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Thursday, 16 May, 2002, 08:37 GMT 09:37 UK
Australian farmers' US anger
Sheep farmer Simon Ramsay tending his flock
Sheep farmer Simon Ramsay tending his flock
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By Andrew Webster
BBC News Online in Australia
Simon Ramsay has spent all morning ploughing his fields and he is angry.

South-western Victoria is going through a dry spell threatening his sowing plans but that's not why he is seething - the answer lies thousands of miles away in a foreign land.

On Monday US President George W Bush signed off a farm bill providing billions of dollars of subsidies to American farmers and Simon Ramsay says that is going to make life much harder.

The way to tackle [overproduction] is to reduce subsidies to their farmers so that they go out and do something else

Simon Ramsey
"We are furious", he says.

The magnitude of the subsidies puts Australian farmers in a terribly unfair trading position.

Simon is in a good position to judge the mood in the countryside, he is vice-president of the Victoria Farmer's Federation Pastoral Group representing meat and wool producers throughout the state.

Unfair advantage

"At first, we thought it wouldn't happen because the US is in the WTO, it supports free trade and encourages its neighbours to adopt free-trade policies.

"Surely, we thought, it wouldn't provide unfair assistance to its own farmers.

"Over production is a concern in the US. The way to tackle that is to reduce subsidies to their farmers so that they go out and do something else," he says.

As Simon speaks, a community radio news bulletin explains US farmers will now receive about 50% of all their income in the shape of government handouts.

In Australia the figure is 7%.

Shaking his head, Simon says in his experience it is even less.

Simon Ramsay with his plough
Making a living from the land is increasingly difficult

Australian farmers have long since grown used to operating without subsidies. Their answer has been rapid take up of new technologies and diversification to help them ride out commodity slumps.

Simon is the fifth generation of Ramsay's to farm livestock on his East Mooleric land. It's a slightly larger than average farm - 3,000 rich volcanic acres, ideal for wool, lamb and beef production.

But in recent years he has introduced grain crops to supplement his 8,000 herd of sheep and 300 cattle.

That has meant clearing fields of hundreds of massive boulders, which litter the rolling landscape, and borrowing market gardening methods to cope with the difficult soil and the wet climate.

One thousand acres previously unsuitable for crops now profitably support barley, wheat and canola.

Now, Australian farmers fear the US farm bill is so wide ranging it will depress commodity prices across the board and wreck their strategy.

Viewed from Australia, American farmers have a track record of failing to make progress while hiding behind trade barriers.

Difficult history

In May 2001, the World Trade Organisation ruled against US restrictions on Australian lamb. A package of quota cuts and tariffs which were introduced by the Clinton government in 1999, had sought to protect the tiny US home market.

Ironically, Simon says, the protectionist measures prevented Australian farmers from helping develop the US market.

"The American public are not lamb eaters and don't know much about lamb because in the past they have been offered fairly inedible, tough lamb", he says.

But when Australian farmer offered to share their expertise in return for a level playing field they were firmly rebuffed. Lamb remains a minority interest in the US.

In East Mooleric's back paddock Simon shouts at Ramby, his chocolate brown working kelpie dog, directing him to herd a dozen sheep. To stay in business, the farm has to operate largely as a one-man show and Simon takes on all the day-to-day tasks.

"Farmers should be efficient," he says. "They should be able to trade freely on an open market and do that profitably."

"But with the reaction of the US Government to their farmers we are angry, and we are very sceptical about there ever being a level playing field."

See also:

13 May 02 | Business
Outrage as US farm handout agreed
10 May 02 | Business
Anger greets US farm aid
03 May 02 | Business
US farm aid threatens new trade row
16 May 02 | Business
US 'protectionism' condemned
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