Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Musings on the ABARES conference

It's been a while since I did a rural story. Over at Ochre Archives, Phillip Diprose continues his reports on his various experiments, this time under the heading "just add water." Phillip started with a burst of posts back in 2006 when blogging was new. Posting then became more irregular, with only four posts last year, but now five so far this year.

I have always enjoyed reading the stories about Phillip and Jan's experiments and experiences. Phillip is incurably curious. He lies to try new things and then measure the results. While the vague idea I once had of owning my own property is long gone (I would have been pretty hopeless at it), I still take vicarious pleasure in reading about other's experiences.

Meantime, down in CanberraSoil moisture the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resources Economics and Sciences (ABARES) annual conference was getting underway.

This map, produced under the Australian Water Availability Project, measures the upper layer soil moisture across the country as at January 2014 and compares those figures to the past 100 years. In simple terms,  the majority of sheep and wheat producing land has experienced the 10 driest months on record in that time. 

Its a funny mixed up world. In South and West Australia, ABARES is predicting incomes to increase to the highest level in 30 years, mostly due to bumper crops and an improved live export market for beef. By contrast, many farmers in the east are likely to experience significant drought related losses. Still, the recent rains will help.

The annual agricultural outlook conferences were begun by the Old Bureau of Agricultural Economics and have become something of a national institution. They began when agricultural economics was still a significant academic discipline, when primary production was still seen as a key national activity, if in relative decline. While I was not involved, I remember the sense of anticipation they created.

The world changes, but perhaps less than people realise. I am not sure what the practical average memory span is in Australia, perhaps ten years. The policy life cycle is less than that.

At the moment, the Australian financial press is full of discussion about the need for innovation, for new technology industries, for structural reform. Do these things, and all will be well. It sounds and reads a bit like a return to the 1980s, but without the historical context. The reality as I see it is that Australia's export base is actually less diverse than it was in the late 1980s.

Mining has grown enormously, but the combination of that with exports of rural products continues to dominate export trade. With the exception of education services, Australia has proved incapable of generating significant new export activities.Today, as in the 1980s, services and exports of services are seen as part of the growth solution.

It's possible, but I can't see it. Fortunately, it probably doesn't matter. The combination of primary production with mining will, as it has done over the years since 1788, carry us through.

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