‘Cavalier’ city-based decision-makers need to remember farmers

Gemma TogniniThe West Australian
Illustration: Don Lindsay
Camera IconIllustration: Don Lindsay Credit: The West Australian

I’ve spent a lot of time on farms. It’s true. Fair to say it was mostly recreational and in my early 20s.

Oh, save for that one time I put my hand up to be a roustabout in the shearing shed when the crew was a person short one weekend. That was a spectacularly bad life decision. Not only was it the hardest day of physical labour I have ever done, I couldn’t get the lanolin out of my hair for a week.

Thank God I didn’t end up dropping the broom (those who know what that means, KNOW).

I credit this formative period of FIFO farm-partying with teaching me valuable life lessons such as the evils of OverProof Bundy; how to responsibly and safely handle a firearm; the joys of rock-picking and, how on farms, work doesn’t stop until it’s done. 24/7. It’s bloody hard.

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Decades later, I joke about it but the reality is most of us who live in the city haven’t got a clue what it takes to live on the land. Run a business on the land. Raise a family.

I’ve found myself lost in this train of thought a lot in recent weeks, as debate continues over the live export trade. For the record I think it’s a debate that’s both healthy and much needed — it’s already brought important reform and the industry now has what’s accepted as a last get-out-of-jail card to prove it can clean itself up.

What’s bothered me, though, is how cavalier many (predominantly) city-based decision makers and commentators have been on this issue. They talk about shutting down live exports without so much as a passing thought for the livelihoods of those involved. Real people. Real families.

Don’t get me wrong — the reaction to that terrible footage was justified. It was beyond dreadful. Farmers expressed their disgust along with the wider community but unlike the rest of us, they have skin in the game and everything to lose when animals are mistreated.

VideoThe falsified documents lead to the horrific killings of 22,000 sheep.

People who get their meat on supermarket shelves tend to forget that.

Isn’t that what happens when rural issues are canvassed and politicised by predominantly urban-based decision makers?

A close friend said to me, “I’d have to be categorically insane to do what my dad does. Chuck a couple of million in seed into the ground every year in the hope the weather complies”.

Think about that next time you grab a crusty loaf off the supermarket shelf.

Farmers assume most of the risk, all of the time. As a business owner, I can insure against almost anything. Not farmers. And there are a shedload of things that can wipe out an entire season.

Last year I watched, mesmerised, vision of a hail storm that tore through the Wheatbelt late in the season, not long before harvest was due. I messaged a friend, expressing hope the crops hadn’t been too badly hit.

“Oh, they’re just having a little lie down right now,” she replied lightly. “We’ll have to wait and see how bad the damage is.” What she was really saying was, “Gemma, we’re a bit screwed”.

How many of us stop to think about moments like these? Or connect the dots to actual people’s lives when the price of bananas hits $10/kg after a cyclone conveniently smashes through Carnarvon on a merry yet unseasonal jaunt south.

How often do we stop to think of the family who has just lost their entire year’s income and probably was unable to insure against the loss. And we whine because we need to think of something else to put in the kids’ lunch box.

A mate of mine, a fifth-generation farmer who lives with his young family about three hours from Perth, put it so well.

“Originally, I thought it was expected of me to stay on the farm but before I came home, I realised I loved it and chose to stay. The frustrating thing is that so many have opinions, but they’re not directly affected by the impact. Our businesses, and they are businesses, are entirely at the whim of Mother Nature. Community expectations are dictated to us, based on ideological and nostalgic views of farm life.”

Perspective. It’s so important, and we’ve become so bloody intolerant. If you don’t believe me then perhaps I can introduce you to some of the lovely folk who, when I expressed a view that the live export trade should be heavily regulated, not shut down, sincerely wished me a horrible death at sea from heat stroke. Yes Australia, that’s the spirit!

I fear this has become another important policy area where ideology is being allowed to overtake pragmatism. If you don’t think that’s happening, then ask yourselves why most of the country between South Australia and Brisbane has been left with some of the most expensive unreliable power in the developed world. It’s what happens when those who shout loudest have sky-high views backed by centimetre-deep knowledge and understanding. Madness.

Farmers I’ve spoken to over the past week feel voiceless. I don’t blame them, and I get it.

It’s out of sight, out of mind for these guys.

As I write this, a private member’s Bill has been introduced to ban the live sheep export industry within five years.

Quicker than you can say global warning, decisions are made that if they proceed, will — not might — but WILL devastate WA’s agricultural sector. Others are writing and will write about the politics of this debate, all I’m suggesting is that we stop to consider the people. Their lives matter. If you’re going to criticise a farmer, best not do it while there’s a fork in your hand.

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