Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Using the hashtag #agchatoz last night to tap into the tweetstream reflecting a part of rural Australia was instructive for me, a journalist who wants to write about rural issues. It's a regular gathering. Each Tuesday for two hours participants discuss issues surrounding a single theme and this week it was about youth on the land. It's a pressing question as most farmers are far older. As one participant framed it, "Regardless of farm size, the fact remains that our farmers are generally 60+ but provide 90% of our food. The next gen is critical."

But how to attract young people to the farm? Part of the problem, as I see it, is attracting the attention of the urban young to take up agricultural studies in many of the excellent universities in Australia with courses on offer that provide training and learning in these areas. What are young people in the city interested in? how to cut through, reach them? It appears to be a problem for farmers in Australia. I think one of the problems in this respect is the differences in the way farmers see themselves, and the way other sectors of Australia's population see them.

A way to view this is through the lens of the rural media, which for all intents and purposes runs a parallel course to the editorial desks of the major metropolitan news organisations. To get attention from the metro population farmers need to be depicted positively in the metro media. Unfortunately, they don't really seem to understand what metro dwellers care about and think about. A perfect example of this disconnect is available by contemplating the way that a personage such as Barnaby Joyce (pictured) is depicted in metro media - as a bit of a loon - and in the rural media - a serious participant in the public sphere. Not even the right-leaning papers in the metro areas give Barnaby air, unless it's to get an easy laugh.

Some of the tweestream participants urged rural industries to get urban dwellers involved through on-farm experience. There was talk of special courses at universities that cater to those wishing to take up agricultural studies. One or two people talked about Farmer of the Year as though it were something that an urban dweller gave a second's thought to during an average year. It's not, I'm sorry to say.

The truth is that most urban dwellers go to an agricultural show like the Royal Easter Show in Sydney once a year and never give a second thought to the countryside after that. If the rural sector gets into the news it's always via a negative story, for example the current fight against coalseam gas extractors. Or a flood. Or the furore over live cattle exports to Indonesia. As some of the tweetstream participants noted online, the positive stories just don't get a run in the metro press. How to broach the divide? Putting a segment about an urban farmstay family on the ABC's Landline is not the answer because metro media consumers do not watch the program, they watch Insiders early on Sunday mornings then go out to buy bagels and croissants for brunch.

One way to capture the attention of the urban middle class is to focus on something they think about, like sustainability. It may be anathema for the rural farm owner to give air to a Green issue but the fact is that the people living in the inner west of, say, Sydney pay attention when you talk about climate change. Farmers are better placed than any of those people to make a difference on climate change because so much land is controlled by farmers, and land can be used to store carbon away from the atmosphere. What about water? Seventy percent of the water we consume is used up on the farm, so it's a big issue for farmers too.

Another issue the metro droogs care about is natural produce. Inner city droogies buying direct from a farmer's market has become a significant income stream for many farmers based near the city. And city types think about where their food comes from: growing crops in the city is an expanding practice in many parts of the urban landscape. Selling direct to consumers without the involvement of the big two retail chains is another way that farmers can cut through and reach the urban consumer.

It's true that agriculture is a high-tech industry but unless people living in metro areas think about these things in a positive way there is little that farmers can do to counter the stuffy image that they possess in the minds of the city folk, who see rural Australia as right-wing, pro-monarchy, agrarian-socialist (always asking for the government to do things for them), and a bit quaint. Like butter dishes and crochet hooks. The rural press does farmers no favours by lambasting anything progressive like a carbon tax: those inner city types are responsible for the Greens holding the balance of power in the Senate. It's pointless to let yourself to be seen as holding back the tide of natural social progress toward a more sustainable future when you are perfectly placed to contribute in a very meaningful way in the project of ensuring the future safety of the planet.

This is how urban folk think. And stewardship is a great way for farmers to engage with that urban constituency. It's a population full of intelligent, hard-working Australians eager to make a difference, strike out on an exciting journey toward a better future, and save humanity. Everyone has grandiose dreams when they're young. It's better to harness those dreams rather than pander to fear of change at any cost.

1 comment:

Sharon said...

Totes agree!

Food and "sustainability" - and a big FU to corporate food - is where the urban and rural meet.

Urban people who love food (and there are a LOT of us) want to know more about our produce and champion the people behind it. When rural people share their work and care we take notice; we can, after all, TASTE the difference. By buying from markets or local retailers, we are in effect, reducing the power of the duopoly. Also eating more healthily, as we cook fresh wholefood.

For the "sustainability" thing, it is leadership by (I call them) future farmers that lights urban dwellers' eyes. "Regenerative" agriculture as one agchatoz-er noted, is also attractive to young farmers.

Joel Salatin talked to a full house in Surry Hills. Surry Hills! It ticks the boxes of latte sipping, bike riding and green voting!

So I reckon it's where there are blurry lines already - areas that shows promise - is where they should pay attention.

FoodConnect, Milkwood, regen ag, farmers' markets, community gardens, SAKG, urban beekeeping, urban farms etc etc.

As Al noted, social media plays a role too, as the Internet bridges the space divide. Check out the blog from
- they take us on their farming journey, the highs and the lows.

And with Twitter, you don't see issues as black or white or farmers as a homogenous group when you're sharing their lives daily through their tweets.

So yeah, I reckon the most promising areas to bridge the divide is where there are *already* sparks. We just need to fuel the flames.