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Farm Automation and Lab-Grown Meat: death-knell for country towns?

(I’d finished writing this article before a friend pointed out to me the issue of large Corporates buying up Australian water aquifer land overlays. Too late to weave that into the following discourse. But that issue, combined with what I talk about below, plus combined with the watering-down of environment-protecting legislation, all contributes to the perfect storm that is about to blow across our agricultural and primary production landscapes. You may have a clearer view of all that than me … you may see other issues that contribute to the coming change … if so, feel free to let rip.)

Politicians of all stripes love to spruik from the high heavens that they have a plan, but here in Australia do you see much evidence from our political parties of any sort of future-proofing plan in the agricultural sector? Do you see any evidence that they are looking beyond their own re-election requirements? I don’t. And there is an item coming up that will require a bit of foresight and planning in my opinion.

So here we go …

Corporate entities are taking over a lot of our farmland. Gosh, even Mining Magnates are getting into beef and dairy. As much as a single operator in an air-conditioned office 1,500 kilometres away from a mine site can control automated diggers, and trucks, and trains, which ensures that while one person will get a job the vast majority of mining work-hopefuls who believed the promise of politicians will not (mmm … shades of the coming Adani experience), then what makes us think that agriculture and pastoralism will not go down the same path.

Automation and AI are already making substantial inroads into how our agriculture is practised, and large suppliers like Woolworths and Coles will continue to squeeze family owned farms out of existence, thus greasing the way (now that smells like a plan in progress) for large Corporates to jump in and establish massive economies of scale.

The day is coming when the bulk of our agricultural product will be sowed, nurtured, and reaped, by machinery that is controlled from a distance. Human bums on that automated machinery will not be required. Machinery needs maintenance of course, so initially diesel-mechanics etc will have a bit of a future, but solar panel and battery experts will have an even brighter one.

So the question is … what happens to our regional and outback towns?

If we don’t need as many agricultural farm workers as we once did, and if all the tractors and harvesters are automated and controlled from a comfortable office somewhere on our urban coast land, and if machinery maintenance workers are fly-droned in on an as-needs basis (FIFOs in other words), and if Corporate supply chains visit a guaranteed redundancy on outback small town hardware and agricultural supply shops … then who’ll be around to utilise outback hairdressers, cafes, grocery stores, car retailers, sports ovals, community centres etc?

The prime lifeblood of small regional communities, human beings, will no longer be there in a work-sense. They won’t be required to work on the large corporate farms, they won’t be called on to supply goods and services to those large automated farms, and there’ll be nobody around to sell a coffee or a car to.

Sounds a bit draconian doesn’t it?

Well, a couple of weeks ago I visited my old library workplace at the University of Qld. I left there in the early 1990s, that’s not so long ago. There were floors of librarians and library assistants back then, there were human workers all over the place, a veritable throng of happy workers … but all of that is now gone. How many human workers did I see where I had once worked as a library-assistant? None.

Computerisation, automation, nobody around to take a coffee break, or more to the point, nobody around anymore to buy that coffee to take that break. That sort of thing is coming to the world of agriculture, and coming to our small outback regional towns.

Farmers are practical people, they have to be, they deal with the vagaries of nature on a daily basis. Many farmers who produce the steaks that end up on our plates are also being very practical when they raise the looming issue of lab-grown meat production. They know it is coming. They know that it is a threat to their very future existence as cattle producers.

As much as some farmers are moving into aqua-culture of barramundi etc, I can see a time when cattle producers start to solidly jump in on the ground floor of the coming lab-grown meat revolution. If they don’t, others will. Others already are.

And let’s face it, farmers know how to produce a good tasting steak, so they, as opposed to the entrepreneurial petri-dish crowd, are at least currently knowledge-wise better placed to supply a better tasting product.

But if lab-grown meat production spells the death-knell for traditional ways of producing meat, which I believe it eventually will, and if untold squillions of hectares of grazing land are no longer required to produce that meat, and if the bulk of the workers in the current cattle industry who fly and drove over those hectares are no longer required, and if all the workers in the ancillary services that hang off the cattle industry are no longer required, if the sales yards are no longer required, and if the small settlements they live and buy their coffees and beers in are no longer required … then we are presented with yet another reason why our iconic rural outback towns will be under one heck of a future negative pump.

There will no longer be a reason for their existence.

So what do our politicians think about all of this? What plans are they working on to ensure that there is a future viability for the Bush as a place for people to live and work in? Since I can’t see that they even have the capability to think more than three years into the future, beyond the immediacy of their own re-electability, I think it is a fair bet to say that there is no plan, and there is no future-planning on the issue of retaining a viable future outback lifestyle.

