acres. Small lifestyle plots (up to 100ac) are dearer.

After all that, would I like to farm in Oz? Given enough land I would say yes, but water remains the issue.

As we prepared to depart, south Queensland was about to get rain after 60 totally dry days. It didn't come. The latest email talks of a heat wave of up to 40C -- and this is only their spring.

Indo Farming