171 – Lifestyle landholders

One of the things we often hear about rural areas is that they are losing population. However, there are some parts of rural Australia where the population is growing rapidly, thanks to an influx of ‘lifestyle’ landholders on small properties. For environmental managers, these lifestylers can pose a conundrum. They are obviously different from the commercial farmers that they are used to dealing with, but how are they different, and how will they respond to environmental programs?

With rural sociologist Roger Wilkinson, I did some research in Western Australia and Victoria to help us understand lifestylers better, with the aim of building those insights into our environmental management decision tools (Pannell and Wilkinson, 2009). Here is some of what we found.

There is a lot of variation within the ‘lifestyle’ category. Different people are motivated by different aspects of living on a small rural property, including peace and quiet, freedom from restrictions, recreation, enjoyment, having a good place to raise children, being able to impart values to one’s children, and having a place to recapture one’s sanity.

However, broadly speaking we identified two groupings. One group is very environmentally conscious. They are motivated to look after the land, and mostly know how to do it, although they may need help with logistics and labour.

For the other group, the main objective for their land is for the property to look ‘good’, according to their ideals of a pleasant, often partly wooded, green environment.

In both groups, people often work off the property to earn their main income, so time available for working on their land is limited.

As a result of interviews and some analysis using my Public: Private Benefits Framework (Pannell, 2008), we reached the following conclusions.

  • Trying to achieve changes in land management on lifestyler properties is likely to involve substantially higher transaction costs per hectare than on commercial properties. In part, this is because learning and other transition costs per unit area of land are higher.
  • On the other hand, in the absence of an environmental program, there is likely to be a longer time lag until adoption of new land management practices on lifestyle properties. As a result, there is a greater potential to reduce that lag in an environmental program.
  • Many lifestylers are relatively willing to make environmentally beneficial changes, but usually only on a modest scale. If the environmental problem requires substantial changes (e.g. dryland salinity), this is very unlikely to occur on lifestyle properties. It’s hard to achieve on commercial properties too, of course, but there may be ways to tap into their profit motives to make it happen.
  • Training of inexperienced lifestyle landholders may be able to improve their private net benefits from land management changes.

Overall, it is often harder to justify investment in land-use change by lifestylers than by commercial farmers. The project would need to be one of exceptional public net benefits, and preferably one with low learning costs.

In this light, past decisions by public agencies in Victoria to direct their extension programs more to commercial than to lifestyle landholders may have been justified on efficiency grounds.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further reading

Pannell, D.J. (2008). Public benefits, private benefits, and policy intervention for land-use change for environmental benefits, Land Economics 84(2): 225-240. Full paper (140K)

Pannell, D.J. and Wilkinson, R. (2009). Policy mechanism choice for environmental management by non-commercial “lifestyle” rural landholders. Ecological Economics 68: 2679-2687

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