PART 2 Nuffield Contemporary Scholars Conference 2018, Netherlands

Day 2 – Reflections so far… possibly after a glass of wine.

At the risk of sounding airy fairy…. everything is interconnected.  I don’t think feeding the world is actually about producing more food.  I believe it is really about economic, political, social and cultural change.  The same can be said about our own national agribusiness sectors down to individual farm business level.  It’s all interconnected.

For me, this really highlights the vital importance of collaboration.   I just don’t think we are truly collaborative (generally speaking) in Australia.  I feel we have a culture of “How can I get the most out of this relationship?  How can I win right now?” I often hear people boast about how they “screwed the supplier or contractor” as sign of business prowess and power.   I rarely hear people talk about “how can we both win out of this relationship so that we create value that is sustainable (and possibly scaleable) for both of us?”

It has been quite a revelation to me to hear how this way of thinking is so ingrained in the Dutch national character.  Yesterday Marc Calon, Chairman of the Land-en Tuinbouw Organisatie (LTO, Federation of Agriculture and Horticulture, an entrepreneurial and employers’ organisation – a cooperative organisation) said two things that stuck with me; “It’s in the DNA of the Dutch to collaborate and it’s in the DNA of the Dutch to trade abroad”.  Of course, this mentality has been borne out of the history of the Dutch nation, yet it seems to me, to be intrinsically critical to their success as a small nation punching well above their weight in agricultural outputs.

Which in turn makes me wonder, what is in the Australian agribusiness  DNA?

  • Is it to innovate because we’re isolated and no-one’s coming to help us?
  • Is it to help a mate when the chips are down?
  • Is it to work hard and wear that like a badge of honour?
  • Is it being resilient?

And are these the things that help us to survive or to thrive?  

A couple of things I left Australia despairing about are the unworkable number of peak body representative groups and for some of them, such as Agforce Queensland, the relatively poor uptake of membership compared with the number of producers in industry.  The problem with this is that as a primary sector or specific industry, we don’t truly have one voice that is strong and true and significantly influential.   As someone who should know said to me in Canberra before we left for CSC: “It’s great for the government, they just cherry pick the opinions they need to support their agenda.”  This spaghetti tree of complicated industry relationships has been quite the source of discussion amongst the Nuffield cohort and the overriding impression is a sense of “too hard basket” coming from most industry bodies and leadership.   It’s not good enough and like many of my peers, I disagree with this state of play.  What has happened with producer bodies in the Netherlands is a great example of what can be done.

 

The Australian Farm Institute’s Opportunities to Improve the Effectiveness of Australian Farmers’ Advocacy Groups report abstract says: “In fact of almost all farming sectors worldwide, the Australian farm sector is the least ‘organised’, and has very few examples of successful collective action – either in pursuit of policy or commercial objectives.”

Significant change CAN be achieved.  LTO (the Dutch Farmers Union) dramatically reduced the multitude of farmer’s representative bodies to form one strong group now representing approximately 70% of Dutch farmers. With a pool of some 50,000 growers, they have 35,000 members and interestingly, 16,000 members are in the dairy industry.  They had previously been aligned along religious, regional and ideological values.  I believe values-driven organisations are the hardest to influence.  Look how many conflicts, even wars, have been stated over difference of opinion in relation to religion, geography and ideology!

So… a massive achievement in my mind and one that really needs to be discussed in Australian agriculture, with a plethora of shouting voicing fragmenting advocacy and watered down influence on how and where agriculture fits in to our way of life.  We are diluting and diminishing our own value by putting this kind of representative reform into the “too hard basket”.  Not to mention the enormous financial leakage through duplication of roles, resources and services etc..

Too many cooks spoil the broth

Figure 1 TOO MANY COOKS SPOIL THE BROTH…

As Dr Henk-Jan Kooij from Radboud University, Nijmegen said in his earnest presentation on national ag history here at the CSC, “If you have a problem, you do something about it”, a cornerstone of Dutch culture.  In Australia, we have a problem and we need to do something about it. 

