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Is the way that we imagine farmers symptomatic of how our nation chooses to remember our history, and does it dictate how we function at present?

A model of diligence, strength and endurance—the farmer is remembered as a hero, battling the unforgiving Australian environment to cultivate the lucky country that we live in today.

While there are elements of truth in such sentiments—after all, Australia’s agricultural industry would not be the scale it is today if not for the hard work of farmers, past and present—this culturally-ingrained mythos does not tell the whole story.

Firstly, the understanding of the pioneering Australian farmer—working the harsh and unforgiving soil to enable the growth of a new nation—disregards that fact that Indigenous Australians lived and thrived on the same soil for over 60,000 years before our colonisation.

The mythos also neglects the devastating effects of settler-colonisation: the dispossession of Indigenous land, destruction of Indigenous foodways, and the introduction of climatically unsustainable agricultural practices—all of which carried consequences across centuries and into our current political and cultural climate.

These ideas and more are explored by Christopher Mayes, a Research Fellow in the Alfred Deakin Institute at Deakin University, in a recent article he wrote for The Conversation, Cultivating a nation: why the mythos of the Australian farmer is problematic. In it, he critiques the “long history that regards the farmer as the backbone of society”.

Mayes generously agreed to speak to Grok Magazine to discuss his article, alternative modes of food production, and ways that our nation may move forward with Indigenous relations.


What inspired you to write this article?

Well it’s sort of part of a book I have written called Unsettling Food Politics: agriculture, dispossession, and sovereignty in Australia. The background for the book—and the article—is really looking at the way both mainstream food production, by which I mean the standard, large-scale agriculture that’s being practised in Australia, as well as the smaller scale alternative food modes of production, have tended to ignore the role of agriculture in settler-colonialism and dispossession of Indigenous people.

Often a lot of food politics and food ethics discussions revolve around climate change and environmental issues which are important, or issues around consumer ethics and the use of slavery in food production—which are also important—but often what’s neglected is the role of agriculture and food production in the dispossession of Indigenous people, particularly in Australia.

You used the word “ignore” there. Do you think that people are largely aware of these darker aspects of colonialism but are happy to disregard them? Or do you think that because the way Australian history has been recorded, that we don’t really understand the full extent of it?

I suppose “ignoring” is the wrong choice of words, in that “ignore” puts too much emphasis on a sort of cognitive individual process of choosing to ignore something. I think its more about broader factors. For Charles Mills, the epistemology of ignorance is more of an active forgetting. The way in which our society, through both the education system, as well as, through public art, through public memorials, through monuments; there’s a sort of active forgetting of the role of agriculture in that particular area.

Australian anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner talks about “The Great Australian Silence” that there has been, even amongst scholars, who are both kind of aware of it but at the same time don’t bring it into their own discussions of these sorts of issues. I mean, that has changed a lot since Stanner was writing and spoke about this in 1968 when he gave the Boyer Lectures, but I think in certain areas—particularly around food—there is still a silence.

How does your acute awareness of this “active forgetting” in relation to agriculture influence what you buy and eat?

On the one hand, I am cautious on too much of an emphasis on consumer ethics. I think a lot of food politics in the past is focused on individual choice and this idea of voting with your wallet and I think that tends to favour those who are in an economically privileged situation.

My approach is to be mindful, to seek out the food that is produced in a fair and just way as possible, which can be done, to an extent, through things like farmers markets and community-supported agriculture. However, there needs to not be a fetishization of those modes of consumer choice, but a focus on the broader political and structural issues—trying to provide ways for the producers of those foods to do so at a more affordable rate.

For myself, I try to buy products that are as closely sourced to those who produced them, but I see that more as a privileged and symbolic act as opposed to something that’s going to solve these problems.

In the nineties, there were a lot of people who got onto Indigenous and native foods, which are a great thing, but it sorts of started to go down this line of “if we eat kangaroo then we’re somehow reconciling our bodies to the land and to Indigenous culture”. I think that’s a little bit naïve. I do think eating more kangaroo and native foods is environmentally probably a good way forward, as opposed to a reliance on cattle and sheep and other English imported animals, but ultimately, when there’s too much value placed on these small consumer individual acts it tends to over-emphasise the value of those particular acts.

In your article, you mention “regenerative agriculture” as a sustainable alternative to current farming practices. How do you see regenerative farming being integrated into Australia’s current farming culture?

From the broader perspectives of the Department of Agriculture, they would be quite sceptical of the capacity of regenerative farming to compete with the current industrial scale farmer. I think that’s because they hold two very different views on what farmer and food production is. If its focused-on export and economic growth, then regenerative farming is never going to be incorporated into mainstream practices.

Increasingly, people have seen the effects of climate change, there are again people at these smaller local levels around Australia embracing these practices because of the nature of them, the underlying philosophies of working with the land, working with its natural cycles. There’s much potential for harmony with indigenous philosophies and cosmologies in relation to country and the environment.

Going back to the title of the article: Cultivating a nation: why the mythos of the Australian farmer is problematic”, what do you think is the most constructive way to talk about farmers? Your article focuses on a lot of the negatives that they have done, so is it a matter of not talking as highly about them or is it more that we should be almost reversing the tides?

I think putting them in a more contextual light of Australian history. I certainly don’t think we should demonise farmers or farming as being exclusively about violence and dispossession, but at the same time much of the way the farmer has been talked about (and not really by farmers themselves, which is an important point to make) there is either this over-romanticisation of the farmer or a demonization. I am trying to avoid both of those things, and I think that we should talk, yes about the agriculture—sheep and wheat were very crucial to the development of Australia as a nation—but they were also crucial in the dispossession of Indigenous people. In a sense, you can’t have one without the other, and the farmer was instrumental in that.

Do you see a way forward in reconciling the dysfunctional relationship between the continually horrific effects of colonisation on Indigenous Australians? What things need to happen to bridge the gap?

I think things are happening at different levels. There are some encouraging thing and some discouraging things. In my book, and elsewhere, I talk about the Uluru Statement as an achievement and a great demonstration of the way Indigenous Australians had come together to put a proposal for the Australian government, and the Australian people in general. I think the way in which the Turnbull government at the time rejected that statement quite swiftly and out-of-hand was very disheartening.

But then other areas of the community have responded more positively. Alternative food spaces, the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance, for example, have been keen to learn from people like Bruce Pascoe who is a food scholar and farmer himself. So, you have these small pockets of food activists and farmers who are trying to embrace and learn from Indigenous foodways.


Christopher Mayes’ article is part of a series by The Conversation focused on the politics of food.