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Agriculture driving Tasmania

This week, the President and CEO of the National Farmers’ Federation have been in The Apple Isle – talking with producers, pollies and pundits in a state powered by agriculture. NFF CEO Tony Mahar provides his thoughts on the back of the tour.

This week I had the opportunity to visit Tasmania with President Fiona Simson to meet with a number of groups in the farm sector, to learn more about the issues on their agenda. I also had the chance to spend some time with the Deputy Premier and Minister for Agriculture Jeremy Rockcliffe.

Agriculture dominates the Tassie economy in way unlike any other state.

More than a quarter of Tasmania’s land area is committed to agriculture, and its dairy products, meat, vegetables and fruit are in high demand around the globe.  

Agriculture accounts for five per cent of gross state product (GSP) and seven per cent of state employment.

Tasmanian farmers produce about 25 per cent of national vegetable exports. Potatoes, onions and carrots are the main crops, but farm businesses are versatile and increasingly diversified. Barley, wheat and oats lead grain production, while poppies, pyrethrum, essential oils, seeds, leaf vegetables and flowers provide innovative cropping options.

Electric shocks

We met with Angus Lyne, President of the Southern Farm Systems group and a young mixed grain and livestock farmer from Campbelltown in north east Tasmania. Angus’s family have been on the property for over 100 years and currently grow a range of crops both under irrigation and dryland. The key issues facing the mixed farming enterprise are security of water, biosecurity and energy prices.

Angus told us that energy prices on his farm for irrigation had increased up to 40 percent in recent times meaning when he has water, the cost of irrigating made achieving satisfactory returns and competing on the global market difficult.

The timeliness of this discussion with Angus could not have been more pronounced. Straight off the back of hearing his concerns, we phoned into a briefing with the Prime Minister and Environment & Energy Minister on the Government’s new National Energy Guarantee – something we’re hoping will stem the tide on energy price increases.

Labour pains

Horticulture is one of the major growth sectors in Australian agriculture and this is nowhere more evident than in Tasmania where traditional crops such as potatoes, carrots and peas are being accompanied by a large increase in berry production. On the banks of the Tamar River (25kms north of Launceston) Simon and Robin Dornauf have established Hillwood Berry Farm.

Simon and Robin grow strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries on their farm which has recently increased to just over 30 hectares. All of the berries at Hillwood are grown under poly tunnels to protect them from the elements and also to assist ripening by increasing the temperature.

With the risk of weather largely sorted, the major challenge facing the Hillwood Berry Farm is the cost and reliability of labour. The Dornhaufs have made huge investments into attracting and keeping employees who – due to the difficulty in finding a reliable local workforce – are largely foreign based.

All of the berries at Hillwood need to be picked by hand, meaning Hillwood can employ up to 200 pickers each year with each employee picking up to 100kg of strawberries every day during harvest.

Simon and Robin say that that while the Seasonal Worker Program plays an important role, it is no substitute for addressing broader issues in the visa architecture
Tony Mahar, NFF Chief Executive

Hillwood employs workers from all over the world through the Seasonal Worker Program that assists Pacific Islander people find work and support their families back home. The program is a critical part of their human resources plan, and without it they would be severely compromised.

Simon and Robin say that that while the Seasonal Worker Program plays an important role, it is no substitute for addressing broader issues in the visa architecture. They would support development of an ag specific visa that more effectively catered for their seasonal labour demands and provided flexibility in attracting workers to their innovative and dynamic business. 

NFF President Fiona Simson (left) visiting Hillwood Berry Farm

A national voice for Tasmania

A key objective of the visit to Tasmania was to meet up with a couple of industry bodies to discuss the ongoing issue of a united national voice for agriculture.

The Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association (TFGA) was a member of the NFF up until 2015 when they decided they could not support the move towards a more streamlined and coordinated national voice for agriculture. Two years on, we’re keen to revisit that decision.

We met with Wayne Johnstone, President of TFGA, and a number of Board members to provide an overview of the NFF agenda, and formally invite them to re-join the NFF family. The meeting was a good chance to meet up again with Wayne and we agreed to continue a constructive dialogue about bringing TFGA back to the NFF table.

Fiona and I also met with Nic Hansen, President of the Fruit Growers Tasmania (FGT). FGT is the major body representing fruit growers in Tasmania and has members that include apple, berry, cherry and summerfruit producers.

Similar to Hillwood farm, the major challenge for FGT is labour. Quite simply the ability to attract the right people to work on farms is proving to be such a major issue it demands a comprehensive approach from the entire industry.  This must be led by the NFF in partnership with our members. I increasingly get the sense the issue is something all political parties have identified as a concern but none of them have a clear answer.

It’s always a real pleasure to get out into the regions and meet with our members
Tony Mahar, NFF Chief Executive

It was a real pleasure to catch up with NFF members Primary Employers Tasmania (PET). PET is such a focused and important organisation, providing crucial services to the ag sector in Tasmania. PET is an important piece of the industrial relations puzzle in a state where the agricultural labour market is highly constrained.

We also caught up with Greg McCulloch, President of the Australian Blueberry Growers Council (ABGC) to follow up the NFF membership discussions we’ve been having over the past 12months . I’m pleased to advise that ABGC has officially submitted its application to join the NFF as an associate member and I look forward to welcoming them on board (subject to the NFF member consultation process).

Last but not least, the visit provided an opportunity to meet with the Deputy Premier of Tasmania and Minister for Primary Industries, Jeremy Rockcliffe. Outside his day job Jeremy is also a farmer so has an acute insight into the industry. We discussed the need for a national approach to issues of particular importance to Tasmania including biosecurity, trade and branding.

It’s always a real pleasure to get out into the regions and meet with our members. Likewise, the importance in walking through the paddock or sitting around the table listening to the issues that are facing farmers on a day-to-day basis is something you just can’t replicate.

Tasmanian agriculture is a powerhouse within the wider Australian agriculture community, sure there are challenges, but the prospects and growth opportunities are so bright and can deliver so much there has to be a way of working together to make sure we address them in a cohesive and constructive way.

I look forward to making that happen.          

TM

Tony Mahar is the Chief Executive of the National Farmers' Federation - Australia's peak farmer representative body.

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