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National Farmers’ Federation Leaders’ Summit wrap

Last week in Canberra, the future of Australian farming was on the agenda as 250 invited leaders from across the supply chain gathered at the National Farmers Federation Leaders’ Summit to take stock of the industry.

Global Table’s correspondent Oli Le Lievre travelled to Parliament House to report on the status of the NFF’s plan for the future, its 2030 Roadmap, taking a detour through New South Wales to see what the situation is like for drought-affected farmers and towns.

It was the importance of people and, ultimately, trust that shaped the conversation at the National Farmers Federation’s Leaders’ Summit. The event was a chance to take stock of progress towards the 2030 Roadmap and its goal of growing the value of the industry from $60 billion to $100 billion in the next decade.

NFF Chief Executive Officer Tony Mahar opened the summit by sharing some advice given to him by a farmer in Western Australia, who urged him to look beyond policy measures and ensure the situation in the paddocks is reflected within the pages of the Roadmap.

A year on from the release of the Roadmap, the Leaders’ Summit was a chance to assess progress against the five pillars the NFF identified in the document, based on its consultation with the industry at 25 roadshows around the country.

Sheep in a drought containment area in New South Wales (credit: Oli Le Lievre)

In the first 12 months, successes include the continual improvement of the RDCs and connections between the industry and community, but there was room for more progress on the innovation front, such as that undertaken at the Northern Territory’s Tipperary Station, which has diversified into cotton growing.

“These are the innovations that will bridge the gap and this is what fuels my passion for agriculture,” Mahar said.

Each pillar was dissected with a keynote presentation followed by a panel discussion. Below is a summary.

Customers and the value chain

What are the lessons in nurturing trust that can be learnt from the banking Royal Commission? It was a pertinent question posed by Anna Bligh, the current CEO of Australian Banking Association. She described trust as a major currency in the emerging economy, underpinning the viability of businesses such as Uber and AirBnB, but with valuable role to play in banking and agriculture, too.

“Agriculture is coming up to the fastest, deepest, greatest disruption in history,” she said. “Consumers’ views of the world are radically changing in every sector. The largest transfer of power and information has been handed to consumers. It’s not going back.”

The panel discussion that followed centred on how the NFF can position agriculture to be Australia’s most trusted industry by 2030. Factual information, better management of the dialogue and risks posed by misinformed minority groups were highlighted. Storytelling needs to be a new focus, according to pork producer Tim Kingma, an NFF 2030 Emerging Leader.

 “Trust is achieved through highlighting passionate producers and getting their stories out there, really connecting with consumers,” he said.

The newest campaign by the NFF, We Are Australian Farmers, reiterated these themes. The video was released by President Fiona Simson on 14 October at the NFF’s 40th anniversary celebrations.

Growing sustainably

For new and sustainable growth opportunities, the industry may need to look beyond the usual suspects.

“Ag has grown up with grants and regulation as our major reform tools,” said Robert Poole, Partner at KPMG. “An exciting opportunity is the benevolent bond market funded by philanthropy and corporates.”

If farmers and peak bodies can mirror the innovation that happens out in the field when looking for new investment sources, they may be less exposed and can better plan for the long-term.

Unlocking innovation

Similarly, new thinking and solutions are likely to come not just from within the industry, as they have in the past, but outside it. How can agriculture attract new people and different skillsets that will bring about this change? John Harvey, Managing Director of Agrifutures, suggested utilising the powerful stories that come from the land.

“We need to share stories to reach many of those who have never considered ag as a career,” he said. “Those studying robotics, those studying automation and those studying electronics.”

The other key issue is the industry’s understanding of what innovations are available, as well as attracting investment locally. There are many solutions out there, but although global investment in agtech reached $3 billion in 2018, only $29 million was invested in Australia.

En route to Canberra, my conversations with farmers illustrated vastly different levels of adoption. One farmer asked, “What actually is agtech?” while another uses in excess of 10 apps to manage his daily operations.

Capable people, vibrant communities

Aside from technology, innovation and sustainable practices, there was wholehearted agreement that people will be key to achieving the 2030 Roadmap goal.

“The glue that makes it all stand together is going to be people, relationships and those who have the commitment to act in the greater good of this sector,” said Matt Linnegar, CEO of Australian Rural Leadership Foundation.

Gender diversity in the workforce was a key discussion point. Consolidated Pastoral Company, a trailblazer in the industry, spoke about how the business has supported women in its workforce, achieving not only 43% representation overall but a similar figure at the management level.

The NFF’s investment in the 2030 Leadership Program, open to 18 emerging leaders, was also highlighted. Linnegar stressed that such programs are not an investment in one person, but the whole industry and its future.

Capital and risk management

The last session of the day featured a compelling presentation from Michael Every, Rabobank’s Head of Financial Markets, on the exposure of Australia’s export markets.

With 35% of Australian agricultural exports going to China, Every likened the situation to having all our eggs in one basket.

But while China’s economic growth is slowing and national debt is growing, its economy is not reflective of the whole of Asia. There are billions of mouths to feed, Every reminded the attendees; Australia just “needs to find the few million richer ones and feed them”. There are many opportunities to spread the risk: the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia all hold substantial value.

By the end of the Summit, the clear message was that the industry is resilient, with many families continuing to survive hardship all over the country. The performance in the first 12 months of the Roadmap has provided the foundation for progress towards a $100-billion industry in 2030. While volatility on both sides of the fence remains a challenge for the industry, with the right people acting as the conduit between the Roadmap’s pillars there’s an incredibly exciting journey ahead for Australian agriculture.

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