It’s a Monday morning in mid September in Albany, Western Australia. Albany is on the far south coast of Western Australia, it has a population of about 36,000, and is the main town in the Great Southern Region of Western Australia which has a population of about 60,000. It has a wonderful climate and is recognised as being an ideal place to retire, which is why I am down here working at trying to make the pension do the impossible. I wish Jesus was still around and he could tell me how he fed the 5000 with five barley loaves and two small fish. We would have to catch the fish because the price of imported fish not cheap in this fishing port, but cheaper than the exorbitantly price locally caught fish — that stuff really is for the seriously rich.  Last week in the supermarket in this town which has a fishing fleet, the Barramundi was from Viet Nam.

cage farm

Fish farm in China

When we lived in the Kimberley, we used to swap station beef for fresh ‘Barra’ caught by a German fellow who lived on the banks of the Fitzroy. That was all he did,  camp on the Fitzroy and catch Barramundi. Why is it we have to import Barramundi from a fish farm in Viet Nam? I am not for one moment casting aspersions at the Vietnamese fish farming industry and neither should I, because Australian authorities claim that imported fish pose no greater threat to health than local fish. So the question is, if the Vietnamese and the Thais for that matter, can grow fish in their rivers and waterways that pass Australian health standards for food imports, why the heck can’t we produce fish in the pristine water around the south coast? Well all around Australia really. There are about 750 million people in Europe, and fish farms provide 20% of their fish and employ 80,000 people. What’s wrong with us?

Barramundi

Barramundi grow out tank, Darwin

The answer according to the FAO is simple. It’s cheaper to farm fish in Thailand that it is in Australia, or at least it was in 2008: Economic models of Barramundi farming in Australia have estimated the break-even cost for a small (50 tonnes/yr) Australian farm to be AUD 9.25/kg (USD 6.90/kg), and the break-even cost for a 200 tonnes/yr farm at AUD 6.90 (USD 5.1). Larger farms (>1 000 tonnes/yr) are able to take advantage of economies of scale and their production costs are likely to be around AUD 6–7/kg (USD 4.50–5.25/kg). In contrast, Barramundi farms in Thailand can produce fish for USD 1.90/kg. Economic modelling of Australian barramundi farms indicated that profitability was particularly sensitive to price, with a decrease of AUD 1.00 (USD 0.75) resulting in an 80 percent decrease in equivalent annual return.

And just to add insult to injury, if you thought Baramundi is a species confined to Australia those figures from FAO put that to bed and apparently the name ‘barramundi’ is an aboriginal name, now taken up by the rest of the world. It’s really a Seabass, lates calcarifer, and is common throughout our region. Can we do to the rest of the world over the name ‘Barramundi’ what France did to us over wine types like claret and burgundy? Depends on how dinkum we get I suppose, but it won’t do us any good.

The reality is that 70% of the fish we consume in Australia is imported so we’d better keep the fish farmers on the Mekong happy. There are a number of glossy brochures being produced by the ‘new’ Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development, which discuss fish farming in all it’s forms  and how it may apply to the west coast. Can we compete for the Australian consumer’s dollar for fish? Probably not based on those figures above, but at least we could try because it is a worry that we are becoming more and more dependent on imported food. Don’t believe the propaganda that Australia feeds another 60 million people or whatever it is. We produce the food that is true, but we export it as grain, or meat and of course the other big one is wine. We import ever increasing amounts of the food you find on the shelves of the supermarket. Go and have a look.

Mary had a Little Lamb – but we are going vegetarian.

Some interesting numbers came out this week showing that it is extremely difficult to make money putting lambs through a feedlot. Lambs these days, compared to the ‘good old days’ are worth a lot of money. Many people got out of lamb production, when a 18 to 20 kilo lamb on the hook was fetching $25.00 to $35.00. Go back even further, remember when that man with the unlikely name of McSporran, wanted lambs for the Arab States that were not much bigger than rabbits? These days producers are told that the market wants big lambs, 28 kilo lambs on the hook, for which they will pay over well over $100. To get lambs to 28 to 30 kilo off grass is difficult with any breed, but if it can be done,  $160 to $180 /head is good money. Mostly though, to get lambs to that weight for most of the year, they have to go through a feed lot and that apparently, is another way to lose money.  A lot of time and farmer’s money has gone into developing feed lots for lambs and now it seems that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, which surprises me because my understanding is that the lamb export industry is contingent upon the availability of heavyweight lambs. So who is going to put lambs through a feedlot for export if there is no money in it and at $160 to $180 a head and who, what country, is going to pay more?

I have been a carnivore all my life. My favrite meat without doubt is sheep meat. How long is it since we could buy good mutton? Merino wether mutton slow cooked for 5 or 6 hours in a low oven infused with  garlic or cloves, nothing better. Neck of mutton stew with lashings of mint sauce, mouth watering. It was always mutton in the early days because young merinos were too valuable to eat, although if one decided to break a leg it never went to waste. If old ewes were put to a British breed sire and then later Texels, (we were one of the first to have Texels) then Spring lamb became a treat. When I worked in Mingenew as Head Stockman I had to provide 5 or 6 merino wethers for rations every 2 weeks or so, so don’t tell me how to choose good mutton.

