There is an absence of any clear leadership or direction articulating a drought strategy in the face of ongoing and deepening drought over a large portion of the Australian agricultural landscape.
There are immediate issues facing the sector that must be addressed and there is a need for long term mechanisms to provide structural support to the sector.
There is a balancing act that recognises the strategic national importance of ensuring the agricultural sector is viable and attracts and retains investment and human capital. It is not the role of government to ensure the success of every farm business, but it is essential that the sector is structurally capable of sustaining successful businesses.
Succession strategy vital
Overlying drought and the sector generally is the need for an industry succession strategy. Succession is a growing, sector wide problem with an increasing average age of producers and a declining number of enterprises. The general decline in the sector suggests that there is a need for significant structural adjustment to achieve this essential succession.
The problem requires a considered response to industry succession that helps retiring and/or unviable farmers exit the industry and provides a sustainable longer-term entry pathway for new or expanding farmers. It would be sensible if this strategy was applicable over more than one generation of farmers.
It is clear that there are many farms for sale at this time, either listed or not. It is also apparent that there are not nearly as many willing and/or able buyers. Some corporate/sovereign investors are active in the market still, but have a select criteria that they are looking for and this means there is a large portion of farm land that does not have a suitable buyer which has undermined the liquidity in the market.
The result is that older and/or unviable farmers are forced to stay on the land or meet the market in an increasingly depressed environment. Meanwhile younger farmers who wish to enter or expand often do not have sufficient equity to sustainably acquire land.
There is compelling evidence that structural adjustment of agricultural tenancies is now necessary.
Throughout Australian agricultural history there has barely been a generation that has not been subject to some form of structural adjustment by both state and federal governments. Regardless of your view on government intervention, it has shaped the industry to date. It is unlikely that the next generation of producers can achieve the necessary structural adjustment without assistance and it is ludicrous to suggest the government has no role now when government intervention has been deemed so essential previously.
The Australian government/s (state, federal or both) should enter the market and start buying farm land with a view to leasing it back to suitable young farmers. There are a range of reasons why they should do this, some of which are outlined below:
- Agricultural land is a perpetual asset of the nation and in effect this generation only ever really borrows it from future generations, therefore there is a compelling justification to hold agricultural land in trust for future generations.
- Typically, Australian land prices only reflect the value of one generation of tenure and so the perpetual value of agricultural production from the land is not reflected in the current asset market value.
- If governments buy back farms these assets sit on the balance sheet to offset the expenditure or any borrowing initiated to execute the purchases. Given support to agriculture is inevitable, it is a better fiscal strategy for government to buy land than to simply pay producers to farm.
- Crown land of this type should then be made available to agricultural aspirants in a lease tenure. Lease tenure should be coupled with management conditions linked to society's expectations on biodiversity and sustainability. Reflecting the greater level of ecoservice delivered on this tenure, rents should be very low. This is a crucial component in reducing emissions and mitigating long term impacts of climate change and weather volatility.
- Historically, Crown Leases have been deemed to be bankable security, so government owned land potentially underwrites agricultural tenancy for young farmers who should then be able to undertake long term and very stable tenancies, which they cannot currently do on a private ownership basis.
- Government borrowing costs are significantly lower than commercial agriculture borrowing costs. As a result the government could provide profitable lease tenure to provide a sound investment for taxpayers in agricultural land and still provide more affordable tenure for young farmers.
- The timely intervention in the agricultural land market would provide a floor in the land price that would in turn stabilise the operating environment for existing land holders and potentially mitigate the risk perceived by banks in a depreciating agricultural land market. This is a critical step in averting a massive write down in the wealth of the agricultural sector particularly in the broadacre industries.
- It is clear that foreign sovereign investors are seeking to underwrite their future food security and it is essential that Australian governments recognise that the fundamentals that drive those investment decisions cannot be matched by Australian farmers. Therefore it is necessary to mitigate the investment pressure to provide suitable pathways for young farmers to enter the industry not only in this generation, but on an ongoing basis.
- The government has a better justification for interfering in agricultural production systems through vegetation laws, etc.... only if it mitigates either the cost of, or the inherent risk created by, the intervention. Buying and affordably leasing back farm land is a tangible and responsible way to mitigate cost and risk perpetually.
- Government land purchases will create some liquidity in the farm land market and create some competition for assets that are otherwise stranded. This provides an exit strategy for older and perhaps less productive farmers that will in turn be replaced by more productive participants.
This proposal is only one strategy that potentially buys some time for Australian agriculture. I stress it is only one possible tool in a much needed arsenal to resolve the underlying problems that are impinging on long term agricultural viability.
Peter Mailler is a grain and cattle farmer on the NSW/Queensland border. He is the Australian Democrats' lead NSW senate candidate.