Agriculture and Rural Politics in South Australia

South Australian agricultural production is heavily dependent on export markets and its land use focuses on continually increasing productivity. However, high interest rates, declining commodity prices, recurrent droughts and ballooning debts have impacted on the farming community.

Respondents prioritised keeping their farms in the family and favoured government support mechanisms that target regional sustainability issues. They also tended to rely on local agricultural bureaus and other research agencies for advice.


The emergence of agrifood transitions in South Australia reflects the rapid transformation of the country’s society, in particular a growing focus on food consumption. This has led to new demands for farmers, who need to align their farming practices with changing societal values and develop innovative ways of meeting those needs. The development of these changes is driven by new consumers, but also by changing agricultural production-consumption relations in the context of globalisation and increased competition from non-farming sources.

A major challenge faced by the SA government is balancing these new challenges with its own goals for the economy and for agriculture. The government has set a number of priority targets in its Strategic Action Plan (SASP) for 2020-21, including an increased emphasis on equity. Individual agency chief executives are responsible for delivering these targets and they are expected to collaborate across departments to achieve them.

These goals have significant implications for the way in which the SASP is implemented in regional communities. We found that the neo-liberal economic policy orientations that underpin the SASP have limited and constrained policy actors’ ability to consider or prioritise ideas about equity, and there is a view amongst some that if the economy is managed well then social issues such as inequity will resolve themselves.

Against this background, we explored how different government initiatives and their implementation in the Mid North region of SA might impact on agricultural sustainability. This was done through the analysis of five key strategic documents that guided whole of state government priorities and actions during our research. Table 2 summarises the analysis of these documents according to their problematisation of equity and the extent to which they promote intersectoral collaboration.


South Australian education is largely controlled by the government with preschools, primary and high school being the main educational sectors. The Department for Education has a number of programs that help improve the quality of education and develop students’ academic, social and emotional skills. They also work to ensure students are safe and have a positive learning experience.

As with many rural regions, farming in South Australia is often a family-based enterprise that focuses on traditional agricultural practices and a collective legacy of the past. This worldview, however, has been transformed by changes in consumer attitudes and the emergence of new agrarian production techniques.

To respond to these challenges, some ‘alternative’ farmers have developed innovative ways of working with their land. This is driven by the need to produce food to meet local consumption demands and the desire to develop a more sustainable approach to farming. However, this requires an articulation between their scientific knowledge base and their own farming knowhow. Historically this has been done through community groups such as Agricultural Bureaus that financed and coordinated research, but interviewees suggested that cut-downs in the funding of these community organisations would negatively affect their ability to share information about agricultural developments.

Our research suggests that the development of resilient agri-businesses will require the combination of three policy recommendations. Firstly, future policy should recognise that regional sustainability issues drive respondents’ priorities and emphasise the importance of multifunctionality. Secondly, it should encourage the formation of partnerships between farmers and non-farmers in order to increase the capacity for innovation in the sector. Thirdly, policy should reduce the complexity of administrative regulation, as this is believed to discourage entrepreneurship in the sector.


In rural South Australia, markets are one of the key factors in determining the direction of farming practices. The market system influences how farmers manage their business and land, the types of products they produce, and their relationship with the rest of society. As a result, it is important to understand the relationships between farming and markets.

As agriculture becomes increasingly commercial, the number of farmers declines and they become concentrated into larger holdings. This has had negative social and environmental impacts on the region (Fielke and Bardsley 2015a). The market system also reflects a shift in power within farming communities, from the state government to the farmer himself or herself. As a consequence, farmers’ decisions about the use of chemicals and other forms of production are becoming more controversial. One interviewee, a sheep breeder from Spalding, argued that the practice of spraying their crops to kill off weeds and grasses is harming the environment.

The broader community of farmers have become more active in trying to shape the way that their agricultural businesses are managed, but the market system makes it difficult for them to change the behaviour of other farmers and influence the wider agrifood system. For example, a biodynamic farmer from Beetaloo argues that she cannot set up a farm shop on her property because of the zoning laws. Another interviewee, from the governmental organisation Natural Resources Northern and York, explains that they are facilitating the articulation between scientific knowledge and the local farming community through groups such as the Agricultural Bureaus, but that the cuts to funding will have an impact on this.

The typology of modes of occupance is an analytical tool that supports the development of differentiated approaches to sustainable farming in the Mid North and beyond. It enables the recognition of significant differences in decision-making rationales among farmers and between different styles of farming.


South Australia has a well-developed and innovative technology sector, with its universities producing work-ready graduates for a global economy. Its research and development capability is supported by a highly-skilled workforce and a high level of industry collaboration with the University of South Australia being an example of a leading university that collaborates across national and international boundaries to deliver real-world research with impact.

The State government’s investment in technology has accelerated innovation and improved productivity within the agriculture and energy sectors. It has also led to the emergence of new technology businesses, such as Yadlamalka Energy, which is developing a ‘flow battery’ – a medium duration energy storage system that is expected to compete with pumped hydro and lithium-ion batteries in grid-scale applications.

In the past, the development of agricultural production technologies in South Australia has been driven by a desire for commercial returns and the need to keep up with technological change elsewhere. This has been reflected in the structural reorganisation of farms, such as the expansion of sheep-raising during the wool boom, and the consolidation of family farming into larger farms that aim for higher yields through the use of new irrigation techniques.

More recently, the development of renewable energy technologies has accelerated South Australia’s economic transition from carbon dependence. The State switched off its last coal-fired power station in 2016 and now leads the world in residential rooftop solar energy. It has invested in new wind and solar-thermal generation technologies, and is leading the way with the introduction of ‘flow batteries’ to support the integration of intermittent renewables into electricity networks. These technologies are expected to drive further innovation and improve the competitiveness of the State’s industries and the state economy.


South Australia occupies a comparatively small proportion of the Australian continent, yet it is home to a substantial and varied agricultural sector. In the second half of the nineteenth century, geographical expansion of agriculture across the state was paced by advances in soil management and agricultural science. Until the 1950s, sheep were the main farming staple and new irrigation technology enabled the growth of pasture, orchards and vineyards to support this development (Fielke and Bardsley 2015a).

Today, despite increasing competition from domesticated livestock, South Australian farmers continue to focus on wool and grain production. Some farms also produce specialty products such as olive oil, Carob, mushrooms and native species to sell at the Adelaide or Barossa Valley markets.

Most farm enterprises remain family owned and operated. The lack of public infrastructure like roads or railways, and the high costs of land acquisition, labour and electricity in South Australia mean that family farms are usually quite large. However, the aging population means that many younger family members are choosing not to take over the running of the farm and have opted for other occupations.

The lack of public infrastructure in rural South Australia has also contributed to the emergence of a regulated and restricted environment for agriculture. For example, it is illegal to bring fruit and vegetables into the state and a range of measures are in place to prevent this including disposal bins at airports and inspection stations on some highways. This has resulted in an emphasis on ‘productivist’ agricultural practices that prioritise the accumulation of material output and efficiencies of labour over environmental impacts. This type of approach is not compatible with the realisation of agri-food sustainability transitions at a territory scale and a more integrated multifunctional vision is required.