As timLamb roaste has passed our income has decreased and the price of sheep meat, all meat really, has increased disproportionately to the rise in the pension. There are few ‘cheap’ cuts anymore, suddenly (damn it!) someone has realised that there is value in lamb neck chops so that bargain has gone. Mutton for some reason is prized in Europe and not available in Australia. I don’t understand why. We export our mutton in boxes because someone presumed there is no market in Australia. I reckon that decision was made when lambs were cheap as chips by today’s standards. There has been a very successful campaign in Britain promoting mutton.  It was no wonder sheep and wheat farming became wheat and canola farming.

Becoming a vego.

I wonder what will happen now? No money in heavyweight lambs out of a feed lot, so presumably that trade will stop. Will the export trade take smaller lambs? That remains to be seen. Will the local market continue to support the lamb industry at current prices of well over $100 head. Who knows and to be fair it’s not just lamb that is expensive in the local supermarket, beef is no better, pork is a little more affordable but it’s difficult to get good flavour and that leaves chicken which by anyone’s standards is affordable, bland in the extreme because they are bred for rapid growth, converting food into meat, they are not bred for flavour. They leave that to the Colonel and his mates.

Rapid growth and taste do not go together and more importantly there is a limit as to how often a man can eat chook isn’t there? Funny isn’t it, roast chicken, when I was a lad, was a special treat, especially a Capon. Capons are castrated Cockerels. I don’t think they are available in Australia but they are still available in the EU. In the old days, even in the Roman days, the castration was physical, presumably the origins of keyhole surgery, because a young cockerels testes are the size of a grain of rice. I don’t know when they were invented but in England in the sixties young male birds, before they showed any male characteristics had a female hormone pellet inserted under the skin in their neck. All this did was make them into chemically castrated cockerels and they grew quickly into big birds and produced fine meat. They were nearly always raised outdoors and were indeed a Sunday roast special and more expensive than sheep meat, beef or pork.

The other quirky thing about this sheep business is that the sheep flock in WA is now about 14 million and continues to decrease from about 36 million at the turn of the century. We are still killing and eating more sheep than we are breeding, so maybe lamb will become a delicacy for only the very rich? Might become an endangered species?

The decision to go almost vegetarian ( I reserve my right to have bacon occasionally) will no doubt please my daughter and her two daughters who are all vegetarian. It will raise some eyebrows in the family, but quite honestly eating fish, especially local fish and meat, except for cardboard chicken, has become very expensive, arguably too expensive for Lynne and I, on a pension. The rack of lamb (above) was for Sunday dinner. There were eight chops from I would think was a ‘trade weight’ lamb. The picture is too small but the price per kilo was $32.00. Our Rack weighed 0.618 of a kilo and the original price was $19.77 and we got it at the bargain price of $17.92. The decision to buy less or no meat was mine, I looked at the supermarket docket and the cost of essential food for two of us surprised me and the price of the lamb for one meal as we had some friends to dinner, stood out like a beacon and I had to ask, ‘Do I really need it?’

It’s interesting isn’t it? We cannot compete with Asia in fish farming, or at least it will be difficult and our supermarkets being who they are don’t really care where they buy, so the Asians will probably win. The world is screaming for our animal protein and we can’t produce enough. We have run the cattle herd down and drought is gripping some of that country again. Our sheep flock is the same size as it was in the 1920s and declining. We import 80% of the pig meat we eat.The UK is looking for lamb markets and so is New Zealand. Just had a look at prices in the UK and they are almost identical to Australia at A$7.31 kg making a 25kg lamb $182.75. Lamb consumption in the UK is down 11.5% over the last 12 months to July this year. I wonder if that is a consumer reaction against the retail price? I am reliably informed that neither the Scots or the Welsh came up with the idea — this is the response from the  UK lamb industry to a falling market:Love Lamb Week placard © Love Lamb Week

 

 

 

 

Roger Crook

About 

Over the last fifty years or so Roger has worked in agriculture, since 1967 in Australia. From farm labourer, to station and farm manager, then progressively to a senior management position in agribusiness as the marketing and sales manager of what was at the time the biggest agricultural chemical company in Australia, ICI (Australia- Rural Division), Roger has both a practical farming and comprehensive agribusiness background.
After a brief spell as the marketing director of a big public relations company in Perth, Roger formed his own consultancy specialising in agribusiness communications and the marketing of Australian agricultural intellectual property overseas.
Roger says he will only ever be 'semi retired'. He believes Australian agriculture is at the crossroads so he has set up the 'Global Farmer' as a forum to both pose, debate and hopefully answer some of the challenges being faced by the Australian family farm and so by Australian agriculture.

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