Don't sell off our farms
Stock & Land | 2 February 2012
John Ward on his Coleambally, NSW, prune farm.
ON his farm at Coleambally, NSW, John Ward admits he is feeling emotional about how foreign investment into Australian agricultural land has been handled.
He knows first-hand the impact of the issue.
At the moment the producer is selling one of his properties – a 1890-hectare cropping and grazing operation at Griffith, NSW – and is adamant he will not sell to foreign interests.
His property has already attracted potential overseas buyers but he says selling off to foreigners will threaten food security and exacerbate the issue of cross-competition from foreign-made products.
It could also pose a serious risk to the next generation of farmers, who will find it increasingly difficult to buy land in the future.
"I've had Chinese inquiries already," he said.
"We need to be careful from a food security perspective that we don't get into a situation where we don't own land and can no longer produce food for the nation."
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, almost 12 per cent of Queensland's agricultural land is owned by the Chinese.
Mr Ward fears the implications this could have for Australian agriculture.
The contentious issue of foreign investment hits a raw nerve for Mr Ward, who has been farming all his life.
He was forced to put his Griffith farm on the market to fund a horticultural investment in the Southern Riverina that is rapidly going into debt.
The venture was originally run in partnership with his 28-year-old daughter Kayleen Duncan, but she has had to make the tough decision to leave the farm in order to keep the business afloat.
"If you understood the passion and emotion, you would shake your head at the decline of the operation," Mr Ward said.
When the father and daughter first started farming together 10 years ago, they planned to make a return of $2300 a tonne on 10,000 prune trees.
But prune price dropped soon after to $1700/t and next week it is expected to fall even further.
"One of the main reasons the business failed was that cheaper overseas imports are driving everything mad," Mr Ward said.
"It's going to drive us to bankruptcy."
He said one of the biggest problems was foreign ownership of Australia's food processing infrastructure and utilities.
"Heinz is a good example," he said.
"It is New Zealand-owned and they won't even let people here buy back the machinery to run the plant ourselves.
"That's foreign invasion."
While Ms Duncan has now left the farm, Mr Ward remains upset at the situation that forced his daughter off the land.
"We are supposed to be encouraging the next generation to enter agriculture but we need to wake up and address some serious issues for that to happen," he said.
About 50-60pc of Australia's prunes are grown in the Riverina and Mr Ward said many of those growers were in the same boat as him, with cheaper imports eating away at margins and driving them off their farms.
He is currently preparing a submission to the Senate Inquiry into Foreign Investment in rural land.
“First of all we need to look at where are we going and why we are letting foreign investment continue untapped,” he said.
He says the Federal Government needs to significantly slash the Foreign Investment Review Board threshold until any future implications of selling off land are researched.
“We can’t buy land in the United States or Vietnam or other countries, so why should they be allowed to do it here?” he said.
Addressing Australia’s inability to complete on the global market was also crucial, he said.
“We are competing directly with countries that don’t have input costs and carbon taxes,” he said.
“We need to put in place assistance measures to help us compete on the international market.
“I’ve mentioned this idea and have never hit a brick wall this hard.
“But I will remain passionate about this issue and will push on every door until I get answers.”
In his submission, he will push for a total moratorium on all foreign interests purchasing food processing infrastructure and utilities until any effects are understood.
“We don’t want to be totally dependent for food on other countries,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) says regional Australians have been betrayed by the decision to raise the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB) purchasing threshold.
Last week, the FIRB threshold for reviewing purchase of Australian business, including farmland and water, was raised from $231 million to $244 million.
Andrew Broad, VFF President, said the policy is contrary to long-term national interest.
“The VFF already had concerns that the FIRB threshold was too high, but this increase makes it clear regional citizens’ concerns are not being taken seriously,” he said.
“The FIRB threshold needs to be reduced by a considerable amount to ensure that farmland is going to be used in the national interest.”
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