ACT News


Fears foreign giants buying up level playing fields

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.

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


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