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Farmer Identity

murray darling river

Full Project Title: Farmer identity and mental health in the changing Basin: Do Basin policies affect farmer adaptive capacity by influencing the ways in which farmers see themselves?

Theme 1 : Drivers of change - understanding and integrating the economic, social, health and drivers of change in the Murray-Darling Basin

This project was let by Professor Helen Berry and Dr Jacki Schirmer

Fifth generation farmers Vince and Cos Cirillo, from Mildura in Victoria, with protest signs highlighting the severe effects of the drought. Image taken in October 2007. Picture courtesy of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.While farmers are used to dealing with Australia's volatile climate, the recent drought, which affected most of the Basin, has been the worst on record, with severely adverse impacts on rural communities' well-being and also on that of farmers. This matters for its own sake. Further, very recent large studies have shown that health is a major contributor to reduced adaptive intent and capacity. Climate change is beginning to exacerbate climate variability in Australia, already the world's most variable climate.

In 2008, consistent with prevailing climatological theory, CSIRO scientists predicted greater climate variability in Australia, including more frequent and severe extreme weather events. A few months later, extreme heat-waves brought record temperatures to 87% of Victoria and generated the nation's worst recorded fire event. In 2010 south-west Queensland recorded its worst flooding in more than a century while, downstream, 44% of New South Wales and more than 95% of Victoria and South Australia were still in drought. The severity of the most recent drought, and of the subsequent floods, has sharpened farmers' focus on water-related policy for the Basin and sensitivities are heightened. Weather-related disasters like these can erode the social and economic base on which farming communities depend and, over time, have a direct and considerable impact on the Australian economy. For example, between 2002 and 2003, a drought-related decrease in agricultural production resulted in a 1% fall in Australian GDP growth and a fall of 28.5 % in the gross value added for the agricultural industry. Should the frequency of drought continue as predicted (we already know global warming is outstripping the IPPC's worst case scenarios), it is estimated that it will cost the Australian economy $5.4 billion annually, with a projected ongoing reduction in GDP of 1% a year.

Although rural Australians are reportedly more drought-prepared than ever before, the cost of drought remains high in these areas and has significant economic flow-on effects. Falling farm production has placed pressure on downstream industries, such as transport and wholesale trade, small businesses and casual mobile labour, including shearers and farm hands. These pressures have, in turn, eroded services in some communities. People unable to access support or to leave these communities may become increasingly disadvantaged as droughts and other disasters hit more frequently, or more severely, and community decline compounds. Prolonged and multiple adversity of any kind poses a substantial risk for mental health. The recent Australian drought brought such adversity, compromising the health and wellbeing of farming families and communities. While few farmers like talking about climate change directly they, nevertheless, have to respond to a world of more frequent and intense droughts, floods, fires and other weather-related disasters. These disasters can and do affect health, particularly mental health, and particularly in vulnerable places and among vulnerable people. Because of their closeness to and direct reliance on the land, such disasters may disproportionately affect farmers' health and wellbeing.

Rates of mental health problems in Australia have not fallen in the last decade and there is growing evidence that they are likely to be exacerbated by adverse climate change. This makes farmers a vulnerable group. Though some studies have found that farmers' reported mental health is no worse – and sometimes a little better – than that of other rural residents, and better than that of city-dwellers, recent epidemiological studies have shown that it is disproportionately degraded by prolonged drought. There is also qualitative and circumstantial evidence of the harmful impact of drought and other weather-related disasters on Australian farmers' mental wellbeing: (male) farmers may not openly disclose mental health problems (though their wives do), but they report typical symptoms of depression and anxiety, such as problems sleeping, irritability, despair about the future and increased alcohol consumption.

'The bush' is an iconic part of the national image and heritage and is simultaneously portrayed as socially marginalised and politically neglected. Yet farmers' sense of their marginalisation and of the dim view in which they are held by other Australians may not be entirely justified. The urban-rural dichotomy is a persistent theme in Australian culture and politics, evident in poems, novels, reality television and parliamentary debates, but there is considerable ambivalence. There is some vociferous criticism of farmers but, generally, the public exhibits 'benign indifference' towards rural people and rural policy.

Farming is tough and farmers are used to dealing with Australia's volatile climate and to farming in the context of the pressures of rapid and/or significant policy, social, demographic and economic change. To summarise key aspects of that context:

  1. Agricultural policy is not stable but is in a constant state of change. Although policy changes proceed incrementally, the cumulative effect of change can be quite significant, particularly when changes occur in different but related policy areas. For example, over the past 20 years, grain growers have been impacted by major changes in the arrangements for marketing the wheat crop at the same time as drought policy moved significantly form a disaster focus to an emphasis on risk management.
  2. The agricultural workforce is ageing; the mean age of farmers (58 years) exceeds Australia's average retirement age (52 years). For many, responsibility for the farm means they cannot hope to retire.
  3. Globalisation and continued protectionism among important trading partners expose Australian farmers to unfair competition and artificially low commodity prices. While many Australian farmers have been able to maintain profitability through productivity growth, farmer numbers declined from over 200,000 in the mid-1950s to around 110,000 in 2000.
  4. Liquid fuel prices have been volatile and will likely escalate as global fuel supply rates diminish. A near-term peak in international oil production could see petrol prices increase by A$2-8 per litre by 2018 (a cost increase of up to 600%).

Pressures across multiple contexts have left farming families feeling increasingly marginalised from the rest of society, with farmers often reporting a loss of economic and social status and of self-esteem. The policy reversal in the reconstruction of the irrigators of the MDB from nation-builders to environmental vandals in a generation is a prime example of the ways in which some changes have eroded perceived status and self-esteem. This has been tied to cash-flow problems and a loss of wealth, together with the security and status that accompany financial wellbeing: though many farmers understand the macroeconomic and wider context of their industry, the marked loss of wealth many have suffered has led to a pervasive sense of failure. Increasing government regulation and reporting requirements flowing from multiple and changing agricultural (especially water and drought-related) policies also seem to be contributing to a growing disenfranchisement. Farmers often report thinking that they have lost the trust of government and the urban community. This is evident to them in increasing compliance requirements relating to land management and in the public perception that farmers are poor custodians of our environment. Farmers also report fearing that they might lose government support altogether signalled, for example, in terms of drought being redefined as "dryness" and not an "exceptional circumstance" (which they interpret to mean they may not merit drought-related financial assistance in the future).

Emerging evidence suggests that positive identities are related to better health and it is known that health is related to adaptive capacity. Current and emerging policy settings together with intense political attention and bitter public debate, particularly with respect to water management and climate change, may be provoking negative identity formation among some farmers in the Murray-Darling Basin. Innovatively, we propose examining whether, where identities are negatively framed, they may pose a risk to both health and adaptive capacity. We propose investigating whether Basin policy and farmer identity are linked and, if so, whether these links contribute to health and wellbeing outcomes and, therefore, to adaptive capacity. For many farmers, the world in which they grew up is gone and they feel lost. Water policy will need to take adequate account of the health and adaptive capacity impacts of chronic, cumulative adversity if the Basin and its farmers are to survive.

Picture courtesy of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. Fifth generation farmers Vince and Cos Cirillo, from Mildura in Victoria, with protest signs highlighting the severe effects of the drought. Image taken in October 2007.


MDBfutures is supported by the Australian Government's Collaborative Research Networks program.