Trajectories for Rural Landscaping
of Natural Resources and Environment
Centre for Land Protection Research
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.
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.
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.
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.
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..
forces of culture and economics
Surfing the wave of
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
The decline of farming as
a lifestyle identity
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.
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
The farm sisterhood
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
1995; Argent 1999; Gaurnaut,
Rasheed, & Rodriguez 1999; Nelson 1999; Oldrup
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
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).
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).
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
The retirement of the baby
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
resolution of these demands for water will see the water industry rival the
forest industry as a battleground between competing cultural demands upon a
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
definitions for new phrases
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
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.
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.
of course, not all change is desirable. What change is desirable? Who decides
which changes are desirable?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
capacity building: What is
“community capacity to change”.
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.
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.
principle for catchment management: understand the trade-off between social
impact and speed of change.
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.
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:
will the social and economic structure of the community will change if we
will proposed changes change the social and economic structure of the
community over time? Who will benefit and lose from these changes?
what rate of implementation will the benefits of our proposed changes
justify the difficulty they may cause some sectors of the community?
we agree on a fair way to compensate the losers?
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.
these questions will allow us to identify the achievable and allow us to
learn to live with that we can’t change.
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.
are some very interesting projects underway or nearing completion across
Australia that are developing tools that may help us.
work of the National Land and Water Resources Audit is gradually appearing on
their web site.
Murray-Darling Basin Commission is funding a the “Landmark” project that
is attempting to integrate environmental, social and economic modeling of
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
will always remain a place for the crucial skill of listening.
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