Agriculture and Rural Politics in South Australia

Agriculture and Rural Politics in South Australia

South Australian agriculture has been production and export oriented since European settlement. Critics argue this ‘anthropocentric world view’ has led to detrimental social and environmental outcomes.

While policy inertia has constrained agricultural expansion north of Goyder’s climatic line, farmers are increasingly moving towards more sustainable practices. This paper outlines the challenges to developing appropriate government support mechanisms for this shift.


South Australia’s agricultural development has been driven by the need to produce food and fibre for export since soon after European settlement. During this time, agricultural land use has been highly fragmented and intensive with little regard for social and environmental outcomes. This focus on productivist land use has been framed by the capitalist socio-economic system and anthropocentric world views of farmers and agricultural governance stakeholders. These have resulted in detrimental long-term social and environmental consequences for farmingly based communities and the environment.

Until the late 19th century, most of South Australia’s settlers worked on family farms with their families and extended networks of workers, friends and neighbours. A range of factors, including changing economic circumstances and the need to expand agrarian activities to meet increasing demands for food, caused this pattern to change. A more general process of depopulation in rural areas accelerated this trend. This was exacerbated by the wartime demand for food and the need to develop a new market in Asia. The expansion of the agricultural industry was facilitated by research and development into grain production, such as the introduction of phosphate fertilisers. These developments enabled agribusiness to spread over vast tracts of previously infertile mallee scrub, heath and lateritic country.

Agriculture in South Australia has always been a high-risk activity. From the beginnings of European settlement, it has been confronted by climate, soil and topographic constraints and the challenge of making profitable land use from infertile country. Consequently, it has been a constantly evolving and experimenting industry.

The founding of the Agricultural Bureau in 1888 was an important turning point in this history. This organisation provided farmers with a way to share experimental knowledge and support one another in the attempt to overcome these limitations. Its success was reinforced in the 1960s by a network of farmers from around the state who travelled to share their experiences with a range of different cropping practices, such as low-input, no-till methods and alternative feeds.

From the earliest days of the colony, there has been a strong desire to have representative government in South Australia. The resulting Constitution of South Australia, enacted in 1857, was the most democratic in Australia or the British Empire at the time. It established a bicameral Parliament with an elected House of Assembly and a Legislative Council, both of which were initially dominated by political parties.

Current status

The agricultural development in the state of South Australia has been production and export oriented since early European settlement. This has had detrimental social and environmental consequences. Recognition of these effects has increased significantly since the 1980s but conventional productivist farming still dominates in the state (Holmes 2006).

The economic pressures from declining commodity prices in wheat and wool, recurrent droughts, high interest rates, unseasonal rainfalls and ballooning farm debts accelerated the decline of the traditional pastoral economies and led to increasing concerns among farmers about their long-term futures in agriculture (Hamblin 2009; Fielke 2015a; and others). Many were unable to restructure their farms economically to adapt and they continued to seek new revenue streams from tourism markets or lifestyle migration to urban centres in the region.

A number of alternative farming practices have emerged in response to this trend, ranging from small scale niche agriculture through to food and wine production. These initiatives are aligned with the peri-metropolitan mode of occupance but have been relatively minor in terms of changing the income basis at farm level. They have also been slow to respond to the challenges of a sustainable food system as they largely focus on improving agricultural production through innovation and diversification (Roche and Argent 2015).

Despite this, an important trend is that some farmers have become more concerned about the socio-environmental impacts of their agricultural practices. This has given rise to the need for more explicitly valuing multifunctional land use at both local and community levels. This shift has been facilitated by the inertia of Australian policy in remodelling the productivist regime, which has encouraged some farmers to search for alternatives via innovative policy.

