When the Blake family tried to expand their 1,000-hectare farm to stay viable, the century-old Katanning farming family could not secure a lease or an affordable block to buy.
- High land prices are squeezing established local farmers and young families out of ownership
- The logic of “get big or get out” rules the economics of Australian agriculture
- Young hopeful farmers still see a pathway to ownership
Instead, in March, and in a moment they never thought they would have to face, the sale of their farm was settled.
Kallum Blake’s family sold their home and farm, located 285 kilometres south-east of Perth, to an offer “30 to 40 per cent higher” than they thought the property was worth.
But even at such a significant premium, the sale was bittersweet.
“We bought the place in ’81 [and] the family has been farming probably ten kilometres away for 100 years or so.”
His parents are retiring to West Australia’s South West and he will take contract work elsewhere over harvest.
“We had a real estate agent come knocking and trying to buy and we said ‘no, we’re not on the market’,” Mr Blake said.
A lease on farming
On WA’s South Coast, Jess and Cody Shilling started a farm of their own this year, leasing a 130-hectare block of pasture to graze cattle.
For seven years, Mr Shilling worked on other local farms while Jess built a livestock vet business.
This is their first year running their own cattle but, crucially, it is not their own land.
Partnering the Rochesters, an established local farming family, has allowed them to maintain full-time work and lent much-needed security and capital to the operation.
“This is the reality of us being farmers at the moment — we couldn’t afford to go and buy a place and buy stock,” Mr Shilling said.
Australian farmland has exploded in value in recent years, driven by extremely low interest rates and strong seasons across many agricultural crops and regions.
Ryan Wilkie is an agricultural real estate agent in Darkan, part of WA’s Great Southern sheep and grain-producing region.
“I’m sure there’s a ceiling but it hasn’t happened yet.”
The strong growth has been felt across land sales and leasing, as both Kallum Blake and the Shillings can attest.
“We could be buying land for the same price we’re paying in lease — but you’ve got to have the capital,” Mr Shilling said.
“At a stretch [we might] buy a block but then you’ve got to buy the cattle and it’s not realistic.”
After years of “astronomical” farm price growth, land Mr Blake was leasing to supplement his own property was taken back by the owners and a replacement could not be found.
“It seems to always be that the good blocks were always snapped up before you knew about them or they were too dear,” he said.
‘If you’re not getting bigger, you’re getting out’
The economics of commercial agriculture do not account for decades spent in a community or for young families’ lack of capital.
“I’ve got a soft spot for Katanning — I was born and bred here,” Mr Blake said.
Nonetheless, he maintains the decision to leave was necessary.
“If we had 10,000 acres it would’ve been fine. But at the size we were, it didn’t work,” he said.
“But now it’s at the point where a lot of those neighbours are quite large. So when a 2-3,000 acre property comes on the market they want to buy the whole thing.
“In this game, if you’re not getting bigger, you’re getting out.”
Mr Wilkie said, of the farms he has sold this year, it was mostly existing farmers looking to expand.
“There is interest from the corporates as well, looking for large aggregations of land,” he said.
For the Shillings, the support and mentorship of other farmers has been instrumental in starting their own farm.
“My biggest success was finding someone willing to give you a go to get yourself started,” Jess Shilling said of Richard Metcalfe, a prominent local on whose farm Cody learned the skills he uses today.
Having moved from Perth, Jess’ vet business was built on the back of relationships with locals like the Metcalfes, as was the Rochesters’ partnership in their new leaseholding.
The Manypeaks community has made all the difference for the Shillings so far, and they hope to become landowners with its ongoing support.
Katanning, however, will have one less farm.