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Our farmers need help to stay on the land

It is inexcusable that years of failed government policy have now led us to the deeply saddening situation where families who have been on the land for generations are selling their farms, often to overseas-owned agri-business, because they see no alternative.

Nobody should be at all surprised by what has happened - the warning signs have been clear for years. Farmers have faced an impossible combination of a narrow trade agenda which is blind to environmental and social concerns, so-called competition policy which in reality has seen competition closed down and farm-gate prices pushed downwards, encroachment of mining and plantations onto agricultural land thanks to misplaced tax policy and government priorities, and the complete failure of governments to grapple with the changing climate and ever-decreasing water supplies.

Now, with the Greens and rural independents in high profile positions in the Federal Parliament, food security and the need to keep farmers on the land is finally on the agenda. I am not confident, though, that either the government or the opposition truly understand the change in attitude and policy that we need to turn around the decline.

Following a campaign by the Greens, I welcome the recent spark of interest from the government in their agreement to audit sales of agricultural land to foreign investors, but if we are ever to regain our exporter status we must address the poor decisions that set our agricultural industries on an impossible path.

Farmers have been dealt a bad hand by governments who persistently fail to see the impact of a broad range of their policies on food security. I can only imagine what it must feel like to have your farm slip away into unknown hands when it has proudly passed from generation to generation in the past.

There is nothing wrong with how these farms have been managed; in fact many farms have adapted to modern conditions by diversifying crops and stock to cope with erratic rainfall and climate. But no amount of diversification can challenge the wholly unfair and uncompetitive market system blessed by governments, regulators, processors and the ever-powerful duopoly of Coles and Woolworths. No amount of diversification can truly stand up to the narrow free trade agenda that leaves Tasmania, famed for its fresh food, under siege from cheap imports.

There are additional pressures from rising power costs because of uncertainty in the energy sector due to the government's shaky commitment to climate change mitigation. Until we finally see a national gross feed in tariff, like the one I have before the Senate, landowners will remain unable to secure an extra income stream from farming renewable energy. And of course there are the direct impacts of a changing climate that see drought and deluge pushing farmers to the limit. Really, there is little wonder that some have decided to throw in the towel.

Our job now is to keep our farmers on the land, and help them prosper. We must address these challenges as a collective priority, but on the back of any success we must recognise that as our agricultural industries recover they will inevitably generate more interest from overseas investors. This is where the Foreign Investment Review Board must intervene. A healthy agricultural industry will no doubt see fewer farms on the market and fewer farms available to overseas investors, but in the interim, the review board must weigh up the challenges presented to farmers, our ongoing food security and our sovereignty as a key food producing nation.

Governments should also give serious consideration to reintroducing low interest loans along the lines of the old Ag Bank, to help young people buy farms at a reasonable rate, giving them a start in life and their parents a comfortable retirement.

Without serious thought and immediate action we will lose our farmers, our land and our choice of what to produce for the good of Australia. We are a sovereign state; we don't allow other nations to dictate rules and regulations, so why should we allow other states to purchase our soil and dictate its use for their own gains?

Farmers do not need questions asking them why they are selling; they need answers explaining how governments are going to change trade rules, competition policy, and tax policies so that they can keep the family on the land.

This is an opinion piece for The Advocate online.

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