Since writing this article, this issue has come into sharp focus in the Australian agricultural media with a recent article 31st July 2018 Queensland Country Life newspaper article by Kelly Butterworth and Shan Goodwin, excerpt as follows:

THE big players in red meat must step up, take positions on boards and re-invent their peak representative bodies.  That’s the only way to halt the “crisis of relevance” currently eating away at some of the organisations advocating for, and conducting research, development and marketing on behalf of, cattle and sheep meat supply chains.

That has been the feedback from agribusiness consultants in the wake of claims levy payer funds are being chewed up by duplication of roles across the many industry groups in red meat.  The number of research and development corporations (RDCs) servicing red meat sectors has come under heavy fire, with the argument being that, at times, each is paying for the same expertise and work.  Managing director of big beef, sheep and goat meat service provider Meat and Livestock Australia, Richard Norton, says the duplication is costing the red meat value chain “hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars.”

Source: https://www.queenslandcountrylife.com.au/story/5555258/big-players-urged-to-drag-red-meat-representation-into-this-century/

richard norton from QCL article 2018

Figure 2 Richard Norton MLA who announced in September 2018 he will be leaving the organisation by the end of the year.

Richard Norton firmly believes in one research and development corporation.  “The inertia of the industry at times holds back its ability and desire to go out and understand what makes us globally uncompetitive,” he was quoted as saying at an industry event in Cloncurry, Queensland, in July 2018.

A big hearty “hear hear” from me in response!

PART 1 Nuffield Contemporary Scholars Conference 2018, Netherlands

It has taken me a long time to sit down and get my head around this blogging business, but I have finally got it all set up and started documenting what I’ve seen and learned along the way this year.  First up, the Nuffield Contemporary Scholars Conference held in the Netherlands during March 2018.  I attended this incredible international event through the  generous investment by Rabobank Australia (thank you!) with the 2018 Nuffield Australia Farming Scholars contingent.

DAY 1 – CONTEMPORARY SCHOLARS CONFERENCE, NETHERLANDS

First day of the Contemporary Scholars Conference (CSC) hosted by Nuffield Netherlands at the marina of Centre Parcs in Zeewold, NL from 10 March to 17 March 2010.  Some 140 or so people will be coming and going this week. The room is buzzing with energy!

Wow!   What a huge crowd of interesting, enthusiastic and diverse people of agriculture from around the world.  I’m sharing a table with people from Ireland, Brazil, France, the UK and Dutch TV star Yvon Jaspers of “Farmer Wants a Wife” fame.  I understand the show is taken much more seriously than the cheesy Australian version, having been aired since 2004 with a plethora of successful marriages and baby blessings.  I’ll find out later in the year during my return to the Netherlands on the Global Focus Program just how special Yvon and her show are and how they are influencing agriculture in a big way…

yvon jaspers image web

Figure 1 – Yvon Jaspers from Dutch television program “Farmer Wants a Wife”
Source: https://www.nu.nl/entertainment/5275472/15-miljoen-mensen-zien-nieuw-programma-van-yvon-jaspers.html

 

We are treated to a potted version of Dutch history and the development of land and agricultural practices.  Straight off the bat, I’m impressed by how this small country is really punching above its weight in terms of agricultural production.  A nation of some 41,543 square kilometres (comparable to just 60% of the size of Tasmania!) with 17M inhabitants and 2nd only to the USA in its global export production status.  Amazing!  The reclamation of land from “the water wolf” through a cleverly engineered system of controls, mainly dykes and canals and use of windmills is key to their success.   I do have a soft spot for clever engineering.

netherlands export etc.. slide in english

Figure 2 Netherlands Agrifood Export Figures 2017

The master planning by Dutch engineering legend, Cornelius Lely , in the form of the “Zuiderzee Works” following the great flood of 1916 has been paramount, as well as a practical approach to risk management.  This is best summed up in the statement we heard, “when you straight jacket the river, you might open up vast opportunities, but you also live with increased risk such as bigger floods. The dyke will always break and you have to plan for it.”

