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Connections - Farm, Food and Resource Issues


Social Trajectories for Rural Landscaping

Neil Barr

Department of Natural Resources and Environment
Centre for Land Protection Research

As a social researcher working in government, I feel I have become fashionable again. The current interest in “triple bottom line”, “community capacity” and “social sustainability” means my phone is ringing quite regularly with requests for simple explanations of these phrases. Many people are required to report outcomes under these headings as part of the development and implementation of Regional Catchment Strategies. Unfortunately, the guidelines are less than forthright on how to do this.

I am also hearing these phrases used regularly in the media. What is also apparent is the conflicting objectives being wrapped within the same rhetorical phrases. It’s almost as if we agree to agree on the language rather than the concepts behind the language where we know we will disagree.

The meaning of social sustainability varies according to where you live. In a small country town in the wheat belt, social sustainability generally means maintaining the town population, maintaining services and amenity and keeping the young people in town. In the capital cities of Australia “social sustainability” can mean maintaining population and services and young people if you live in Hobart. In Sydney it can mean maintaining amenity and quality of life.

The language of “community capacity” is most often used in Canberra. There it rarely means maintaining small towns. Instead, the language of “community capacity” is used with the assumption that these small towns have to change or  wither and the community needs to be given a “capacity” to cope with this rather than additional resources to maintain their towns. From the regions this argument sometimes sounds as if it is merely cloaking the bitter pill of abandonment with a sugary film of understanding language.

In this paper I will try and explore why I feel uneasy with both a static view of rural social sustainability sometimes emanating from the regions and policies of “community capacity” emanating from the metropolis. To do this I will explain my understanding of some of the forces shaping our rural social landscapes, how our rural social landscapes are changing in response, and what “social sustainability”, “triple bottom line” and “community capacity” might mean for those of us dealing with catchment plans..

The forces of culture and economics

Surfing the wave of innovation

The modern farmer is engaged in a continuing prisoner’s dilemma game called innovation. If all farmers refused to improve their farming productivity and no-one else wanted to start a farm, there would be no pressure on their terms of trade. But few farmers can afford to sit still if their competitors are improving their productivity. And so there will always be some farmers trying to improve their productivity.

The on-going impact of this innovation is experienced as a long-term compression of the terms of trade in agriculture. Minor advances in the technology of managing existing farming systems bring gradual cost pressures upon those least able or willing to adopt these innovations. The result is a gradual change in the structure of agriculture as farm numbers decline.  In recent years there has been an average annual 1.5 per cent decline in the number of farm establishments in Australia.

This decline is the price of maintaining competitiveness  (Lindsay & Gleeson 1997). Of course, the impact of declining terms of trade is not always experienced as a gradual pressure. Overall, the terms of trade pressures will ensure the number of farms will continue to decline, and fewer farms will produce more and more of the agricultural production of the country. These trends are obvious not only in Australia, but in other developed nations (Anon 2000; Economic Research Service 1997; Freshwater 2000)

Technological innovation in agriculture does not always progress smoothly at a rate of 1.5 per cent per annum. Innovation is often “lumpy”. Sometimes major innovations will fundamentally reshape agriculture. This reshaping always creates winners and losers, and the new technology often shifts the frontier of agriculture. New technologies have in the past destroyed the agriculture of some regions. The most significant recent innovation in Australian agriculture was the widespread adoption of the internal combustion engine in the middle of last century  (Anon 2000).  This assisted in doubling the volume of wheat production in Australia and opening a new frontier in the West Australian wheat belt.

The same innovation also gave farmers the capacity to drive a little further to a larger town on shopping days. So while many farmers benefited from the innovation, in the long run shop-keepers in many smaller towns did not.

Are there any new technologies that promise or threaten a similar shift in the structure of Australian agriculture? Two technological innovations are regularly discussed in contemporary debate: genomics and communication technology. The former may create new crops or niches, or change the relativities of advantage between different regions.

Unlike the majority of earlier major technological innovations in agriculture, genomic knowledge is strongly protected by intellectual property law. The technology may favour certain types of farms: those that are more closely integrated into the marketing chains of agri-food conglomerates that own the technology. This may facilitate much more tightly integrated production and marketing chains. These potential impacts of genomics are unclear in the current debate over the ethics of genetic manipulation of food.

