Disrupting the status quo: Agriculture’s road to $100 billion

National Farmers’ Federation’s President Fiona Simson addressed the National Press Club on Wednesday 29 August.

See a full copy of her address below.

Disrupting the status quo: Agriculture’s road to $100 billion

Good afternoon and welcome.

What a pleasure it is to be here today for my first address to the National Press Club.

May I begin by acknowledging Australia’s first farmers, in particular the Ngunnawal people on whose lands we meet on today.

I pay my respects to their Elders past and present, and acknowledge their historic and continuing role in the great story of Australian agriculture.

I’d also like to acknowledge many distinguished guests present here today, including representatives of the NFF membership who have travelled to be here today.

I’d also like to acknowledge and give a shout out to the current custodians of much of Australia’s land mass – our farmers – who I’m very proud to represent and some of whom might be tuned into this address today or have the opportunity to view it later.

Well what a week it’s been. When I accepted the invitation to address the Club, I certainly didn’t think there’d be a change in Prime Minister in the intervening period.

I’d like to take this opportunity to officially congratulate Prime Minister Scott Morrison. We appreciated the opportunity to spend time with him yesterday and look forward to building a collaborative and positive relationship.

I also extend a heartfelt thank you to former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Mr Turnbull is a great friend of the farm sector. As we know the Turnbulls are farmers themselves.

Over the last few months, under his leadership, and that of our Ag Minister David Littleproud, the Government has been constantly reviewing and extending additional support to farmers and communities managing drought. I am pleased to say that after yesterday, I have no doubt that that will continue.

In April at the Sydney Royal Easter Show, Mr Turnbull launched the start of what I am here to talk about today, our bold vision for agriculture’s future.

My address today coincides with a time when many of our farmers, particularly those on the eastern seaboard, are feeling pressure.

Pressure that comes from managing drought. I use the words ‘managing drought’ deliberately because that’s what we’re doing.

Drought is not a new phenomenon for farmers. Since farming first started under the auspices of our first Australians, drought has been a part of the landscape, and a regular part of the farm business cycle.

That was of course well before the concept of climate change even entered our language.  I’ll talk a bit more about climate change later on but of course it’s the effects of climate change that we need to be aware of that make the impacts of drought even worse.

If I look back over the history of my own farm over the last 90 years, it’s easy to see that every drought is different, and although our farmers are smart, and prepared for the inevitability of dry times, this one has taken many experienced and savvy farmers by surprise.

On our farm, we haven’t had a year like this since 1965 when the sheep left and didn’t come back.

But our farmers refuse to be defined by the tough times.

In fact, many farmers, including me, take offence, to the portrayals of the ‘broken down’, ‘hand-out-dependent’ farmer profile peddled by many members of the media.

That is simply not us.

What I will say, is that these current trying conditions, have reaffirmed the special place farming has in the hearts of all Australians.

We’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity of the Australian community who are showing such great support.

Government too is constantly revaluating how they support our farmers and rural and regional communities, including the appointment of our very first national drought coordinator and for that we are thankful.

However, it’s made all the more difficult by the fact that we don’t have a comprehensive national strategy to deal with drought. Successive governments have had a go, but we are still without the certainty in the policy space that a national strategy would provide.

In fact agriculture in its entirety is to date, without a whole of Government National Strategy or plan at all.

There’s a plan for tourism, a plan for mineral exploration and mining. Plans for the Environment, plans for Urban Development, we came quite close to a plan for energy.

BUT not a whole of Government supported strategy for an industry that has not only been the backbone of our community and a consistent contributor to the GDP throughout our history, but also one with enormous potential in front of us if we can get it right.

It’s that potential that I want to talk about today.

Ag is not only an industry with a special place in our past, but also an exciting place in our future.

It’s an industry:

Whose food and fibre is increasingly sought after by consumers across the world;

Where farmers lead the way in the adoption of new technologies;

That year on year excels in environmental stewardship;

And who holds almost the world record for accepting the least Government subsidies than of any other comparable nation.

Australia’s farm sector as a whole has continued to out-perform its industrial counterparts in terms of its GDP contribution and its growth rate.

Today Australian agriculture powers 1.6 million jobs across the supply chain.

One in every 7 export dollars Australia earns is from farm produce.

