We have a responsibility to help our farmers, says chef and restaurateur Matt Moran

Matt Moran says it's in everyone's best interests to help farmers.
Matt Moran says it's in everyone's best interests to help farmers. Photo: Supplied

COMMENT

I'm proud to say that I'm a fourth-generation farmer. I had a rural upbringing on a cattle and dairy farm near Tamworth and still have a commercial farm in the NSW Central Tablelands.

Throughout my childhood we, like most farmers, hit both bad times and good and I thank this rural upbringing for instilling in me a work ethic and a certain toughness. It also gave me a genuine understanding of just how hard farmers work to supply us with the food we rely on at every meal and the quality we demand.

With all the discussion these days about food and sustainability, many of our farmers are struggling to be sustainable in even the most basic sense of making ends meet.

Our farmers produce the food we rely on at great financial risk. Production costs are high and they are at the mercy of both the markets and Mother Nature. The impact of nature's extremes goes well beyond the quality of their product. With drought, for instance, not only has the farmer's product suffered or been destroyed for that year or the foreseeable future, but it has substantially depressed the value of their farm or even made it unsaleable.

Even in a good year when sales are high, the farmer's share of the end price is often modest because players with huge buying power in the food supply chain will bulk up their own profit margins by pressuring the farmer to sell at very low prices. We saw an example of this a couple of years ago when unethical price-cuts to dairy farmers resulted in debt and financial hardship.

Many farmers are forced into debt to keep the farm going. But when the cards are stacked against you for maintaining the repayments, more than a few go bankrupt. We're all familiar with the newspaper reports of tragic mental health outcomes and suicides for some in this group.

So, is there a solution? I'm a chef and a farmer, not an economist, and I don't pretend to understand all the big-picture complexities. But we often hear impassioned pleas for help from our farmers and I think we, as a community, and our governments, have a responsibility to listen.

While farmers have a responsibility to educate and equip themselves to run sustainable and viable businesses and to be accountable for any assistance they receive, the unique pressures they face, some completely beyond their control, make it hard to accumulate a financial buffer to ride out the bad years.

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Australia's support for farmers is among the lowest in the world. This is an extra challenge for both exporters competing in markets where farmers are highly subsidised, and local producers completing against cheap imports.

Working in restaurants where the food we work with and serve is often at the luxury end of the market, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that food itself is not a luxury item. We need food to survive and as our population continues to grow we will need more food to be produced by our farmers. We all benefit from a diverse food supply system that includes both mass and smallholder producers.

Could we, as a society, help more or help better? This is a discussion we need to keep having and find solutions for. It's in everyone's best interest to support the hands that feed us.

Matt Moran is the chef and restaurateur behind restaurants including Aria, Chiswick and Barangaroo House.