Greg Barila

Journalist. Editor. Social Media specialist.

Our farmers' value is worth considering

Our farmers, such as Riverland grape grower Brett Proud, are highly productive, despite facing drought and economic challenges. Picture: Sam Wundke. Source: News Corp. Australia

AS far as predicting the outcome of elections goes, I probably make a pretty good journalist.
But you don't need to be a psephologist to know a few things for sure about the upcoming State Election.
Here's one thing you can bank on - when the campaign gets going, everyone will be talking about the auto industry and virtually no-one will be talking about that other engine room of SA's economy, farming.
How highly do you value our state's agricultural industry? Comment below.
Holden's decision to quit making cars in Australia, even though we saw it coming, was a huge and devastating blow to SA's identity and confidence.
Jay Weatherill knows that.
That's why he (rightly) rushed to Canberra for urgent talks with the PM to hammer out a plan to resuscitate Australia's ailing manufacturing sector.
But with the election nigh our Premier, I think, also has been trying to work the issue to his political advantage.
To convince South Australians that car making wasn't terminal under Federal Labor and that if Tony Abbott had only agreed to loosen his death-grip on the National Purse Strings, Australia's best-loved car brand might have been saved.
I don't know about that.
And I don't know why, if they're looking to present themselves as visionary leaders, with plans to get SA's economy back on track, neither Weatherill, nor Steven Marshall, are doing much to talk up agriculture.
According to one local study, when Holden goes, SA stands to lose $1.24 billion in economic activity, 13,000 jobs and $72 million in state taxes.
Bad news, no matter how you cut it. SA's economy has lost a limb. But it has not lost its backbone.
Agriculture and wine are worth a whopping $10 billion in production and value adding to SA's economy - a major contributor to our exports.
Like in manufacturing, employment in the sector over the past decade has been going backwards - more than 4000 jobs disappeared between 2002 and 2012.
But consider this.
At the same time as our agricultural workforce has been shrinking, productivity in the sector has more than doubled.
In other words, our farmers and producers have been doing more with less, even in the face of pressures like the GFC, cheap foreign labour and the strong Aussie dollar.
According to the National Farmers' Federation, every Aussie farmer produces enough food for 600 people. And they've been doing it on their own, without the massive handouts given to the car industry.
Our farmers, not just those in SA, are among the least subsidized in the OECD, receiving government support of just 3 per cent of farming income, behind the US (9 per cent), Israel (12 per cent) and Canada (16 per cent).
It's not to say the government has done nothing to exploit SA's reputation as a clean and green producer of food.
There's been investment in regional tourism advertising and in keeping SA fruit fly free.
In 2011, the government set a target to grow food revenue to $20 billion by 2020 and the 2013 Economic Statement assures us SA is "well positioned to seize the opportunities" of the rising demand by Asia's emerging middle classes for our top notch food and wine.
But how will we get there?
And, crucially, what role could our auto workers play in helping SA realize its potential?
How does the next government intend to better support our farmers and will the foreign buy up of our prime agricultural land be allowed to go on unchecked?
Weatherill and Marshall need to answer these questions.
The trouble is, the election won't be won and lost in the dairy pastures of the South East, the sweeping wheat fields of the Eyre Peninsula, or citrus orchards of the Riverland.
It will be won and lost on the crowded trains of the Southern suburbs, at the first bounce of the first AFL match at Adelaide Oval and on the factory floor of Holden.
It will be won and lost in the city, where all the people, and the votes, are.
When he took over from Mike Rann as Premier late in 2011, Weatherill told reporters "I am utterly convinced that our best days are in front of us in this state".
I think our best days will be in front of us only when we realize we can't leave our agriculture sector behind.
This column was first published in The City Messenger and on