Thursday, August 09, 2012

Dispatch from Australia's salad bowl

Farm stand establishment in Queensland's Lockyer Valley
I have been in Toowoomba, Queensland, for more than a week now as a guest of the University of Southern Queensland.  (Read an earlier post here).  This perch atop the Great Dividing Range has given me ample opportunity to observe some things about "country" life in this part of Australia, including the extent to which that country life is dominated by agricultural pursuits.

Toowoomba is Australia's largest inland city (after Canberra, the capital of the Commonwealth of Australia), and it has a population in excess of 100K.  As such, Toowoomba serves as a regional center for the Darling Downs, which stretch west from here, but also to all points west and northwest.  As you leave Brisbane headed for Toowoomba, the road signs indicate not only the mileage to Toowoomba and other smaller towns, but also that to Darwin, Northern Territory--a distance in excess of 3400 kilometers.  In short, there are few if any population centers over 10,000 between Toowoomba and Darwin.
Dalby, Queensland 
Signs of agriculture's significance to this area are all around me.  Driving from Brisbane, I passed through the Lockyer Valley, also known as the nation's salad bowl and the the "valley of variety."  Speaking of variety, I was impressed that the farm stands along the Warrego Highway there feature everything from tomatoes to avocados to snow peas, all grown locally.  One of these establishments is the "Orange Spot," pictured above.  The Lockyer Valley Regional Government's website boasts it as one of the "ten most fertile farming areas in the world," elaborating thusly:
State of the art technology can be seen in the production of paddocks full of potatoes, pumpkins, onions, lettuce, broccoli, celery, tomatoes, corn, cabbages, carrots, beetroot, beans, peas, cauliflower, capsicum and other color vegies are a sight to behold for visitors.  Other interesting crops like mangoes, olives, peaches and grapes also add to the scenery, while the bright greens of lucerne fields would make any horse hungry.    
Tractor driving through Toowoomba's
Central Business District

The Lockyer Valley's largest city is Gatton, also home to a campus of the flagship University of Queensland--in particular the campus that features UQ's veterinary school.  An insert in the Queensland Country Life weekly touted the campus's upcoming Open Day, which will feature demonstrations and activities such as
  • Animal display
  • Vet science hub
  • Sustainable foods and energy
  • Agricultural Science, Agribusiness, Animals, Food and Plants
  • It's a wild life
  • Gatton Research Dairy display
  • Plant Nursery
  • Centre for Advanced Animal Science tent
  • Equine Precinct Facility tour  
One photo in the UQ Gatton insert showed a teenaged girl holding a baby pig; another featured vets-in-training treating a cow.
Directional signs in tiny Marburg, including to show grounds
On the other side of Toowoomba, the Darling Downs are less (or differently) fertile, but the agricultural enterprises that spread westward are quite diverse.  The beef industry is huge, as is sheep ranching.  A front-page story in the July 26, 2012 issue of Queensland Country Life featured a shorthorn producer, Woolcott Shorthorns, from Meandarra, which won the first phase of the RNA Paddock to Palate Competiton among 150 producers at Mort and Co's Grassdale Feedlot at Dalby, which is about 80 km west of Toowoomba, with a population approaching 10,000.

Queensland, which styles itself the Sunshine State and is better known abroad for Great Barrier Reef destinations like Cairns, but the state's agircultural heritage was featured prominently in The Sunday Mail a few days ago with a two-page spread titled, "Harvest of Plenty on Land."  It featured the following producers:
  • A grain producer from Jandowae (population 784)
  • A mandarin producer from Gayndah (population 1,745)
  • A vegetable producer from Grantham (population 370)
  • A sheep producer from St. George (population 2,400)
  • A cotton producer from Dalby (population 9,778)
  • A cattle producer from Dirranbandi (population 437)
  • A banana producer from Wamuran (population 2,086)
The gist of the story was that Queensland farmers of various stripes are doing well, as suggested by the subheading:  "The bush has been transformed by rain--and rural towns are booming."  Rains in late 2010 and early 2011 (accompanied by flooding in many areas at that time) ended several years of drought.  Floods also hit in February of this year.  Here's an excerpt from the story, including the lede:  
The bush has a new story to tell--and it's a good one. 
Everything is full--the dams, the grain silos, the cotton gins and even fruit trees. 
Rain, rain everywhere has brought new prosperity to the farming industry and for those on the land it feels like "winning the lottery."
Promoting Ekka as "country time" in Brisbane.
 * * *
The Department of Primary Industries is forecasting a 5 percent increase in the total value of Queensland farming commodities in 2011-12 to $14.68 billion.  
* * * 
More wheat has been planted this year, with a 32 per cent increase in crop production expected, encouraging more farmers to plant again next season.
The DPI estimates that the gross value of sheep and lambs will be up 3 per cent and wool up 33 percent.   
New hotels are being built in country towns and they're full, too, courtesy of the resources sector. 
Pubs and eateries are brimming with customers who have money in their wallets.   
Queensland Farmers Federation CEO Dan Galligan said farming was experiencing a 'remarkable recovery.'  
The story discusses to some extent the export market, in particular for mandarins to China and chickpeas to India.

With some products--bananas, for example--the harvest has been so robust as to drive prices below the cost of production.  Others have been hurt more than helped by the rain.  The vegetable grower from Grantham reports that the rainy season has led to veg rot, which has caused loss of up to three quarters of his crop.  Other negative factors include "feral pests," such as wild dogs, pigs, foxes, and "crop-eating kangaroos."

The Sunday Mail was also full of coverage of Ekka, which appears to be the Queensland Equivalent of the State Fair.  In a "Sunday Soapbox" feature in the paper that asked average Queenslanders on the street if they were going, one man said he would attend, commenting, "I love to go on the last day and get the produce.  The main things I like to go and see are the animals.  I feel the Ekka brings a bit of the country into the city."  Another woman commented that she liked the "dressage and the sheepdog trials."

The ag influence on pop culture is evident here, too.  I just saw an advertisement for a reality TV program called "The Farmer Wants a Wife," and an Aussie friend pointed out to me a relatively new genre of fiction which has gained great popularity:  Chook lit.  "Chook" is the Australian slang for chickens, so you get the idea.  The storyline of these novels seems to be city girl moving to the country--sometimes returning to her family's spread, or perhaps moving to be the town's new doctor or other professional--and becoming romantically involved with local farmer/rancher.  When I went to buy one, I was spoiled for choice--so many on offer.  I selected one by Rachel Treasure, The Cattleman's Daughter.  I'll let you know what I think in a subsequent post.

Cross-posted to Legal Ruralism
Showgrounds at Toowoomba

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