The impacts of communication technology are generally expected to be the removal of many intermediaries from marketing chains (disintermediation). The most obvious example in Australian agriculture is the gradual demise and sometimes re-invention of the wholesale fruit and vegetable markets under the influence of growing contract and direct supply relationships between major supermarket chains and producers (Parsons 1996).

The bigger smoke

Urbanisation is the counterpoint of technological innovation in agriculture. Australia is urbanising rapidly and at an accelerating rate. The State of Victoria provides a clear example. In 1920 there were 20 Victorians for every farm in the state. By 1970 the ratio had risen to over 50. Today the ratio is 175 Victorians for every farm in the state. 

Modeling of the potential future adjustment of agriculture suggests that this ratio may approach one in 400 by 2021. The contribution of agriculture to the national economy can be expected to reflect a similar decline. There are some obvious consequences that flow from this. The culture of farming will have less and less influence upon the creation of Australian social values. The political influence of the farming lobby will decline. 

This is but a continuation of a well-established trend. More importantly, there will probably be increased demand for non-productivity values from agricultural resources. We can see the greatest example of this in the use of the concept of multi-functionality of agriculture in the European position on agricultural trade reform. In the Australian context, multiple functions will include improved quality and quantity of water supply, improved health of riverine habitats, ‘clean’ food and landscape amenity (Cocks 1999; Ellyard 1998). These demands will appear more and more onerous when viewed from a traditional farming perspective.

The decline of farming as a lifestyle identity

Increasing demand for multi-functional agricultural services is only one of the changes that will be brought about by changing social attitudes. Over the past thirty years there have been major shifts in social values within agricultural communities in Australia. Farm managers increasingly are likely to see themselves as a manager with skills that have much in common with other business managers outside agriculture (Bryant 1999). This is in part an outcome of the shift towards off-farm work and in part a response to the promotion of a more managerial view of farming through industry, education and government organisations.

Current evidence is that younger farmers are more likely to conduct sophisticated business planning (Tanewski, Romano, & Smyrnios 2000). The increasing requirement for the agricultural sector to interact with the urban world and the greater demands for sophisticated business management and production skills will further change the traditional agrarian values of the Australian farm community. Part of this transformation is what Bryant has called ‘the centrality of the market in constructing the self’. This shift is seen in the trend for increasing numbers of farmers to consider their value in terms of strategic decision making on the farm, rather than their ability to undertake physical labour in an outdoor setting. As this trend continues, farm managers will less and less see themselves as farming for the way of life, and will more and more construe their farming activity as a search for business profit and market opportunity.

The farm sisterhood

Few women living on farms today identify with the once traditional role of “farmer’s wife”. They are increasingly likely to identify as a joint farm manager or as having an occupational life separate from the farm business. It has been estimated that women number 40 per cent of farm business partners and 32 per cent of the farm paid workforce. Many women work off the farm to support farm family living standards. This is a reflection of social trends beyond agriculture and has been well documented by a number of Australian researchers.  (Alston 1995; Argent 1999; Gaurnaut, Rasheed, & Rodriguez 1999; Nelson 1999; Oldrup 1999)

The change in womens’ roles in wider society over the past 30 years has had some profound impacts upon the process of structural change in agriculture. One of the most obvious implications has arisen from the entry of women into the workforce outside farming. This has greatly increased farm family dependence on off-farm income earned by women. It could be argued that this has in some areas reduced the pressure for structural change in agriculture by removing the imperative to increase income through farm business expansion.

The change in womens’ roles extends beyond the workplace into family and relationship expectations. Marriage as an economic contract has been replaced by marriage as an emotional relationship, a recognition of the crucial role healthy relationships play in personal wellbeing (Weston 1999). Fewer women on farms are today willing to endure what they consider to be an unsatisfactory relationship or family lifestyle (Dempsey 2001). And of course, the alternatives to continuing in an unsatisfactory marriage are more socially acceptable than a generation ago  (Wolcott 1999).