Sheep producers are enjoying record wool prices of $20 dollars plus a kg. Lambs made a record $312 in Griffith just a week ago.

Wheat and grains are also making a resurgence from the lows of the last few years.

Ladies and gentleman agriculture’s stocks are, overall on the up.

We find ourselves in this position due to a number of factors – not the least from hard work and ingenuity.

We’ve also been supported greatly by the forging of a number of free trade agreements spearheaded by recent Coalition Governments.

China, Japan, Korea, Indonesia (which is to be signed this week!), and of course EU and UK now under discussion. As an export dependent industry – sending about 70% of what we produce overseas, new markets are incredibly important.

The burgeoning Asian middle class can’t get enough of our high quality, safe food and fibre – whether its Western Australian marron, Rockhampton beef, wool grown in Walcha, or cotton from Trangie.  People around the world love Aussie produce.

It’s because of agriculture’s proven credentials and contribution that it is so important that we have a national whole of Government strategy that not only plans for agriculture, but acknowledges and guides its growth.

We’ll continue to beat the drum until we see one. I know our Minister for Agriculture, David Littleproud is keen, but there’s probably a few new faces in there that we’ll need to convince.

In the meantime, we’re getting on with the job.

We’re not sitting around waiting for someone else to determine our destiny.

The NFF has a vision for farm gate output to be valued at $100 billion by 2030.

It’s a goal that’s earnt wide ranging support.

We’ve welcomed Minister Littleproud’s endorsement and that of our corporate partners. What’s maybe even more important is that the farmers of Australia that we’ve spoken to have loved it too.

Why $100 billion you might ask? What does it really mean?

Well the story of Victorian farmer, Cameron Parker can explain that.

Cam Parker, grew up in Melbourne. When he came to be of working age – he started like so many do, with a job at his local supermarket.

Cam, worked his way up and was given a posting to manage the store in the farming community of Boort, in Victoria’s Mallee, about 250 kilometres west of Melbourne.

Cam was fascinated by the nearby rural industries & when he wasn’t managing rosters and reporting to head office, he took up part time work on a nearby broadacre cropping operation.

Pretty soon Cam swapped supermarket life for full-time farm work.

Like he says it was nice to be able to see further than aisle 15!

To quote Cam:

I found myself driving a big John Deere 9220 tractor with duals and I thought ‘this is the life’.

Cam wasn’t content with being a farm worker. He could see the benefits of running his own operation & the lifestyle it could provide for him and his wife and their future family.

But nothing comes easy. Especially not entering agriculture without established family roots (and assets).

Cam has invested his time, money and soul into forging a career and a business in ag. He’s put everything on the line to do so.

Today Cam leases land and operates his own contract hay baling business, while also working as a spray manager for a business with both irrigated and dryland cropping interests.

So why $100 billion?

For me it’s for people like Cam. For Cam, and other young people like him, that I feel a personal responsibility, to do what I can, through the NFF, to see agriculture reach its potential – whether that’s $100 billion or more!

You see, ag’s already on a trajectory growth. If we did nothing different, we’d probably notch up $84 billion by 2030.

But to achieve $100 billion we need a shakeup. A disruption to business-as-usual!

The status quo just won’t get us there.

What this disruption should look like has been the subject of the Talking 2030 initiative, made possible through NFF’s great partnership with Telstra.

Since April, thanks to Telstra, NFF has crisscrossed the country.

Talking with farmers and others involved in agriculture from Katanning in Western Australia to Alice Springs, Charters Towers, Launceston and many places in between.

Nationally, we’ve tapped into bold and really, really smart ideas of farmers and others in agriculture and in our regional towns – about how we can get to $100 billion!

We’ve also harnessed the thinking of some of Australian agriculture’s best minds – graduates of the Rural Leadership Foundation and Nuffield Australia, and agribusiness too.

One such big idea is for the establishment of Regional Agriculture Deals.

Geographic zones that are not bound by state or local government boundaries but delineated by growing environments and pathways to markets.

Deals that, similar to City Deals, or the Western Sydney Airport initiative, would see the three tiers of government, working together.

Working together to bring strategic growth, jobs, infrastructure and investment to the regions, alleviating some of the impacts of the phenomenonal growth in our cities.

