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How a national freight strategy can unleash our farmers’ potential

In our land of sweeping plains, the journey from paddock to plate can be a long and costly exercise. How can governments collaborate to drive down costs, and unlock the soaring potential of Australian agriculture?

Transport infrastructure in Australia is at a crossroads. Ageing infrastructure, mounting maintenance costs, a lack of new investment or even a clear strategy is throttling agricultural development.

Farming takes place in every corner of our vast continent - often far removed from arterial roads and freight routes. This leaves the sector perilously beholden to freight costs, as we move produce that ‘last mile’ to link in with major supply chains.

These ‘last mile’ linkages can often contribute disproportionately to the overall cost of getting produce to market. This is why NFF advocated for the development of a national freight strategy in its Agricultural Transport Infrastructure – A Discussion Paper.

The release of the Australian Infrastructure Plan by Infrastructure Australia was a pivotal moment as it set out a clear vision for Australia’s overall infrastructure investment. It recommended the development of a National Freight and Supply Chain Strategy. Creation of that strategy is now underway, and it presents very real opportunities to piece the links of the national freight system together, set a pipeline for future investment, and maximise the existing logistics network.

There are countless projects that could streamline our freight movements and unlock bottlenecks. However, the NFF believes that for a National Freight and Supply Chain Strategy to be meaningful, it must do more than focus on individual projects. It must put an end to the politicisation of infrastructure funding.  

Putting ag’s potential ahead of politics

For too long our key nation building projects have been identified and committed to as part of political cycles beholden to elections and budgets. The magnitude of infrastructure expenditure and the legacy of projects warrants consideration that transcends political cycles. The NFF believes solutions reside in the systems and architecture that governs infrastructure investment and coordination.

...our freight systems cannot be measured in an isolated domestic context. Instead, they form part of an export expressway that delivers significant wealth to the Australian economy.
Mark Harvey-Sutton, National Farmers' Federation

The NFF is keen to focus discussion on the contribution and role of agriculture in our freight networks. As a commodity rich economy, often the focus of priority investment is the movement of mining resources. While the contribution of the mining and gas sectors to the Australian economy cannot be understated, agriculture has recently experienced something of a revival in its growth and optimism, underpinning its status as one of the fundamental pillars of the Australian economy.  

It is also important to consider that the majority of agricultural produce in Australia finds its way into global supply chains. Therefore our freight systems cannot be measured in an isolated domestic context. Instead, they form part of an export expressway that delivers significant wealth to the Australian economy.

Getting the facts straight

In order for a freight strategy to reap rewards, it has to prevent our domestic freight network being the weakest leak in the global network. Australian farmers are world class in terms of on-farm innovation and efficiency – but it is often lamented that this does not continue once produce leaves the farm gate. If the sector is to meet the needs of a hungrier, wealthier and choosier customer then we must be able to move our produce efficiently.

There are critical data gaps which need to be clarified to support the strategy. One is quantifying the on-farm freight costs as an overall proportion of production costs. Too often, we are forced to rely on anecdotal evidence based on individual situations.

The NFF is cognisant that in order to enable special consideration of agriculture in a National Freight and Supply Chain Strategy, these costs must be identified and quantified in a precise way. We must also identify major agricultural freight routes. The capability to do this currently exists with the CSIRO’s TRANSIT modelling.

Amongst other benefits, understanding costs and freight routes will enable rigorous cost benefit analyses to underpin future infrastructure investment decisions.

Adopt a long-term vision for freight movements and planning, independent of political cycles.
Mark Harvey-Sutton, National Farmers' Federation

Another hurdle we must clear is the challenge posed by regulatory inconsistencies. It is well documented that inconsistencies between state regulations is a constant frustration within our transport networks. A result of this is the advent of the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator – initiated following years of industry frustration about inconsistent interstate regulation.

The NFF supports the concept of a single national regulator or coordinator for freight. However, in implementing this measure, effective national coordination and consistency must extend beyond the traditional Commonwealth – State/Territory context. It must also consider local government and industry regulation as well. In addition, a national coordinator must have the capacity for a dedicated agricultural resource or liaison.

The NFF believes that a national strategy that provides a legacy of productivity and sustainability can be achieved through the following steps:

  • Develop a strategy that focuses on reform of the systems and architecture that governs infrastructure investment.
  • Acknowledge Australia’s status as a net exporter and consider Australia’s freight system as a key link in a global freight network.
  • Adopt a long-term vision for freight movements and planning, independent of political cycles.
  • Investigate practical measures that can maximise the existing network.
  • Adopt a cross-government approach that minimises practical inefficiencies caused by jurisdictional differences.
  • Embrace innovative solutions for long term infrastructure funding.

Mark Havey-Sutton is the Manager, Rural Affairs at the National Farmers' Federation

What do you think the nation's freight priorities should be? Log in and leave us a comment below!

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