The hard fact is that the vast majority of Australians do not choose to live in the outback, or on the vast inland broad plains, and those who do choose to, and who love to live out there are reliant on a job in, or on the ability to supply services to, a system of agriculture/farming/pastoralism that is eventually going to go the way of the Dodo.

If people want to continue living outback, what are they going to do in the future? Can ramped-up tourism partially fill the void? What else could happen out there that would attract, and retain, people?

Automation, robotics, remote-controlled machinery, control of water resources, a FIFO small-scale maintenance workforce, and factory-grown meat … when all combined together they illustrate a growing perfect storm of convergence that will re-write agricultural and pastoral practices in this country. It won’t all happen today, but it will all happen within a foreseeable tomorrow. Some of the elements that will contribute to that perfect storm of disruptive change are happening under our feet already.

I’m wracking my brains and I can’t come up with a clear answer as to how to ensure the viability of our outback towns and settlements that are reliant on our current methods of growing and breeding things that we eat and need.

But what do you think? What are your thoughts on what sorts of policies and plans could be embarked on, now, to ensure the future viability of the great Australian Bush?

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13 comments

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  1. New England Cocky

    The future viability of the bush will rely upon the decentralisation of government jobs to urban regional centres that will create localised ‘economic booms’ as the re-located families build their future communities.

    Every one government job creates about 3.5 fresh private sector jobs, so consider each government job supports Mum, Dad & two kids, a family of four (4). Say 100 government jobs are re-located to a regional urban centre then 400 persons are re-located, and about 350 fresh private sector jobs are created.

    Now each fresh private sector job supports a family of four, so another (3.5 x 100 x 4)= 1400 persons are re-located, for a grand total of 1800 persons decentralised to fresh air, less pollution, more space and less traffic congestion.

    Consider the work opportunities building and supplying the necessary housing and the additional population required to provide government service like health, policing, education and transport. The upward population spiral goes on.

    The Australian mining industry is developing automated machinery of every kind necessary to employ the absolute bare minimum work force, so the Adani claims of thousands of jobs are “fake news”.

  2. Vikingduk

    Keith, I think there is one enormous fly in your ointment. Climate change. And, of course, the current drought. We are facing an environmental disaster, a complete collapse of the ecosystem and out of control climate change. Automation is a minuscule problem. And just for the record, we have farmed remote country and lush country, we’ve seen these country towns slowly slide down the drain. No mate, ain’t automation, climate change will have the final say.

  3. Winifred Jeavons

    If we grow that meat etc, in labs we might then return marginal land to rewilding, employ humans to be rangers, conservationists, fire fighters. Some small towns are now retirement places for those who want a less hurried end in their lives. Our town is considering the viability of a dementia village. Some farms might become organic for more discerning consumers. We really have to be imaginative, because the future will in no way resemble the present or past, despite the determined efforts of conservatives, who conserve very little except their own privilege!

  4. Keith Davis

    Vikingduk … yep … I totally agree. Climate-change will be the ultimate arbiter. Because the article started to become too ‘long’, and my focus was on automation, I cut out some sections and decided that I couldn’t talk about everything at once. The following is one of the cut out bits.

    “The current drought is greatly affecting farmers and small regional communities. Some farmers are leaving the land, and regional town workers who service the agricultural industry are out of work, and a proportion are leaving their rural communities for work opportunities elsewhere. Drought, plus the over-arching affects of climate change, are re-working our agricultural landscape.”

    Should have left it in!

  5. Vikingduk

    Perhaps, Keith, though most of us know the deep shit we are in. In our limited experience, some country towns have been dying a slow death for many years, much longer than automation or climate change became news. At present, the political class are wading in shit of their own making, offering absolutely no hope for any of us. Your questions are still valid, even more so when you reinstated the edited bit.

    And, completely off topic, thank you for your recent sad tale. While I never endured the abuse you suffered, I found, after reading your story, I have the same symptoms. After all these years, finally, I know. Thanks, mate.

  6. whatever

    And when you hear LNP types and TalkbackRadio loudmouths crying “We need to build more dams to help the farmers!” they are just spruiking for the Mega Agricultural Corporations who need lots of water for cotton and huge hydroponic ventures.

    And the mines need lots and lots of water all the time.

