Gabrielle Chan is proof the big smoke isn’t home to all our inventors, big thinkers, dreamers and doers.
The journalist who’s worked for The Guardian Australia, The Australian, ABC and The Daily Telegraph grew up in Sydney and never thought in a million years she’d move to the country.
Yet in 1996, Gabrielle upped sticks from the Canberra press gallery to marry a sheep and wheat farmer in Harden, NSW.
This set the scene for Gabrielle’s deep dive into life out bush, starting with her book, Rusted Off: The Divide Between Canberra and the Neglected Class, in 2018, and now, Why You Should Give a F–k About Farming.
Her husband, Richard, affectionately jokes that had Gabrielle married a lawyer, she’d be investigating the legal industry, or if she’d married a mechanic, she’d be writing stories on the global car industry.
“My parents instilled a massive curiosity in me,” says Gabrielle. “I find the way things work fascinating. I just want to shake up everything, turn it upside down and have a good look at things.”
If you were to ask what Gabrielle’s latest book is about, that comment paints a pretty good picture. The book, as the title frankly puts it, investigates why we should all care about farming.
And why should we?
Gabrielle argues that if we want to keep finding the food we love on supermarket shelves and dressing in our favourite clothes, we need to take heed in the future of farming, which means paying attention to the challenges the industry faces.
The great thing about both of Gabrielle’s books is that she writes them from the perspective of someone who went from being completely disconnected from what was going on in regional and rural Australia to someone who now owns a sturdy pair of gumboots and can see sheep from her bedroom window.
The book was born pre-COVID-19 pandemic, however Gabrielle was really hitting her straps when it began, which meant visits to farms in Australia and overseas, particularly the UK, had to be cancelled and rescheduled via Zoom.
The silver lining was the pandemic provided the perfect case in point illustrated by Gabrielle’s book by creating a scenario in which food was, quite literally, stripped off supermarket shelves. It’s an early warning of what could happen again during future pandemics, or because of climate change, soil issues, a lack of water, or other natural disasters.
What Gabrielle found by writing the book – and this isn’t a spoiler because you need to go on the journey from cover to cover to truly appreciate your responsibility as a consumer – is that one of the issues holding us back is our unwillingness to pay what it costs farmers to take care of the land.
Most people want their food and fibre to come from sustainable farms, but right now the price we pay doesn’t reflect what it costs farmers to plant trees or keep livestock off pasture.
“The UK is a good example of this,” says Gabrielle. “Rather than providing subsidies for production – how much they grow or how much land they have – they are now shifting to a system that pays them for environmental services.”
Gabrielle acknowledges there is some work being done in this area in Australia, with the National Farmers’ Federation pushing for all farmers to receive five per cent of their income from environmental services by 2030.
She also says big companies such as Microsoft are starting to offset their emissions by paying for landscape amelioration – and some of it is close to home.
“Microsoft has already made big payments to farms in Australia, including, ironically, Rupert Murdoch’s farm Cavan [south of Yass],” says Gabrielle.
Her book also highlights weaknesses in our food supply chain and calls on the government to develop a national food strategy.
“We do produce a lot of food and fibre, but the difference now with globalisation is we are only one part of the supply chain,” says Gabrielle. “So while we produce milk or wheat, we may not produce the Tetra Pak the milk goes in or the wheat has to be sent to Indonesia to be made into noodles.”
Let’s hope the book falls in the right hands.
‘Why You Should Give a F–k About Farming’, by Gabrielle Chan, is due to be released on 31 August, 2021, and is available to preorder now.