22/08/2012 - 10:45

Perception problems plague farm sector

22/08/2012 - 10:45

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The nation’s farming sector needs to be jolted into the 21st century.

The nation’s farming sector needs to be jolted into the 21st century.

I HAVE been challenged in recent weeks, preparing to give an address to the Grower Group Alliance 2012 annual forum, at which I was asked to talk about the position and perception of agriculture in a town ruled by resources.

It was challenging because, despite various attempts at being light-hearted, I found it hard to be positive on a subject like this; doubly so in front of a group of farming representatives, no matter how commercially switched-on they might be.

I racked my brain for words that summed up farming or aspects of it, and most of the connotations were negative. Those that were positive were quaint. 

I have to say that I wasn’t necessarily analysing my own perceptions but trying to put my finger on the pulse of the general public; the urbanised public, that is.

After all, if it were up to me I would not have shut down the live cattle industry for six weeks just because of an ABC documentary. Last year the federal government did precisely that, presumably because it believed voters would back it.

In summary I concluded that farmers are viewed through a prism of nostalgia for something lost. Everything else appears negative from the angle of those in the city, who are generally disconnected from the production of the food they eat and are swamped by waves of negative imagery around livestock husbandry, genetic modification and chemical usage.

At the business end, investment in farming is seen as high risk. As a business reporter I struggle to find a good news story out of agriculture. Even Wesfarmers, once a farmers’ cooperative, has all but cut its links to that sector.

Many of the perceptions troubling farmers are similar to those that the mining industry faced a decade ago, yet resources seems to have shrugged off much of the negativity – isolation, harsh environments, male-dominated culture and a lack of profitability.

Clearly demand for resources has lifted prices and made the business worth being in. But how does that erase the negative connotations?

Again, miners’ demands for skills and labour has forced them do what they can to improve the situation for employees. Sure, high wages help salve the difficulties of remote living, but generous conditions, good fly-in, fly-out rosters and genuine efforts to take out the most negative aspects of the work involved have made mining more attractive to more people.

A shortage of people has also made the miners widen their net to attract employees. To do so they have had to make the workplace even friendlier and show they can offer exciting career paths for those who want to commit to something for other than the money.

Profitability has made this possible and, should commodity prices drop, some of those things might revert to how they were.

Nevertheless, for years to come, mining will retain a perception of a career and lifestyle worth pursuing.

You could argue the resources sector had such a strong boom that drawing comparisons with farming is inappropriate. 

It is true that the seasonal nature of farming and incremental improvements in productivity have meant the sector doesn’t quite have the booms we associate with resources. Also, as well endowed with agricultural land as we are, we compete on a more level playing field than in mining, where the odds are hugely stacked in our favour.

Nevertheless there are lessons to be learned from mining’s ability to alter its perception; in my view, part of that is structural.

Firstly, the big corporate players dominate mining as an industry. Junior and mid-size miners have a say, but generally the efforts to improve the workplace have been led by major players. Big miners are also the main funders of key industry bodies – a similar situation in almost every sector I can think of, except farming.

Furthermore, when it comes to major issues facing the industry, the big and small ends of town are largely in agreement. They might argue over the specifics of the mining tax that is now place, but both ends of the industry vehemently opposed the original Resource Super Profits Tax proposal and all would like to see its successor, the Minerals Resource Rent Tax, abolished.

Name other big issues in mining and you’ll generally see big and small miners in agreement: 

• pro-FIFO (only because there is no other option);

• skills shortage;

• need for migrant workers;

• unions hurt productivity;

• China’s demand is insatiable; and

• foreign investment is needed. 

By contrast, you only need to have a cursory knowledge of farming to know it is an industry beset with splits and rifts. 

One thing clear from the outside is that all the noise comes from those who want to preserve and defend farming as it was – a way of life rather than a business. 

At least that’s how it seems to me, and perhaps that is why the urban perception of farming reflects that view. People in the cities are only hearing what it seems the farmers want them to.

I understand farming is a diverse industry with differing inputs, vested interest groups and environmental/political impacts across a range of commodities. Nevertheless, a unified farming voice is seldom heard.

The major resources players are simply not replicated on the land. Big pastoral companies and corporate farmers do not dominate the industry in production terms or political terms like they do in mining.

And the big boys of farming that do exist keep a pretty low profile. It is as if they prefer to get on with the job of making money and have little interest in weighing into the debate about whether agriculture is a good place to be.

Commercially, that might be quite astute and being private has long been part of rural culture; perhaps a legacy of the tall poppy syndrome that is part of Australia’s roots. 

In many other industries it would simply appear as a lack of transparency, however. 

Could you imagine such an information vacuum in other sectors so entwined with policy objectives? Pharmaceuticals, healthcare, aged care, automobile manufacturing, or banking? In each of these industries we know who the major players are, their shares are traded every day and their profitability is subjected to intense scrutiny.

Who are the top 20 farmers in Western Australia? I could throw a few names around, but it would be educated guesswork based on anecdote and speculation. These industry leaders rarely put their heads up above the barricades, perhaps because they fear upsetting their less successful neighbours? 

But maintaining a judicious silence means ceding the rural voice to those more willing to use it; apparently that is the battlers and those opposed to new technology.

Small farmers have the numbers, so it sounds more democratic, but democracy doesn’t work in industry. Success in the form of profitability is the only real way that companies gain clout in almost any other sector I can think of.

Profitability, in general, is a measure of an organisation’s ability to get their business right. It is a scorecard that allows investors to shift funding to operators who get it right more often than they get it wrong. 

It is not just investors, of course, it is young people choosing their careers and urban people voting on policy decisions.

If progressive farmers want to change the perception of agriculture, they need to be prepared to wrest control of their own industry from those who, for various reasons, would prefer to live in the past.

• mark.pownall@wabn.com.au

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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