Regional Agriculture Deals would provide a whole new, strategic take, on how we approach agriculture in this country.

The concept would allow us as a nation to be bold and pin point hubs for focussed agricultural production, infrastructure pathways to connect them and the businesses that support it.

Such zones would be shaped around the natural advantages and already successful industries of a region.

The growth of these industries, regions or zones would be supported by strategic investment and planning along the lines of a hub and spoke model, which will allow small towns, villages and whole geographical regions to focus on their natural strengths rather than just the regional cities alone.

And also supported perhaps by a national agency such as the proposed Future Food Systems CRC.

We’ve seen this work in a number of other countries, such as in the United States, Denmark and the Netherlands.

As way of a domestic possibility, consider northern Australia as a formal mecca of irrigated production.

I recently visited the Ord Region & the opportunities are plain to see.

There’s not much that can’t be grown there from beef, cotton and maize to mangoes and melons.

Brokering a Regional Agriculture Deal between local, state and Federal authorities would facilitate investment in much-needed built and environmental infrastructure.

The region’s proximity to Asia is an obvious advantage.

Such a classification would prompt investment in the built and environmental infrastructure needed to boost production and to get the cotton, maize, mangos and melons to our global customers.

It would also serve as a blueprint for other Deals – such as in my home region of the Liverpool Plains, or the Mallee of Victoria

And here’s an idea: a national plan for agriculture could, with the three tiers of government working together, ensure that Regional Agriculture Deals are linked by strategic, efficient infrastructure with harmonised standards, funded by innovative and novel funding arrangements.

Road and rail that culminate at state-of-the-art ports & regional international airports, like that in Toowoomba, that make it possible for produce to be on shelf in market within 24 hours or less.

In fact, harmonisation of road rules for agricultural vehicles would create enormous productivity benefits even on its own if we could just get on and do it!

There’s also opportunity for education institutions to set up bases with learning opportunities targeted to that region’s industries.

Think – tertiary and vocational training in horticulture and irrigation. And consider agtech and innovation hubs focussed on new technologies for specific industries.

As well as fertile conditions for the success of secondary business that support agriculture.

What about tax incentives to attract these businesses and individuals and families servicing a region’s industry?

Regional Agriculture Deals would provide our regional communities a new identity for the future, a focus and catalyst for investment.

All this would serve to enhance the vibrancy and social fabric of our regional towns.

The fortunes of agriculture and rural Australia are intrinsically linked, we know that!

Of course, many of the current constraints on ag’s growth would still need to be solved in pursuit of that $100 billion target.

Currently our industry is hampered by a lack of workers. In some cases farmers are forced to leave fruit on the vine to rot, because they can’t get the people they need to pick it.

Sheep producers continue to struggle to get shearers and roustabouts.

Working holiday visas and programs such as the seasonal worker program work well for many, but they simply can’t fill all the gaps.

The NFF has developed the idea of a regional visa. A visa designed specifically for ag to address some of our labour shortages.

So far it’s received some traction with Government and stakeholders.

Of course, the backbone of agriculture is our home-grown workforce. There are so many career opportunities for our young in agriculture – on farm and along the supply chain.

In farm management, in research and science, marketing and finance, even advocacy!  We need to better articulate a compelling rationale for a career in ag, starting in primary school.

The NFF is leading an initiative to encourage more female representation in ag leadership. But this is only the first step towards increased diversity.

Of course, we also support strategic immigration. The agriculture we know today, was built on migration.

Today, Australian agriculture is being curtailed by a $160 billion capital gap. We need to pursue new, novel capital sources and business structures that will provide the cash we need to fund our future growth.

Then there’s technology.

The Australian Farm Institute predicts the adoption of digital technologies will be the next step change in productivity akin to the mechanical and industrial revolutions.

In fact AFI found that realising the full potential of digital agriculture in Australia could boost the value of production by $20.3 billion

Connectivity pending of course.

To this end, I have spoken to Telstra CEO Andy Penn just this morning about the switching on of a new 5G Tower in Toowoomba today. This is just the sort of digital infrastructure we need.

Think how the modern-day farm has changed over the past 25 years with the adoption of precision agriculture, GPS guided machinery and advanced plant science, to name just a few examples.

