Academic journal article Rural Society

Cross Boundary Farming: Can This Challenging Farming Method Save the Australian Family Farm?

Academic journal article Rural Society

Cross Boundary Farming: Can This Challenging Farming Method Save the Australian Family Farm?

Article excerpt

Introduction

I think that it's only as farmers come together that they will have the resources to manage their environment and to manage for better sustainable outcomes such as conservation responsibilities, water quality, maintaining the soil resource base. I think as a group you are in much better shape to undertake that (Phil Coop, in ABC Landline, Communal Farming Revival Under Way, 12.01.2001).

This paper is based on a review of the literature and the topics include family farming, co-operative and corporate farming as well as cross-boundary farming which is embedded in the commons. A common is a piece of land owned by one person, but over which other people can exercise certain rights, for instance the grazing of stock. Looking at Australian agriculture, which is at present greatly influenced by climate change and global markets, two issues have emerged as important: sustainability of the land and maintaining the family farm. While the commons system so far has focused on sustainability of the land, this paper will make the point that such a farming method can present a solution to the demise of today's Australian family farm.

Individual ownership of land has strong ideological foundations in Australia and stems, in part, from the traditional British view of land being tied to wealth. Whitford (2005) argued that, for much of Australia's early colonial period, land was allocated to individuals as a payment or reward. The view of land as a commodity and a means for social mobility has subsequently reinforced the importance of individual ownership. Individual ownership of land is characterised by clear boundaries between properties with each owner working or managing in isolation from other farm enterprises. Whitford (2005) found that the concept of individual ownership is entrenched in the Australian rural psyche. However, this has not escaped occasional scrutiny. During the 1940s, the agricultural sociologist Samuel Wadham repeatedly argued that the 'one family farm' was neither efficient nor cost-effective. Going back further in time, Karl Kautsky (1988) argued that already in 1899 small-scale peasant production was doomed to disappear in the face of capitalist development. For Kautsky, the peasantry embodied the backward social characteristics of isolation, tradition and individualisation.

During various points in Australian history different farming models, such as collective, communal and share farming have been tried, but it was co-operative farming that was seen as the most viable alternative, as it blended sharing resources with the individualistic nature of the family farm. According to Whitford (2005), the idea of sharing resources and farming equipment had been tried in a number of districts. In the late 1940s a group settlement in Denmark, Western Australia, operated on a co-operative basis, being a project described as a compromise between the family farm and a large scale commercial entity. The idea of co-operatives was supported by interest groups, such as the NSW National Council of Farmers. However, co-operative farming has failed. Whitford attributed these failures mainly to governments subsidising the farming sector, but, as the literature review will show, the failure of co-operatives was determined by many reasons other than government subsidies.

Looking at the Australian farming society, Lawrence warned in 1987 that the agricultural depression of the 1980s shows worrying similarities with the one of the 1930s (p. 5):

The prices of commodities like wheat and sugar have fallen, in real terms, to the levels experienced in the 1930s, lending institutions have begun to foreclose on bankrupt farmers, farmers' militancy which reached a peak in 1985 still foments, poverty levels have risen throughout rural and urban communities, and farm numbers have continued to decline. The current crisis is represented in economic terms by low returns to producers, rising input costs, growing farm indebtedness, high interest levels and falling land values. …

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