  7. Phil Pryor

    We need more dams to collect more dust; we need more corporations to hasten theft and appropriation. We need more conservative politicians, especially country party meatheads, to spread the graft and corruption more evenly. We need a media full of bowel loaded liars, to make sure the evil lies are convincing. We need more stupid lying religious superstition to encourage perverts to follow the Pell path to self satisfaction. We need more fascist filth to quench the thirst for egoinflated idiots to pose longer and stronger. We need more foreign control over our institutions to fill the goat headed local gap. We need more foreign media filth from the Murdoch and Black types, to lie us up to eternity. We need more short term shitheadedness to forget how to plan prudently. So many effing needs…but above all, let us have more conservative liars, thieves, frauds, incrowd fellatio friendly, networking insider groups to ruin our future.

  8. Vikingduk

    Once again, Phil Pryor, you say all that needs to be said. Cheers,

  9. king1394

    One cannot fault your logic, and there are now great swathes of broadscale farmland that have been laser leveled, and over which massive machines can purposefully trundle guided by GPS. There are a few things that will stop this dead, including the total reliance on supply chains, fossil fuels, and the nature of the Australian landscape and soils. This vision also relies on a level of perfect organisation which may not be possible.

    Some years ago I worked for a major construction company involved in road building projects. Where once 1000s of locals would have been engaged for years with picks, shovels, a bit of dynamite and small trucks, by this time the work was carried out much more speedily with D9 bulldozers, Haulpak trucks and the like.

    In the office, on one of the engineer’s desks, was kept a specimen container in which resided a tiny grain of sand. This grain of sand had brought a crucial and specialised piece of machinery to a halt for some months by infiltrating its fuel system. The grain of sand was kept as a reminder of the things that can go wrong.

    There are a lot of grains of sand out there.

  10. Keith Davis

    Vikingduk … on that other matter you mentioned … I am glad that a positive came out of what I wrote. Regards …

  11. John Sheldon

    In Australian agriculture the rot set in back in the early 1980’s when slogans such as ‘ Get big or get out ‘ were plastered across the front pages of the Weekly Times and The Land newspapers.
    Buy up your neighbor and knock down the fences was the catch cry at the same time monster size farm machinery was being promoted on the back of the positive spin of economies of scale.
    Smaller farms that once supported extended families who in turn supported businesses in their local towns were absorbed into mega cropping properties where profit was the sole driver and looking after the land for future generations not a priority. End result was the demise of rural towns.

  12. Bolirvia

    This trend is nothing new. It started long before the 1980s. Try the 1870s. Victoria held a Royal Commission into the rise of the “boss cocky” and the declining farmer population little more than a decade after the Selection Acts took effect. The Depression and the failure of the “Grow More Wheat Year” in the 1930 heralded an exodus from Mallee cropping farms. In the 1950s it was the widespread adoption of the internal combustion engine in shiny new tractors and other machinery pushed out more farmers. The loss of British markets in the 1960s and the introduction of stainless steel into the dairy industry was possibly the cause of the sharpest decline in farmer numbers in the last century. The problem in the Get Big or Get Out era of the 1980s was actually high interest rates. In the past decade or two the big change has been in the dairy sector due to the deregulation of milk production in Europe, the opportunities to exit provided by the water market and the Millennium and more recent droughts. So the progression of farm aggregation has been steady for at least since the early 1970s, with about 5% leaving per year, being replaced by between 3 and 4% new entrants per year. The graph is amazingly straight. Basically, most leave farming on retirement and the decline in farmers population is a result of next generations choosing not to farm. Labour decline has been steeper. The issue now is that many farms are not able to pay enough to attract labour. More can be made in other careers. So the introduction of labour saving technology is often a response to difficulty finding labour. With this going on for 150 years, country towns have been adapting over the whole time. Most moderate and large sized country towns have gradually shifted their economic dependence from agriculture. Those that couldn’t do this have already died. Smaller sized towns have long been by-passed by farmers seeking better prices in larger towns. Many of these towns have been chosen by migrants forced out of urban housing markets. So changes in agriculture won’t necessarily make much difference.

  13. wam

    SA staffed the darwin schools and gave high school teachers a week’s traveling time and a first class airfare which any travel agent would fiddle to overseas flights but 50 years ago we used to convert to driving. We drove to adelaide via friends in Ravenshoe. We are second hand shop browsers and always chatted with the volunteers. The consistent message was they are hanging on alright but nothing for the kids. About 10 years ago it seemed that every small town in nsw and victoria along the river had a new shiny brick catholic school courtesy of rudd.
    As for pollies the the ones I have listened to socially have with the exception of nelson, been true to their party, open to any chance to say ‘I. They are happy to claim collective.decisions as their own and are convinced that busy work is important.
    I have no confidence that any of them would be aware of the future beyond 2022.
    ps
    phil love your list but if we get more christians that will support and complete your list.

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