This is my first ‘Crossing the Divide’ article for the Farm Institute Insights newsletter, which gave me pause to think about the title of the segment and its purpose. Of course, the title is a reference to the Great Dividing Range, the 3500 km-long complex of mountain ranges stretching from the northeastern tip of Queensland to the Grampians in central Victoria. ‘Crossing the Divide’ has been a place to explore issues for which people on either side of the divide may have different opinions, experience or understanding.
The divide has long acted not just as a physical barrier between the thin strip of land to the east and the rest of the country, but also in a figurative sense has been a delineator between the city and the bush. Most of Australia’s agriculture occurs west of the divide, while most of Australia’s population lives to the east. In a very general sense when you ‘cross the divide’ you are not just changing geography but also perceptions of issues as they relate to country or city residents.
It’s a nice play on words, but is ‘crossing the divide’ still a valid way to describe attempts to bridge the gap in understanding between farming and urban communities? In a literal sense it implies that there is only one divide, and in a figurative sense that you need to cross the Dividing Range to see things differently. Perhaps both those ideas are not quite as clear-cut as they once were.
As Figure 1 illustrates, around 90% of Australia’s population lives either in the major capital cities or along the eastern coast (east of the divide). So, from a population density context the Great Divide still acts as a wall preventing population expansion westwards. Does the divide also still act as a barrier to understanding?
Figure 1: Australian population density.
Many people living in highly urban areas would now claim to be well connected with agriculture, or at least food production. Farmer’s markets, urban community gardens and rooftop farming are all increasing in popularity and relate to this century’s trend towards food with provenance (at least in those areas that can afford it). Programs such as MasterChef and My Kitchen Rules combined with the pervasive influence of social media are also connecting urban consumers with food origin stories much more readily. So, through their interactions with urban agriculture outposts, television and social media, there are a growing number of people in politically influential electorates (densely populated, geographically small, high in number) who – rather than having no opinion of agriculture – have a strong vision of what agriculture should look like.
It is then dangerous to assume that to cross the divide and bridge a gap in understanding, all you have to do is fill an existing information vacuum. Today’s urban consumers get plenty of information about what happens west of the divide; however, the information they’re receiving may be more relevant to a supermarket sales strategy or a niche provenance story than it is to the majority of farmers.
If ‘crossing the divide’ means telling the whole story of Australian farmers to our urban fringe, then this is where it starts to get a bit more difficult.
Agriculture used to be a lot more homogeneous than it is today. You could once be reasonably certain that agricultural practice could be described relatively consistently. Today, agricultural practice is magnificently diverse with multiple production practices, business models and markets utilised by an increasingly diverse farming population.
Conventional, organic, biodynamic, corporate, family, external investor, no-till, cover cropping, genomic selection, set stocking, rotational grazing, holistic, collaborative farming, leasing. When you are ‘crossing the divide’ today you are just as likely to be bridging a gap in understanding between groups of farmers utilising different farming practices as you are bridging the gap in understanding between farmers and urban communities.
This is by no means a bad thing. Diversity is a strength that leads to innovation and evolution. Diversity in practice means that agriculture is vibrant, interesting and resilient. There is definitely no longer a single divide between a set of established farm practices (and the people that practice them) and the rest of the Australian population. Agriculture is an increasingly diverse continuum of practices and people.
So back to the question in the title; is the divide still dividing us? I believe it is too simplistic a notion to think of the divide as a knowledge barrier with one set of ideas on the west and another on the east. What we have now is closer to a melting pot of ideas and ideologies that straddle the ranges all contributing towards modern agriculture being an exciting, innovative and diverse industry. The impression held by many living east of the divide – that agricultural communities consist of people doing the same things with the same beliefs – is far from the truth. This perhaps is one knowledge divide that does still need to be crossed.
Image: Jaimilee Beale