Documentary review by Jim Parker
Sustainability isn’t just an issue for city-dwellers. Farmers around Australia are banding together to form new forms of co-operatives that preserve the benefits of the family farm in the face of growing corporatisation and value extraction.
Their story is told in a new documentary Fightback Farmers, which premiered at the State Theatre in Sydney, and is now available on ABC’s iview. The film is part of the Co-operative Farming project, supported by the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, and managed by the Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals.
The documentary focuses on three distinct communities. The first is a group of dairy farmers in Victoria’s alpine region left high and dry by the controversial 2016 collapse of the dairy processing company Devondale Murray Goulburn.
Disenchanted by short-termist, low-margin, corporatised dairy manufacturing, the farmers formed the Mountain Milk co-operative, a community-based group that emphasises animal care, environmental management and high quality product.
The second group in the film are a lobster fishermen’s co-op formed on South Australia’s Limestone Coast to fend off larger corporate approaches and to give local fishermen more export power in the face of Australia-China trade tensions.
The third co-op, TAFCO, were formed to support farmers displaced by the collapse of the old Victorian tobacco growing industry. These farmers, supporting each other, are now diversifying into new areas like winemaking, pasta and organic food.
What motivates each group is a respect for the environment, a connection to community and the search for a compromise between old, financially unsustainable single businesses and large corporations which extract rather than add value.
As a solution, the return to co-operative farming challenges accepted economic wisdom that the only way for Australian farming to survive was is to “get big or go home”. But, increasingly, this return to an old way of working together is seen as more in keeping with environmental sustainability and the preservation of communities.
The film has already touched a chord with Australians, who see the wider benefits of a reinvestment in social capital. Each weekend, hundreds of people from Melbourne are travelling to the ever-expanding Myrtleford Farmers Market, organised by TAFCO.