This has the potential to restructure agriculture. In a study of farm families in the early 90’s in a Victorian agricultural area, farm womens’ lack of satisfaction with the marriage and family relationships was the greatest predictor of farm business failure. This was more important than farm size or profitability (Barr 1999).

The result in the locality under study was a shift in the pattern of adjustment from consolidation towards churning and fragmentation. The implication of this is that the successful farm business management team today has a greater need to develop the skills of communication and teamwork within the household than may have been the case a generation ago. The wool producer of the future will need to be a Sensitive New Age Grazier… if he can find a partner.

The development of women’s career aspirations over the past generation has increased the difficulty for the modern young farmer in finding a partner. At a recent young farmers conference organised by the NFF participants identified this as one of the major issues they faced. In response, the Woman’s Weekly magazine recently called for single farmers to be featured in an article looking for partners willing to move to the bush.

The weekly was overwhelmed with interest from young male farmers. The need to consider dual careers in relationship establishment may lead to new patterns of migration as aspiring farmers seek to accommodate the needs of potential partners who do not wish to adopt the traditional role of farm wife. There is anecdotal evidence of decisions to exit farming or move farm location to improve the chances of finding a partner. The premium that must be paid to purchase a farm within commuting distance of major centres in part reflects the proximity to employment for members of the farm household and the attractiveness for prospective partners.

Rural youth and the metropolis

A related social value shift is the lessening attractiveness of agriculture as a career destination for younger rural Australians.  This can be seen both in the decreasing entry of younger persons to agriculture and in the continuing lowering of entry scores for tertiary agricultural courses.

This loss of interest is not strongly related to the fluctuations in commodity prices, but reflects the impact of modernity upon the rural youth population (Gabriel 2000). Many rural young aspire to the urban cosmopolitan life. It’s where the jobs, concerts, friends and fun will be. The young are better able to migrate because of successful investment in rural education over the past 30 years.

The migration of young Australians from the land is the major factor contributing to the increasing average age of Australian farmers and is leading to new forms of later age agricultural entry and inter-generational transfer  (Barr 2001). These changes have the potential to create patterns of farm gentrification in some closer settled agricultural regions. These changes also have the potential to accelerate the shift towards less traditional farming identities.

The retirement of the baby boomers

The first of the ‘baby boomer’ generation reached the early retirement age of 55 in 2001. The retirement of this generation will peak between 2010 to 2015. This progression will have a significant impact on the structure of the Australian labour market  (Access Economics 2001). Demand for labour will remain relatively constant, while labour supply will slow and eventually decrease as a result of declining fertility driven by changing social values (Weston & Qu 2001).

The resulting shortage of labour will mean agriculture will need to compete against improving urban employment prospects for younger members of farm families. It is also possible that the increase in the number of superannuants will accelerate the development of amenity farm landscapes. Agriculture has its own baby boomer generation. But farm retirement strategies differ from those of salaried and waged employees.

A significant number of farmers continue to farm well beyond the age of 65. My own modeling suggests that by 2021 it is conceivable there will be a decline in Australian farmer numbers of between 40 and 60 per cent. There is also the potential for the average age of farmers to continue to rise.

Within the next 20 years a large proportion of rural properties will change ownership. The impact this change in property ownership will have on Australian farming is unclear. Given the de-traditionalisation of farming, the changing expectations of farm transfer and reducing attractiveness of the farm lifestyle to many young rural people, we can expect that the farm population will be considerably different from today’s farm population. It cannot be assumed that these new “farmers” will hold the same strong production values as many of today’s farming generation.

Future social landscapes

Where are these socio-economic forces leading us? Clearly for some regions agriculture will become less and less important to the welfare of the regional community. Analysis of trends in the United States by the Economic Research Service of the USDA shows a strong decline in the dependence of many rural regions on agriculture and the growth of new economic and social structures based upon secondary industry, amenity and retirement services, public land industries and the services sector (Economic Research Service 2000). In my own region, I can see potentially four rural landscape trajectories: traditional agricultural, amenity, and small farm based. 

Broadacre agricultural futures: In part of my region there are landscapes where broadacre agricultural enterprises will maintain competitiveness through farm aggregation and the continued adoption of farm management innovations and technologies. Farm incomes in these landscapes will remain relatively prosperous, though unstable. 

