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Fears foreign giants buying up level playing fields

RARE BREED: Greg and Brad Morton in this season's canola crop at their Stockinbingal farm.

RARE BREED: Greg and Brad Morton in this season's canola crop at their Stockinbingal farm. Photo: Jay Cronan

A premier grain district where flowering canola rises up to a man's shoulder, Stockinbingal west of Canberra is becoming the land of the giants.

American, Canadian, Middle Eastern and Swiss interests are buying multiple properties, and the sprinkling of family farms that remain want the Coalition government to intervene.

Farmer Peter Morton and his sons Gregory and Brad are the forgotten voice in the debate over foreign ownership, which is becoming louder since American Archer Daniels Midland's $3.4 billion takeover bid for Australia's biggest agribusiness, GrainCorp.

Stockingbingal farm owners (right) Peter and Michelle Morton with their two sons (l-r) Greg and Brad look out over this seasons canola crop. The Canberra Times 20 September 2013 Photo Jay Cronan

Stockingbingal farm owners (right) Peter and Michelle Morton with their two sons (l-r) Greg and Brad look out over this seasons canola crop. The Canberra Times 20 September 2013 Photo Jay Cronan Photo: Jay Cronan

The Nationals oppose the sale but Prime Minister Tony Abbott wants more foreign investment. Whether to allow the takeover will be one of the first decisions for new Treasurer, Joe Hockey. Even if control goes overseas, the Coalition is expected to introduce a national register of foreign farmland, and reduce the threshhold so that deals worth $15million or more need government approval.

From the Mortons' property you can see AWB's grain handling terminal, which has been upgraded substantially, because trains loading grain there can deliver to Port Kembla and return within 24 hours.

Australians once owned AWB. Now American Cargill owns it, and because of recent upgrades to the grain handling bunker, Mr Morton prefers AWB rather than the Millvale rail siding owned by GrainCorp.

Why then, does he care if ADM buys GrainCorp?

Mr Morton says foreigners are not only taking over deliveries, they're also buying farms and dictating terms of trade.

Their quest for more land had forced up prices around Stockinbingal to a point where many farmers could not afford to buy out neighbours when they retired.

In a neighbouring district, 13 adjoining properties were brought in one swoop, the fencing lifted, farm homes closed and no one left to keep an eye out for bushfires.

''It is going to ruin small farms. Between here, Barmedman, Quandialla, you are talking 150,000 acres [60,000 hectares]. Ten years ago it was owned by families, today it isn't, it is owned by two or three companies, '' Mr Morton said.

Gregory Morton, 27, would like to lease land to make a start on his own, but Brad, 19, never wants to own a farm because of the financial risk of grain trading with multinationals.

Mr Morton recounts the story of a buyer announcing last year at Temora he had $15 million of Swiss money to spend if anyone was interested.

The Mortons' neighbour John Harper is bewildered that foreigners seem to see more value in GrainCorp than Australians do.

''That's why we have all this angst. There's all the great characteristics of being an Aussie farmer in rural Australia, but there is no incentive, no security.''

Further east at Harden, committed broadacre farmer Peter O'Connor does not think the government should block ADM's takeover.

''The horse bolted many years ago when farmers sold GrainCorp and floated it on the sharemarket,'' Mr O'Connor said.

- with Brian Robbins

10 comments

  • Have the Nationals never heard of leasing? Maybe someone could explain that to Abbott. You get the foreign investment and keep the farm.

    Commenter
    YS
    Date and time
    September 25, 2013, 7:59AM
    • Yes better idea then instead of selling our land remember pollies this is the land owned by all Australians. Not you pollies.

      Commenter
      Wayne
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      September 25, 2013, 8:55AM
    • Maybe someone should explain to you, YS, that a crapload of properties were sold under the previous LABOR government. Amazing how you people are trying to link the Abbott government with decisions made 6 to 12 months ago. What part of "he wasn't in charge then" don't you understand.

      Commenter
      zzREXzz
      Date and time
      September 25, 2013, 9:38AM
  • Given Abbott can't tell a tax from a levy, the internet or anything past the idea of winning, he can only see the short term gain of "SELL SELL SELL". Leasing would be a brilliant idea. BRILLIANT. But the government doesn't get stamp duty out of that do they...

    Commenter
    Daily reader
    Location
    Australia
    Date and time
    September 25, 2013, 8:22AM
    • Please, people should be able to sell to whom ever they want. Plus any one been to Fiji, seend how much Australian's won there? Should they not be allowed to buy property in fiji because their not Fijian, Nadi is bascially the Gold Coast. THis is the same as jobs going 'off shore' - I feel for anyone who loses a job, but isn't Frod American, thus building them here is a job going offshore.

      What comes a round goes around.

      Commenter
      Tom
      Date and time
      September 25, 2013, 8:58AM
      • If Australians are so worried about foreign companies bying up land in Australia because it's such a good deal, where are the Australian companies lining up to bid against each other for the same land so they can grow stuff and export to the world? Oh, they're too busy investing offshore.....
        Don't just blame "the Government" - that's stupid and lazy. Put Australian big business in your sights as well.....

        Commenter
        Nick
        Location
        Yarralumla
        Date and time
        September 25, 2013, 11:01AM
        • Consecutive governments have either sold off or lets the sale of prime aussie country or iconic manufacturing and agriculture brands end up in the hands of off shore industry or governments.
          Its only a matter of time and that will turn around, like in many overseas countries the natives of Australia are getting restless every time they turn around and are beholding to a foreigener
          or a foreign country identity.

          Commenter
          NITRO GANGSTER
          Date and time
          September 25, 2013, 11:44AM
          • So, you dont want foreign interests buying farm land. Those farmers probably had no choice in selling their land, drought, debt, low market prices, children not interested in taking on the back breaking and ungrateful and totally missunderstood work farming is. My partner and I have 6k acres. We have no children and when we retire we will sell our land and equipment for as much as we can to who ever wants it. Who are you telling farmers who can can and cannot sell to. The nerve of you.

            Commenter
            Karen
            Date and time
            September 25, 2013, 1:01PM
            • We are losing so much prime agri land that something has to be done on a policy level. If it keeps going the way is has been over the last decade, we will end up like the US where farmers are beholden to companies like Monsanto.

              We should be subsidising our own farmers for our own common wealth, not open the door wide to countries who are not interested in Australia or Australia's interests.

              Commenter
              Mardi
              Location
              Tuggeranong
              Date and time
              September 25, 2013, 1:13PM
              • Enough already. Overseas companies and governments are buying up our land to provide food security for their own populations. Why are we selling the farm? Why not rent or lease? Most countries overseas would not let Autralians buy land there, so why don't we reciprocate? That why we cannot be accused of being racist or overly xenophobic. The foreign investment review board should be sacked. No more Asutralian farm land to be sold off overseas, and that includes urban houses as well. Barnaby Joyce has suddenly gone very quiet over the foreign ownership horse he was flogging. Come on Barnaby, speak up. The people of your electorate sent you to Canberra to stop overseas sales. Well, what are you doing about it? If you can't represent the will of the people of your electorate, then resign and get someone who will follow their wishes. It now becomes very clear that you just wanted to get in on the gravey train and all you previous rantings were just a charade.

                Commenter
                befuddled
                Date and time
                September 25, 2013, 7:31PM
                Comments are now closed
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