WILLALA teenager Emma Donaldson is just weeks away from fulfilling her dream of studying mechanical engineering at the University of NSW in Sydney.
But the 18-year-old is worried about what will remain of the Gunnedah Basin’s agricultural tradition when she returns as a graduate in the years ahead.
Miss Donaldson’s family has been farming the region’s rich soils for more than 125 years and she has a deep affection for the land.
Yet with coal seam gas operations in the Pilliga encroaching on the family’s farm from the west and coalmining operations expanding to the east, the Donaldsons are at the epicentre of two competing and, seemingly, incompatible forces.
“I definitely see a future for myself in rural Australia, but whether I’m a farmer as such, I’m not sure,” she said.
“I guess the reason I would say probably not is because I’m not quite sure what the future of farming is. You don’t want to invest in something that you don’t believe will endure and I’m not convinced there is a strong future here.”
The mining boom in north-west NSW is challenging farming’s long-held mantle as the main economic driver of many small communities in the region. With the incursion has come new opportunities for landholders, business owners and, increasingly, young people fresh out of school.
The farmers of tomorrow are instead becoming the miners of today as companies lure them into the industry with traineeships, scholarships and the promise of lucrative wages.
Miss Donaldson knows of only one contemporary committed to a career on the land – a young man who will soon takeover his grandfather’s farm.
“One out of all the people that I know – that is pretty sobering,” she said.
“There are young people who have benefited hugely from traineeships in the mines or studying engineering at university through the mines.
“But already the average age of a farmer is getting higher and higher. Now there are even less and less young people heading back to the farms.”
The question of whether mining and agriculture can co-exist in the basin is one Miss Donaldson has been grappling with for several years. In 2012, she produced an award-winning school project investigating how the mining boom was impacting on the farming strongholds of Gunnedah, Narrabri and Boggabri.
Sifting through the survey responses of more than 150 primary producers and agricultural suppliers, it became apparent to her that the farming sector was losing out badly. “The retention and recruitment of staff is becoming more and more difficult for businesses,” she said.
“In many cases businesses put time and resources into training employees in truck driving or mechanics or farming and then lose them to the mines.
“They could not compete with the higher wages offered by the mines and if they have to pay higher wages, then they pass that on to consumers.
“That’s not very promising for the future because there’s going to be more mines and they’ll need more workers and they’ll suck them straight out of the schools.”