The progression of the terms of trade for agriculture and the adoption of productivity innovations will be crucial determinants of farm family wellbeing in these areas. These regions will experience continued population decline and small town decline. Young people will continue to be a major export, and the importation of life partners will remain problematic. The continued expansion of farm size will mean labour availability remains a major limitation on the implementation of environmental works.

Intense irrigation landscapes: In these regions we will see continued agricultural development, but this agriculture will be increasingly concentrated on the better soils and on highest value use for water. There will be significant structural change over the next decades as changing water policy reduces the options available to lower value water users.

The movement of water will be driven by both the messages from both agricultural markets and the change of community values as urbanisation continues. The changing cultures of the urban consumer will call the tunes.  Urbanisation changes patterns of consumption and purchase both in Australia and in our traditional markets. In Australia this has contributed to the growth of the market power of supermarkets in the food sector (Piggott, Griffith, & Nightingale 2000).

The Centre for International Economics modeled the implications of population growth and increasing affluence upon the commodity demands of our major trading partners (LWRRDC 1997). The results suggest a significant shift in the relative demand for various agricultural products.  The greatest increases in demand was forecast for cotton and horticultural products.

There will be much smaller increases in demand for cereals, wool and beef. Cotton and horticulture are major users of irrigation water. These demand patterns would increase the value of water to the Australian agricultural economy, increasing the competition for the resource within agriculture and between agriculture and both environmental uses and urban water supply.

The resolution of these demands for water will see the water industry rival the forest industry as a battleground between competing cultural demands upon a natural resource.

Amenity landscapes: Currently, demand for landscape amenity is a major influence upon the pattern of structural change in Australian agriculture. The influence is manifest in the high price of land in the more amenable and accessible parts of the rural landscape.

These higher land prices restrict the capacity of agriculture to adjust to maintain competitiveness and inexorably drive the path of adjustment to a non-commercial agricultural future. The potential for these amenity pressures to increase over the next 20 years is strongly linked to the demographic structure of the nation.

Research in the United States has shown the close relationship between rural area development and natural amenity. Over a thirty year period, regions with the lowest landscape amenity, and often the most competitive agricultural businesses, experienced the greatest population losses (McGranahan 1999).  Those with the highest amenity generally gained the lion’s share of rural population increase.

These landscapes exist at the periphery around metropolitan and provincial cities. They are also found along the eastern and south western seaboards of Australia. Land values determined by amenities such as sea views, proximity to town and a pleasant climate.

With the exception of some intensive industries, there is limited future for agriculture other than as supplementary to other activity such as tourism. From a business perspective, the use of this land for agricultural purposes normally would not be expected to generate an adequate return to capital.

The use of the occupational label of farming within official statistics for such areas will tend to reflect past history rather than current use. There is little likelihood that these regions will revert to any agricultural based future as land values will prevent farm businesses maintaining competitiveness through increasing the scale of operations..

The small farm future: In regions characterised as small farm landscapes most farm businesses will be unable to maintain economic competitiveness due to the high cost of land. The value of land will continue to reflect amenity and housing stock value of land rather than its potential for agricultural production. For most small farm land managers there will be continuing or increasing dependence upon off-farm income. 

Farm family economic security will increasingly be reliant upon a diversified and strong regional economy. The rural population will be less likely to fall as fast as in the agricultural areas. Production based solutions to land degradation will become increasingly less attractive as the farm population identifies less with agriculture and the need for productivity improvements.

Many areas may be increasingly valued for their ecosystem services rather than their agricultural production. There are major questions over intergenerational transfer and land ownership in these regions during the next two decades. In one region of Victoria following this trajectory we have a generation of farmers who have no expectation of the next generation of the family continuing to farm (Curtis et al. 2000).

It is likely that subsequent generations of users of this land will have different cultural expectations with regard to the land and farming. Changes in the values and aspirations of the land owning population may open new options for catchment protection.

Some districts may move increasingly towards a form of retirement farming with a stable aged population of land managers. This scenario is most characterised by the beef industry in the high rainfall zone and in sections of the wool industry. The uncertain future of regions characterised as small farm landscapes is significant for future natural resource management policy. Substantial areas of the agricultural zone of Australia fall within this structural group, including many areas along the southern sections of the Great Dividing Range.

