Food boom restores towns’ hunger to succeed
As seen in The Australian, January 3 2017
The slow decline of many small country towns and larger regional centres is being reversed as the agricultural sector booms, easing congestion pressure in cities and creating more job opportunities in rural Australia.
Regional cities such as Tamworth, Armidale and Wagga Wagga in NSW all switched their former stagnation for population growth rates of between 1 per cent and 2 per cent a year, with the increasing prosperity and expansion of agriculture credited as the key reason for their turnaround.
Federal Regional Development Minister Fiona Nash, who farms at Crowther near the NSW town of Young, believes confidence in regional Australia has turned the corner.
“When agriculture is going well, it feeds right across our regional communities,” Senator Nash said. “We are not just seeing the financial benefit of better commodity prices for farmers but to machinery dealers, local stock agents, car dealers, the clothes shops and even the supermarkets — it really underpins everything in country towns.
“That confidence encourages people and the businesses they are in, be it agriculture or in rural towns, to invest in their future and communities, as the more agriculture productivity grows, the more it changes everything in regional Australia.”
Australian agriculture will become a $60 billion industry this year, with the value of food and rural produce tipped to exceed $100bn by 2025 as the Asian food boom hits home.
About 8.8 million Australians live outside major cities such as Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth, accounting for almost 40 per cent of the national economy. Of that, 4.5 million live in Australia’s 31 smaller regional or satellite cities, including large centres such as Newcastle, Geelong, Launceston, Ballarat, Bendigo, Bathurst, Townsville and Toowoomba.
Regional Australian Institute director Jack Archer said that for every extra 100,000 Australians who chose to live in small regional centres, rather than the major five capital cities, an extra $50bn was released into the economy over 30 years through avoided congestion and urban sprawl costs.
“The country to city drift has been misunderstood,” Mr Archer said.
“The number of Australian residents moving to the capital cities (from the country) has actually been pretty stable for a long time. What we more have been seeing in the statistics is people from the smaller country towns and rural areas moving to bigger regional centres — but even that is being turned around now with agriculture doing so well and more investment in services and infrastructure in those areas.”
Jobs growth in the agricultural sector — as well as families fleeing the capital cities looking for cheaper housing in regional towns less than two hours’ drive away — is a major catalyst for the gradual reversal of the decades-old city drift. There are now five jobs advertised for every applicant with professional agricultural qualifications — many of them in regional cities with an agricultural focus such as Wagga Wagga, Toowoomba, Darwin and Armidale — while big agribusiness companies are having to look overseas to fill executive positions that require agricultural expertise.
The meat processing industry is the largest employer in the manufacturing sector, following the demise of the car industry, with demand for premium beef from Asia and the US pushing continued optimism in the growth of the $9 billion beef industry.
Toowoomba, in particular, is surging on the back of high prices and strong overseas demand for agricultural produce and value-added food, with the privately built Wellcamp airport offering direct flights to Hong Kong the stimulus for $1bn-plus of potential agricultural and food processing investment in the regions.
Toowoomba and Surat Basin Enterprise chairman Shane Charles said: “We are the No 1 agricultural region in Australia; we want to be its biggest inland port and hub for agricultural produce. We now have better roads, flights and rail services in here, and international flights out to export chilled and fresh premium products direct to Asia than any other regional city.
“Toowoomba shows that if you get the infrastructure right, food processing investment and jobs will follow.”
The Regional Australia Institute has identified 100 smaller country towns that have successfully halted their slow demise, including Victoria’s pulse capital of Rupanyup, the duck-farming town of Nhill and the West Australian grain town of Dalwallinu.
Encouraging young people to return to bush towns and farms after working and studying in the big cities, and attracting international migrants to settle in rural Australia provide the two best solutions to reinvigorating small country towns, according to Mr Archer. More than 160 Karen refugees have resettled in the far west Victorian country town of Nhill since 2010, most working for duck producer Luv-a Duck, adding $41.5 million to the local regional economy according to a Deloitte Access Economics study.