John Ralph Essay Competition 2016: Farm environmental stewardship programs are just subsidies in disguise and should not be adopted in Australia

Entries have closed for 2016.

The Australian Farm Institute established the annual John Ralph Essay Competition in 2010 to honour John Ralph, who was the inaugural Chairman of the Australian Farm Institute. John made a major contribution to the Australian Farm Institute during his six years of chairmanship, and always insisted that comprehensive and objective research should be the basis for policy decisions, particularly for a sector such as agriculture, which has a wide diversity of different commodity groups and business arrangements. (More information about the history and previous winners of the competition is available here.)

The topic for the 2016 John Ralph Essay Competition is:

Farm environmental stewardship programs are just subsidies in disguise and should not be adopted in Australia.

Australia and New Zealand are the only developed nations in the world that do not have farm environmental stewardship schemes, which are schemes under which governments pay farmers for providing environmental services that benefit the entire community. In the United States, for example, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) pays a yearly rental payment in exchange for farmers removing environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and planting species that will improve environmental quality. Under the CRP, there are currently almost 24 million acres enrolled for periods of up to 15 years, for which farmers are paid annual rentals which exceed US$1.7 billion per year.

There have been regular calls by farm groups to implement similar schemes in Australia, and several have been trialled (for example the Victorian Government’s Bush Tender program). However, many economists and some farmers simply see these programs as ‘subsidies in disguise’ that effectively pay farmers for managing their land and water resources in a prudent manner. Such schemes also have the effect of increasing land values, which limits opportunities for farm expansion or for new entrants to get established.

On the other hand, some farmers argue that the alternative to stewardship programs are government regulatory controls such as the various state Native Vegetation laws which place all the costs of public good conservation on farmers, and that the farm sector would be much better off with stewardship programs.

Entrants in the 2016 John Ralph Essay Competition are asked to argue the case for or against the proposal that is the topic of the 2016 competition.

In arguing a case, competition entrants will need to clearly explain, whether they support or oppose the above statement.

  • If you oppose this idea, you must explain why. What would be the benefits of an Australian environmental stewardship program for farm businesses and the wider community? What is a preferred model that should be adopted in Australia? What would be the likely impact of these models on productivity growth and environmental outcomes? Your response should also consider the payment mechanisms, compatibility issues with other environmental programs, likely impacts on farm management decisions, implications for land and water use planning, as well as any regulatory requirements.
  • If you support the statement, explain why you don’t see a future for environmental stewardship programs in Australia. Your response will need to clearly state the policy challenges that would be difficult to overcome. Your response should also discuss lessons arising from model/s in place overseas and why they may not be successful in Australia. Explain why you think such policies are undesirable and why it could be problematic to achieve both sustainable environmental outcomes and maintain farm productivity growth. In the absence of stewardship programs, you will also need to discuss the preferred model/s that will better achieve conservation and productivity outcomes for farmers.

Please fill out the following form and attach your essay to the form by 5pm on Monday, 5 September 2016.

There are two categories for this competition:

  • The Open category is open to anyone, including students, farmers, agribusiness participants, policy-makers, consultants, researchers, etc.
  • The Novice category is open to persons 25 years of age or under, on Saturday 31st of December 2016.

The two winning entries will be selected by a panel of judges and these will be published (along with a number of other papers on the same topic) in the Summer 2016 edition of the Farm Policy Journal, to be released in December, 2016.

Entries must be between 1500 and 4500 words in length, and material beyond the 4500 limit (excluding reference list) will not be considered by judges. The essays should be in 12 point Times New Roman font and no greater than 250 MB.

The essay is expected to present the author's point of view based on sound and well-argued reasoning.

A scientific style (method, quotes, references and reference list) is not compulsory, but important references should be cited. The essay should be written in a style suitable for an audience that has some familiarity with the topic, but does not have a great depth of technical knowledge about the issue.

Entries should be submitted in electronic format (.doc or .docx for Windows) with the entry form by 5pm on Monday, 5 September 2016.

The winner of the Open category of the John Ralph Essay contest will receive a cash prize of $5000 and the winner of the Novice category will receive a cash prize of $1000.

Both winners will also receive a one year's membership of the Australian Farm Institute (valued at $330) and complimentary attendance at the Australian Agriculture Roundtable Conference.

Professors and lecturers are encouraged to participate by encouraging their students to enter this competition.

The Australian Farm Institute has established this essay competition to create discussion and debate on current agriculture sector topics, and to encourage students and the wider community to engage in issues of strategic importance to the future of the sector.

Any professors or lecturers interested in having their students participate are invited to include the competition topic in their students' assessment tasks, and to enter some or all of the resulting essays in the competition.

Professors and lecturers who have at least three students who enter the competition will be offered:

  • One year’s free subscription to the Farm Policy Journal
  • One hardcopy of an Institute research report of their choice.

Please note that any professors or lecturers who wish to set this topic as a class project need to contact the Institute to register on 02 9690 1388 or

Entries will be judged using the following criteria:

  • Completeness: entries must address all the issues raised in the competition topic.
  • Originality: entries should go beyond just repeating 'common' beliefs, and carefully and objectively examine the question posed by the topic.
  • Comprehensiveness: entries should canvass the full extent of the issue, and carefully consider the positives and negatives arising from any proposed 'solution'.
  • Practicality: any proposals will need to find the right balance between being bold and practical – there should be a reasonable chance proposals could be adopted.
  • Clarity: entries should be written in clear, jargon-free language so that it is easily read and understood.
Images: Australian Network for Plant Conservation, Feral Arts, Serendigity