Farm sector rebounds sharply, but only back to long-term trend

The green lawns, where the bowlers, in their proper whites, take their turns with grave courtesy, are greener than normal for this time of year, early autumn in the Southern Hemisphere.

A severe three-year drought broke last year, just after the election of the Hawke government; and over the past 12 months the heavens have made up for lost time by continuing to pour down.

Toowoomba, ''the Garden City of Queensland,'' sits astride the eucalyptus-wooded spine of the Great Dividing Range, which runs not far inland along the east coast of Australia and separates the (relatively) densely populated coastal areas from the outback. In the smallish plots on the edge of town, the translucent green lettuce leaves and other crops sprout forth hopefully from the rich black alluvial volcanic soil, as sprinklers make their watery arcs across the fields.

Farther out, fields of black-faced sunflowers look a bit weary and ready for harvest. And off to the west of town begins the patchwork of wheat fields so huge and flat they drop out of sight only with the curvature of the earth's surface. On their way to port in Brisbane, big grain trucks lumber along the road past wooden houses on raised foundations as protection against mosquitoes and heat - typical of Australia's ''deep north.''

This is the Darling Downs farming belt. And like the agricultural sector generally, it is enjoying a rebound.

Says Don Eather of the Queensland Grain Growers' Association: ''We're looking at an economic recovery from drought, absolutely disastrous drought over the past couple of years, and most of our farmers have had a good year.''

The weather is critical here, he says. ''We take more notice of the weather than of the markets.'' The 1982-83 harvest was only 8 million tons - this year's , just winding up, was a record 20 million tons.

''Market prices are not up,'' Mr. Eather says, ''and production costs are up.'' Inflation here has been running at almost twice the rate in the United States and Canada, Australia's big competitors in the world grain markets, and so Aussie farmers are stuck with higher prices for fertilizers, herbicides, and other production supplies, even as the prices farmers receive are static. ''But with such a big harvest, our people have a better cash flow.'' Last year some farmers harvested literally nothing.

''The recovery has been good, but basically it's only bringing us back up to the long-term trend level,'' says an official at the Bureau of Agricultural Economics in Canberra. ''That's the line we're running with,'' he adds, tracing with his finger the somewhat spastic ups and downs of the farm sector on a graph.

And however dramatic the upturn, ''It's not spread evenly,'' the official adds. ''Wheat is leading the way.''

Wheat, he notes, can bounce back quickly - whereas livestock herds need time to rebuild, and the effects of the drought will be more apparent for the livestock industry this year than last. Last year's beef and veal production was 1.5 million tons; this year's is expected to end up at 1.4 million tons.

The official also notes that while it is only about 5 percent of gross domestic product, agriculture is a crucial 5 percent in determining the nation's economic growth. The emotional resonance of that sector is indicated by the way Australians customarily speak of agriculture as ''primary industry.''

''The Australian farmer has a greater export orientation than any other in the world - 80 percent of our production goes overseas,'' Mr. Eather says.

Although Australia's manufacturing industries have long been seen as textbook examples of tariff-protected economic inefficiency, farmers here are quick to point out: ''We get less government help than any of our competitors. Most of us are in reasonably good shape.''

Says an official at the Department of Trade in Canberra, ''Structural adjustment is more important here than elsewhere.'' Whereas other countries have spent a lot to keep people down on the farm, in Australia it's been sink or swim; Australia's dairy farmers, for example, have shrunk in numbers from 40,000 in 1970 to 20,000 in 1983.

''As a point of philosophy,'' this official adds, Australian national policy on agriculture has ''moved away from stabilizing returns to farmers, and more to a market orientation.''

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