Agriculture provides a firm hand during mining booms and busts, but does it receive enough support?

When the mining boom collapsed a decade ago in central Queensland, John Hallam’s hotel in the town of Capella emptied almost overnight.

“It was devastating,” Mr Hallam said.

He credits the area’s diversity of industry, particularly agriculture, for keeping the city’s businesses afloat.

Mr Hallam said that given the contribution livestock and crops have made to the state, it was wrong that the major parties ignored regional and rural voices in this election campaign.

“Without a farmer, we would starve.”

John Hallam sits in his cafe, with lots of trinkets in the background.
John Hallam has experienced many mining booms and busts during his 37 years at Capella.(ABC Capricorn: Erin Semmler)

A billion dollar industry

The Central Highlands lie within the Bowen Basin, which has Australia’s largest coal deposits and 11 of the region’s 43 coal mines.

It also pumps in nearly $1 billion a year through agriculture.

It has the largest citrus farm in the southern hemisphere. It produces table grapes, beef, cotton and cereals.

The area’s mayor, Kerry Hayes, said the two industries were not in competition, but he would like to see more government support and investment in agriculture.

“We have people changing agriculture, changing productivity, and those are all words that governments like to see,” Hayes said.

“But they seem to have a bit of a block when they see that it’s actually happening in the regions and they’re not following the regional investment route properly.”

Kerry Hayes sits at her desk in the boardroom
Kerry Hayes says the industries coexist now, unlike 30 years ago when mining leases moved onto farmland and caused some angst.(ABC Capricorn: Erin Semmler)

In March, the National Farmers Federation identified 20 regional centers and recommended more than $1.4 billion in new investments to increase their population.

One such center is Emerald, with a population of just under 14,500 and in the heart of the central highlands.

Mr Hayes said the annual production of agriculture in the region was large and growing, but the problem was labor and people could come to the region to fill their jobs.

Mobile coverage and housing

Renee Anderson operates a cotton farm on the outskirts of Emerald, and despite unseasonal rains in May which destroyed some crops in the area, she said the industry was rosy.

“Coal isn’t the only place the jobs are in town,” Ms. Anderson said, pointing out that there are about 1,500 businesses in Emerald associated with agriculture.

Renee Anderson leans down to inspect her waterlogged mung bean crop.
May’s off-season rains could spell disaster for Renee Anderson’s mung bean crop.(ABC Capricorn: Erin Semmler)

But there were barriers.

“We currently have people moving to town for the cotton industry who are struggling to find housing,” Ms Anderson said.

There was also the issue of telecommunications.

“Our whole farm is run online, whether it’s banking or marketing, and everything we do is cloud-based,” she said.

Ms. Anderson would also like to see emphasis on a good road network to get produce in and out of rural areas and cities.

Keep people in the community

Arjun Bloemer is the chief executive of the Central Highland Development Corporation and said he would like to see “a little more” commitment from Labor and the LNP.

Arjan Bloemer stands in front of his office building.
Arjan Bloemer says one of the region’s biggest challenges is attracting a workforce and then housing it.(ABC Capricorn: Erin Semmler)

The company is not just standing up for agriculture, but the region, and at times there was a bit of frustration at not being heard, Mr Bloemer said.

“We’re seeing a lot of attention on coastal areas, but it’s up to us to make sure we’re heard,” he said.

Despite the economic opportunities in agriculture, the main challenge was to attract and retain a workforce.

“Livability is an important topic for us and housing affordability,” Bloemer said.

With a large horticultural industry, the challenge has been to secure foreign labor, especially due to COVID.

“So we’re very keen to see an effective visa program and strong global relationships to attract the right people to support our industry,” Bloemer added.

Larry Daniels has led a mix of livestock and crops north of Emerald his entire life and he has seen boom and bust cycles in the mining industry.

While mining has had a big voice, agriculture has never been forgotten by the people of the region, he said.

Larry Daniels in his ute as he drives past a sorghum crop
Larry Daniels says agriculture has changed through science and technology, with crops that can grow with minimal rain. (ABC Capricorn: Erin Semmler)

“Some miners have come and gone, but fundamentally we’re in a good position here because of our diversity of livestock, crops, irrigation and mining. It’s kept most businesses afloat. “, did he declare.

And the push for mining was not as big as it was a decade or two ago, he said.

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