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The cultural gap between US and Australian farming

Mick Keogh - Tuesday, July 21, 2015

One of the major differences between agriculture in the USA and Australia is the cultural attitudes of the respective communities. There is no other way to explain the completely different agricultural policy frameworks that exist in the two countries, reflected in both the regulations imposed on farming and in government support measures. 

While travelling in the USA and talking to farmers, there are some things that make Australian farmers feel very much at home. The order of conversation, for example, is always the weather, the state of commodity markets, and usually at some point, the latest imposition on agriculture proposed by Washington or Canberra. 

In the US at present, the weather is somewhat patchy, agricultural commodity markets are down because of the relative strength of the $US, and the Government is apparently about to destroy agriculture with a new rule termed the "Waters of the USA" initiative, which will extend the provisions of the Clean Waters Act much more broadly, so that it applies not just to major rivers and water supply sources, but also to smaller creeks (and some say puddles) on farm land. 

American farmers - particularly in the western states and the Great Lakes regions - are fairly concerned about the new water legislation being proposed by the US Environmental Protection Agency, because they fear it could result in farmers being prosecuted, or face third party litigation for activities (such as effluent and manure disposal or nitrogen fertiliser use) that are currently permitted (or not actively prosecuted against).

While sympathetic to US farmer's concerns, on the face of it the proposed water rule changes would seem relatively mild to Australian irrigation farmers, some of whom have experienced not just stringent water licensing regulations, but also cuts in water availability of up to 50% over recent years. Add to that the  licensing of mining exploration on farmland without owner consent, the increasingly stringent local government planning approval processes for even things like farm sheds, and regulations banning tree clearing, and it becomes very obvious that the regulatory controls imposed on farmers in Australia are much more onerous that any that are even contemplated for US farmers. 

Government support measures for the agriculture sectors of the two nations are also vastly different. Despite facing enormous annual government deficits, there seems to be absolutely no mood whatsoever in the USA to dismantle the current generous subsidies for crop insurance (in fact the program is expanding), nor to revisit the renewable fuels mandate that supports the ethanol industry and indirectly farmers. 

When you add to that the fact that US farmers also have available very significant environmental stewardship and sustainability incentives compared to their Australian counterparts (25 million acres enrolled in the US Conservation Reserve Program in 2015, for which farmers are paid an annual rent over a period of up to 15 years), then the stark differences between policy settings in the USA and Australia become even more evident.

Some claim that part of the reason for the differences is that US agriculture has been treated as a public service rather than an industry sector for an extended period. This was discussed in a recent opinion piece published online in the USA. The writer observed that during the 1970s and 1980s, modern farming technologies greatly boosted agricultural output, creating excess production and reducing commodity prices. The US Government under Ronald Reagan saw environmental set-asides as a means of solving both problems, by paying farmers to take environmentally unsuitable land out of production. 

These programs have persisted until the present time, although high commodity prices over the past few years have meant that US farmer have been inclined to put land back into crop production when their CRP contracts ended, rather than keep it for conservation, and hence enrolled CRP acres have declined.  CRP budgets have also been restricted due to US Government budget constraints.

The oversupply problems that dogged US agriculture in the 1970s and 1980s have disappeared, as US Governments have moved away from direct price and production supports and instead focused on risk management and conservation policies. However, budgetary support for the agriculture sector has held up, despite a rancorous US Congress that insists on budgetary savings to offset any new policy measures. There is also a great deal of political sympathy for farmers when any new regulations are proposed - so much so that the Congress has several legislative measures before it that would effectively neuter the water regulation being proposed by the EPA.

Finding reasons that fully explain the differences in community attitudes towards their respective agricultural sectors is a difficult task. Both nation's agriculture sectors represent between 2-3% of national GDP, and both contribute roughly the same proportion of total employment. Perhaps the biggest difference between the USA and Australia is the very high degree of urbanisation in Australia relative to the USA, and the fact that unlike in the US, Australia really has no major urban centres that are located in agricultural regions. This perhaps results in an urban population in Australia that has virtually no exposure to farming whatsoever, which then translates into political and policy attitudes more generally.

You also sense that the attitudes of opinion leaders and the media towards agriculture are quite different in the two nations. Australia seems to have a proportionally larger population of opinion leaders and activist groups who gain prominence through robust and repeated criticism of the agriculture sector - either from an economic or environmental perspective - while this does not seem to be the case to any where near the same degree in the USA. Similarly, Australian media outlets seem to have no qualms about engaging in strident criticism of the farm sector over environmental, animal welfare or other issues, unlike their US counterparts. A case in point - US farmers find it incredible that Australian media made such a big fuss over livestock slaughter practices in overseas markets, and even more incredible that the Australian Government reacted by banning live exports for a period.

Perhaps in the end it all comes down to the cultural differences between the two nations, whereby people in the US generally aspire to and laud success, while Australians are a lot more skeptical. This difference in attitudes also seems to translate to the internal politics of the respective farm sectors. There is a much greater sense of unity within the agriculture sector in the USA, in contrast to the constant squabbling and internal arguments that are so much a feature of agripolitics in Australia. Perhaps Australian farmers have a bit to learn from the US counterparts in this regard.

Geoff Cockfield commented on 23-Jul-2015 06:19 PM
Interesting piece Mick but I am not so convinced about the extent of the cultural differences. Our survey work shows high support for farmers and farm practices amongst the public. Australian media is however rather schizophrenic (bipolar?) about farming. You get battler stories alongside claims of rent-seeking. I offer two other historical factors for the difference. Australia chose indirect support mechanisms in its farm support era, rather than direct payments. They could be wound back without taking away a cheque in the mail. Second, the US has historically had much weaker party discipline with members of parties often voting on regional/state/sectoral grounds. Furthermore, that party system gives many more opportunities to lobbyists.

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