20180703_102126

Figure 3 Statue of Cornelius Lely located on the Afsluitdijk between Freisland and Wieringen, NL

 

Several things really resonated with me in these presentations.

  • It’s in the Dutch DNA to collaborate. To work with others to find ways for us both to win.  An open attitude to collaborative negotiation and business in that we talk about “I need to make money, you need to make money.  How can we do a deal where we both make money and build a relationship that ensures these transactions are sustainable and benefit us both in the long run?”    I feel like these discussions are more a matter of intent than actual practical, real discussions in Australia.  We might think we or the other party has a collaborative intention, but we rarely, in my experience, transparently talk about it and bring it out in to the open.  In developing a branded beef business working in the premium niche space, there are several relationships e.g. processor or sub-primals customer where there is great risk in that business or your relationship with them failing.  I think the Dutch attitude is one we could learn from in this respect.  I heard this sentiment over and over during my Netherlands visit.
  • If you see a problem, you must do something about it. Big fan and something we could learn from.  So much pontificating, so little action on some issues in Australia.
  • Dutch Engineering Culture, summed up as:
    • Believing in “make-ability”working *with* the forces of nature, steering nature to our benefit;
    • Agricultural engineering principals, you can create land and soil and develop “wild areas” (though there is much controversy surrounding the recent “Dutch Serengeti” Oostvaardersplassen project, making for interesting discussion after 5pm);
    • Nature engineering, and;
    • Social engineering (Joop Den Uyl, former Dutch Prime Minister was credited by the presenter here). The Almere area where our conference was being held was one area of interest in this respect. It is “new land” reclaimed from the water wolf and populated by nominated person based on social engineering principles in what is a relatively recent history.  The idea of this ‘purposeful, planned population’ by a Social Selection Committee of an area to me is unheard of!  I’m not even sure what I think of it yet.  These new areas were founded on three pillars of Catholic, Protestant and Socialist ideological beliefs, aimed at developing “societal spirit” rather than class society.  A community of “doers rather than whingers” was how I interpreted it.

Interestingly there isn’t perceived to be the same kind of wedge between agriculture and green groups as we are seeing in Australia. Particularly in relation to water management. With two-thirds of the Netherlands land mass being below sea level, water projects are seen to be “in the interests of public safety” and there’s little push back from Greens.  This is such a contrast to my domestic reality where I can’t remember the last major water infrastructure development project in Queensland!

Furthermore, Environmental NGOs are often government funded.   Projects tend to be consensus seeking with Greens incorporated into governance structures rather than see as an external stakeholder to “manage”.  More of that “it’s in our DNA to collaborate” culture I think.    I see the complete opposite in Australia, with a polarity between numerous environmental factions and agriculture e.g. vegetation management, Murray Darling Basin and animal welfare would be the main battle fronts I reckon.  I wonder how far down the road we will go fighting each other and what the casualties will add up to?

We had a look at the United Nations Global Goals for Sustainable Development, which thanks to the Threshold Accelerator program I did with Dent Global in 2016, I was already familiar with and a big fan of.  My particular area of study around producer led beef brands (mainly marketing around heritage provenance) would best align with:

  • Industry, Innovation & Infrastructure
  • Life on Land, and;
  • Good Health & Well Being.

un global goals

Figure 4 United Nations, The Global Goals for Sustainable Development
Source: http://www.globalgoals.org

 

I was really interested to learn that there is a correlation between housing affordability and the rise of the “foodie market” with people under mortgage / rental pressure or saving for 1st home tending to stay home more and entertain in-house rather than eat or entertain out.   I hadn’t thought much about that before and it’s an interesting phenomenon and one worth considering that in March 2016, Sydney’s nominal median house price was $999, 600 and the national full time average weekly wage was only $1,516 before taxation in May 2016.

What a day!  Mind. Blown.  This is only a tiny snap shot of the many presentations and discussions which took place.  Loving it!

 

on my way to conference in NL so cold

Figure 5 – On my way to conference venue in Zeewold, NL
Very cold for this Central Queenslander! It snowed later that week…