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


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.”


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!

Author: sonyasayshello

2018 Nuffield Australia Farming Scholar through the generous investment by Rabobank Australia. Studying producer-led branded beef, collaborative supply chains, provenance based marketing for premium niches and the potential value of Blockchain technology.

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