With $100 billion in our sights, we must commit to the maintenance and modernising of our tried and true farmer-Government R&D investment partnership.

We must complement the levy system by incentivising increased private sector investment and developing tools that encourage greater adoption.

Farmers also need to have trust in technologies and the security and application of the data they are collecting.

That’s why the NFF is working with farmers, government and corporate partners on the development of clear rules for the use of farm data.

And, technology shouldn’t be constrained to farm. Many agribusiness are already opening up new markets and new opportunities with platforms such as blockchain.

By 2030, it’s my prediction there will be any number of global trading and information-sharing platforms that bring Australian farmers closer to their global customers.

In relation to new markets, the importance of continuing to focus on trade agreements can’t be overstated. We must focus on tariffs but also on breaking down non-tariff barriers.

Trade is a crucial example of why we need stability in our political leadership!

Without committed diplomacy, we’ll never fully realise the opportunities of liberalised markets.

We know, that by and large, farmers are held in high esteem by Australians.

The NFF itself, for example, was recently rated as the third most ethical member association in the 2018 Governance Institute Ethics Index.

But we must continue to work on the trust between our consumers, be they global or domestic.

Whether its ag-vet chemicals, animal welfare, genetically modified technology, water or the treatment of workers, we must get better at telling our story.

We have a great story to tell! And where found lacking we should act to improve our practices to meet community standards.

There’s too much to lose if we don’t.

To this end the NFF is working with our members, the R&D fraternity and agribusiness on establishing a body to educate the public about farm practices and to dismiss the mis-truths.

Part of our social licence to operate is demonstrating farmer’s credentials as the great environmentalists that we are.

Our farmers manage 48% per cent of Australia’s land mass.

Our cotton and grain industries lead the world in water use efficiency. Farmers have significantly reduced their reliance on fertilisers and chemicals.

We’re at the front line of climate change –  of increasingly erratic seasons, out of season rainfall or no rainfall at all and hotter, longer summers.  Climate change exacerbates the already unpredictable impacts of drought.

As a sector, we recognise our role in combating climate change.

We’re well-advanced in doing our bit as an industry to cut agriculture’s emissions.

The red meat sector has set a goal to be carbon neutral by 2030.

It’s critical that we be enabled to continue to do that by coupling lower emissions and carbon storage and abatement with the production of high quality food and fibre.

We recognise agriculture’s role in sequesting and storing carbon, but there’s much more work to do.

More via projects that minimise and reuse waste, including food waste, as fertiliser or energy and more via strategies to sustainably diversify land use.

We need to remove much of the red tape applied to land management.  There are market based options that will deliver better outcomes for biodiversity by valuing public good conservation on private land and rewarding farmers for protecting threatened species.

There needs to be a continued focus on water utilisation, balancing the needs of production and environment together, with transparent rules and comprehensive trading markets.

It is crucial that we find the right balance between environmental outcomes and the production of food and fibre, underpinned by evidence based science and sensible policy, that we need to support a growing population.

The management of farmers finance assets shouldn’t be devoid from that of their natural assets. That’s why we’d support a capital system that rewards farmers for sustainable practices.

So, what would a farm sector worth $100 billion in farm gate output look like?

At the moment, we’re working on the modelling that will quantify this.

But to give you an idea, it is best viewed through the lens of Cam Parker.

For Cam and his family a $100 billion farm sector means new international markets for their fodder and grain.

It means Australia’s enhanced global profile as a producer of quality, safe food and fibre will have increased demand for Cam’s produce.

Fast, affordable connectivity will see Cam deploying state-of-the-art digital technology both on farm and in the marketing of his produce.

Cam will be accessing the capital he needs to grow, through new novel business structures and diversified capital sources.

In 2030, an increased appetite to pursue a career in ag means Cam has no problem sourcing farm workers to power his business.

Cam and his family will also be benefitting from the improved economic conditions in Boort.

The improvements in farm profitability will have brought new families to the town, small businesses will be thriving and social and cultural opportunities will have expanded. Health, education services have also been bolstered!

All in all, in 2030, the Parker family are more productive, profitable and enjoying a higher quality of life than ever before.

Fiona Simson

Fiona Simson is the President of the National Farmers' Federation and a farmer from the Liverpool Plains.

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