This paper explores a range of farmer responses to these developments, drawing on the results of an inductive qualitative research approach to interviews conducted with a total of 25 producers in rural and peri-urban locations in the Riverland and Barossa Valley regions of South Australia. Three policy recommendations emerge from this research: firstly, that future policies must recognise the importance of education to generate resilient agri-businesses and engender multifunctionality at both the business and farm levels; secondly, that future policy should promote a regional identity based on cultural heritage, food security and sustainable food systems; and thirdly, that future agricultural policy should support innovative agriculture by being flexible, community-focused to encourage farmer cooperation, avoid regulatory complexity and focus on agri-food value chain relationships.


South Australia has been a production and export orientated agricultural State since European settlement. Its neoliberal capitalist form of governance has encouraged a wave of productivist agricultural development that has critics who question its sustainability of socio-environmental outcomes. Market oriented initiatives and concerns from producers are contributing to increasing recognition of the multifunctionality of land use and creating the opportunity for new policy that values different modes of occupance.

The multifunctional approach focuses on the wider range of benefits that are produced by farming, such as biodiversity and ecosystem services (e.g. carbon sequestration). This approach aims to promote sustainable management of landscapes and supports local food producers in the transition to a more sustainable agricultural practice. The initiative aims to foster partnerships between farmers and environmental stakeholders, as well as to promote community awareness of agricultural issues in the region.

Interviews with local food producers, Councillors and civil servants showed that the new initiatives are having an impact in promoting a more sustainable mode of occupance by farmers. However, the number of ‘alternative’ and traditional farmers in the Mid North has declined as younger generations move away from agricultural pursuits and pursue other opportunities and lifestyles. This has coincided with a rise in the number of businesses involved in primary industries, especially tourism and mining.

A key issue that respondents raised was the need for better coordination of environmental concerns amongst government and community groups, including a shared agenda on environmental protection and sustainable agriculture. This was echoed in the Regional Development Australia Northern and Yorke (RALF) interview with an employee who said that their main role was to facilitate relationships between different stakeholders.

This was particularly important in the case of ‘alternative’ farmers who are more closely aligned with consumer demands. The RALF employee mentioned that there were several initiatives in the region to support this, such as the ‘Farmer Connect’ project which helps share information on agri-environmental issues between farmers and ‘consumers’. She also noted that the RALF was working with farmers on a number of climate change adaptation initiatives, such as the use of more drought-resistant plant varieties and rotational cropping techniques.


In South Australia a market-based approach to agricultural development has long been a feature of rural politics. The State Government’s War Service Land Settlement program in the 1940s helped to bring arid mallee scrub, heath and lateritic soil country into cultivation. Similarly, the research into trace elements and subterranean clover led to the rapid expansion of wheat production and up to one-seventh of Australian wheat is now grown in the state. Other crops of importance include barley, sorghum and cotton. South Australia is also a major exporter of beef and lamb.

Since the early 2000s many of these trends have accelerated. New market opportunities in wine and regional cuisine have been exploited by entrepreneurs as well as by a range of local and regional government bodies (Carson, Carson and Hodge 2014). In addition, a number of broadacre farmers are now switching to drought-resistant crops in the face of recurring dryland salinity problems. This is likely to have significant implications for the future of’regular’ broadacre farming in the state.

As a result, there has been a general move away from a productivist approach to agricultural development, with more and more families choosing to sell off their farms or to enter alternative agriculture (Fielke and Bardsley 2015b). The growth of corporate agri-businesses also reflects this trend, with these companies able to take advantage of economies of scale while being able to adapt quickly to changing markets and conditions.

However, in the Mid North region there are still a large number of family farms which are continuing to operate. In interviews with these farmers, they cited concerns about urban encroachment, the threat of loss of government support and prioritising keeping their farm in the family as key drivers of their decisions.

The challenge is to facilitate these changes while maintaining the integrity of the region’s unique natural and cultural landscapes. This is likely to require a rethinking of the role of protected areas and the emergence of small-scale niche practices that align with regionally specific environmental and cultural values. It may also involve a shift in the way the government approaches agrifood transitions, moving away from a focus on technical improvements and towards an approach that emphasises the improvement of production-consumption relationships (Holmes 2010). This is particularly important in regions like the Mid North where regional sustainability issues are driving respondent priorities.