Farming Closer to Home: a suggestion of the future of agriculture

The age of the farmer has increased in recent years, the family farm is on the decline and the Australian federal government is undertaking initiatives to encourage youth back to rural industries (ABS and Youth.gov.au). There are a wide range of reasons why people are moving away from the farm. The attitude is often that Australia is a boom-or-bust nation and with climate change, this mentality is likely to exacerbate the pull away from the land. As oil becomes more expense, both local agriculture and foreign imports will become increasingly expensive (cheers to Mike for pointing out this article out that suggests that the age of cheap oil will end within 5 – 20 years from now). With all this in mind, why would many young people look at a career in agriculture with lots  of guaranteed jobs going in the city – plus of the benefits of an energetic city life?

With business-as-usual practices, what the hell am I likely to witness as an old man? The images that come to mind worry me.

To carry on from the Innovation is Key series, I believe that the future of farming will have to be one that is better integrated with major populations. To explain this idea, I’ll use a local example.

To the north of the city of Adelaide, there is an ever decreasing patch of once agricultural land in the suburb of Northfield. As discussed in parts 14 and 15 of the Innovation series, by stimulating multi-purpose higher density living in key regions, we could lessen the tendency and impact of urban sprawl. Over maybe the past 15 years, the remaining agricultural land in Northfield has slow began to be consumed by sprawl. This is clearly visible in the noticeable difference in housing (new housing) in Northgate, Oakden and Walkley heights (in the map below). To the north west there is industry along Grand Junction road (red region). To the south, there are two fairly typical commercial regions (in green).

Click the google image to see a larger version

If infrastructure investments were made in one, both or between these two commercial regions that provided quality apartments and town houses, a wide range or modern services and facilities, a good, relatively cheap network of rail to the CBD and other TOD regions and a limitation of vehicle access (and need for personal vehicles), as fuel becomes increasingly expensive, people will be drawn to live in these regions to maintain their lifestyle and access to services. As this land is left, we again can claim much of this land for agriculture and native rehabilitation (including for open space enjoyment, species resilience to change, sustainable harvest and storm event protection). To the north east is another region well worth investing in development; Modbury. Here, there is already is a wide range of services – including a hospital and the Adelaide O’Bahn bus route. Further development here will also provide extra incentive for people to move out of the Northfield and surrounding region (yellow).

Not only would this mean that it is possible to be a farmer who can enjoy a city lifestyle (attracts the younger generations), but it also allows a great amount of wealth of knowledge between farms and both high schools and universities. It wouldn’t be impractical to be a self supported university student living and studying within a metropolitan setting, but also enjoying practical lessons out on a working farm or native vegetation (ie. biological / ecological / bio-prospecting etc) – all without need for a personal vehicle (indeed in many cases a bicycle would be enough). School holiday jobs on the farm are also feasible – further diversifying work experiences for new generations. Fresh produce can be grown within 25km of major commercial and living regions. Electrification of rail services also means that both fuels and alternative vehicle technology is not required (energy generation can be addressed separately) – meaning a more rapid response and adaptation to a low carbon emission future.

It is possible to envision much of this north east region being condensed and diversified as much of this region is residential sprawl that will get increasingly expensive to maintain over the coming decades. The same could be said for many regions of the southern sprawl. Oaklands park / Brighton and Noarlunga are two good southern regions for TOD investments. The east and west are probably less clear cut; I’d suggest Glenelg, Semaphore, Burnside and Magill. By encouraging a reduction in the many northern regions and on the  east, it is possible that the yellow region could be stretch much further around.

Obviously soil contaminants will play a role, which hasn’t been looked into in this piece. For instance, there are a number of petrol stations in the yellow region which would pose a problem. I suggest that the industry along Grand Junction road (red region that continues on to the west) should continue as industrial land. There are a number of options for rehabilitating contaminated land that is reclaimed. All I’ll say at this point is that if addressed appropriately, it doesn’t need to pose a major problem and could ultimately help establish regions where we utilise ecological services for pollutant management (such as phytoremediation).

Such changes would give the Adelaide population the greatest resilience to peaking oil and increasing food costs. It will also lead to a diversification local industries, greater open space  services, much greater species protection, and much greater adaptive potential to climate change and would stimulated local economy – all with technology that already exists. It’s more about doing things differently rather than restriction. It would also assist an industry in trouble – agriculture – and help younger generations have both the tech-savvy city life, while also a deeper connection with the natural world. No bad thing.

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