Old definitions for new phrases

Where does this prognostication leave those people trying to plan for your catchment future? I would like to conclude by offering you my “common-sense” interpretation of those phrases appearing in regional catchment strategy guidelines.

Social sustainability: I see a future of continuing change and restructuring for our rural landscapes. Not all of this is bad. Not all of it is good. But not much of it is easily avoidable. Each of us contributes in our small way to this change through the decisions we make in shopping, travelling, leisure and voting.

I do not believe there is much to be achieved by using a definition of social sustainability in which the structure of our rural landscapes is fixed in time. If this is social sustainability, then we will not achieve it. Rural social landscapes of the Western World have been in constant change since the collapse of the feudal system. Society cannot be sustained without the capacity to adapt to change.

But, of course, not all change is desirable. What change is desirable? Who decides which changes are desirable?

Not all the benefits and dis-benefits of change are fairly distributed. Economists will argue that improvements in standards of living in aggregate are our best indicator. But financial income is not necessarily the best measure of quality of life. It just happens to be easy.

Income distribution and employment status are also important indicators of quality of life and happiness (McDonough et al. 1997; Walker 2001). Maybe we are better off not worrying about a definition of “social sustainability”. Maybe we are better off talking about tangible issues that are important to us.

The triple bottom line: To me, the social component of the “triple bottom line” is about the distributional impacts of the changes our society undergoes to ensure its “social sustainability”. This is old news. Fifteen years ago in the Victorian salinity program there were enthusiastic arguments about this proposition.

Treasury took a clear position that the distributional impacts formed no part of the economic account that interested them. All that mattered was the aggregate impact on the state.

The response of catchment community groups was to use the “social” side of the ledger to describe those distributional impacts. To me this is still the essence of the social line in the ledger.

Community capacity building: What is  “community capacity to change”.

To me the first issue of “capacity for change” is the capacity of our community to make informed decisions, to answer the questions on the triple bottom line. To build community capacity we need to build the tools of science to help us understand the implications of our choices. We need consultation processes to allow everyone with a point of view the chance to be heard and considered.

For many years we have been building capacity using services such as extension, rural counseling, community education and community development. These processes are not fast. They are not always successful, because changing other people is not always the best strategy (Barr & Cary 2000). Let us not be fooled into thinking there must be a faster, more effective magic button out there, just because we have a brand new phrase.

My principle for catchment management: understand the trade-off between social impact and speed of change.

One of the messages I think emerges is the scale and difficulty of the challenges posed to us by salinity, river health and greenhouse gases. Solutions will not come without significant social costs. It follows that solutions will also be achieved slowly.

There is a direct trade-off between social cost and speed of change. Effective environmental management will require us to understand this relationship. It requires us to answer the following questions:

  • How will the social and economic structure of the community will change if we do nothing?

  • How will proposed changes change the social and economic structure of the community over time? Who will benefit and lose from these changes?

  • At what rate of implementation will the benefits of our proposed changes justify the difficulty they may cause some sectors of the community?

  • Can we agree on a fair way to compensate the losers?

These questions are my “triple bottom line”. Simple as these questions may sound, I can’t remember reading many catchment plans that have answers to these questions. In the long run, failure to answer these questions adequately will create political opposition that slows or blocks our flexibility to adapt to the environmental challenges we face.

Answering these questions will allow us to identify the achievable and allow us to learn to live with that we can’t change.

Having provided a principle, you would be well-advised to ask how we can actually answer these questions. I admit I cannot list the solutions for you. I am confident that we are in a better position than we were a decade ago.

There are some very interesting projects underway or nearing completion across Australia that are developing tools that may help us.

The work of the National Land and Water Resources Audit is gradually appearing on their web site.

The Murray-Darling Basin Commission is funding a the “Landmark” project that is attempting to integrate environmental, social and economic modeling of catchment change.

The tools that arise out of this and other research should improve our capacity to share social decisions about change. Of course, the full spectrum of social impacts of catchment change will never be captured by technical modeling.

There will always remain a place for the crucial skill of listening.


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