About the Land

Tuesday, September 1, 2009 - 09:27

A people person, Ben Fargher, CEO of the National Farmers' Federation, is at the sharp end of a lobby group striving for change. By Jason Day

Failed crops, dead stock, or even just the inconvenience of water restrictions in suburbia, the past decade has seen the rippling and widespread effects of drought touch most people's lives.

Urban dwellers became used to water restrictions in capital cities. State governments have been moved to commit to unpopular risk management investments by building billion dollar desalination plants. The cost of the weekly shop has been affected.

But for the farmer and those whose livelihoods are based in and upon the land, the effects of extended drought throughout the 2000s has been truly severe. And then came the global financial crisis.

Land management has become an issue for many Australians. Climate change, water use, deforestation, crop suitability, animal welfare, land-use issues and the role of private investment and public monies has the 'land' focused in the national psyche.

Leadership and management on the issues is everywhere you look, but to what effect?

Ben Fargher sits atop the peak farmers' organisation as Chief Executive Officer of the National Farmers' Federation (NFF). The NFF's goal is to advance the interests of the Australian farm sector. Developing strategy and advocating policy, it seeks to influence the decisions and opinions of not only the Canberra politician, but the community.

The lobbyist, Fargher explains: "Decisions governments make, or community attitudes that influence the decisions that governments make, affect the business operating environment of the farm sector. We aim to influence policy for a favourable outcome for our members."

The NFF is made up of state farm bodies and national commodity organisations including those in beef, cotton, rice, dairy, wool, sugar, sheep and fruit. These bodies feed up to the NFF within the national umbrella structure of the group.

Fargher has a background in economics and agricultural science. He has served as the NFF's Senior Policy Manager - Trade and began as CEO in early 2005, then only 30 years of age. He brings to the table vast knowledge and a passion for the job.

"I'm fairly clear on what I'm good and what I'm not so good at. I'm good on strategic planning and communicating with people. I'm not a table-thumping leader. I'm a negotiator and facilitator, trying to bring people together. We rely on human capital to develop policy and advocate it."

Internally, Fargher has been faced with his own management challenges. The very capacity of the NFF to do its job has been affected. Staffing has been reduced by about 25 per cent on the back of lower membership income as the drought has taken its toll and farmers go out of business. In fact, he describes the drought as the rural sector's GFC. "It has been a challenge because the number of national policy issues has become greater, not fewer."

Sector under siege
Despite extensive media coverage of the farmers' plight, that well-used stat that has 90 per cent of us living in urban areas is real. The distance between urban and regional Australians extends beyond simple geography to lifestyles and lower levels of access to services and facilities. Even the tactile distance between how and why things get done on the land (the remove from the steak and egg on your plate and the blood and feathers involved in how they came to be) has grown over the past 50 years. The rural sector is in strife. Is it, in fact, under siege?

"Yes, you could say the sector has been under siege," says Fargher. "First, farmers have been belted by drought; the effects have been shocking. These are businesses trying to be innovative with new risk management plans, sustainable practices, new technologies and new marketing. But they are being belted by drought year after year after year.

"This strips away their financial capacity, affecting other regional businesses and their communities. It takes its toll emotionally in tiredness and stress, and socially.

"Second, we're not well understood by the urban community; that perception that farmers are raping the environment, using too much water and [not treating their] animals well." The NFF is working to change that.

"We've previously said, 'Well, metropolitan Australia doesn't understand us; it's their fault'. But we now realise it is our problem. We're not building trust and articulating perceptions about positive things like ethical production systems, environmental sustainability or animal welfare standards. Our strategic plan has a specific communication strategy to address this area."

Fargher is quick to emphasise that if the sector didn't believe it had a long-term future, they'd all be shutting up shop and going home.

"The world needs food and we are good at producing it. We have got population growth on our doorstep in Asia, a region the IMF says is going to weather the GFC better than the EU and US. Agriculture is actually the only sector of the economy currently in growth. The past two national accounts would have been negative if not for agriculture's contribution. We're getting calls from big financial planners who want to know about what's happening in agriculture. That's exciting."

Fargher says that the GFC has seen mixed outcomes for agriculture, but claims that there isn't a lot of evidence to suggest that farmers' businesses are holding back on investment because, for example, they can't find credit.

"On the one hand, commodity prices have taken a dive and credit is hard to find and costlier. On the other hand, interest rates have come down and, because of the drought, the ag sector is carrying a huge amount of debt, which is now cheaper to service. The exchange rate has also depreciated, which helps exports."

Not a unified sport
Lobbyists rely on teamwork and the consistency of their message for results. Which makes it problematic for the NFF that it doesn't have a grain group rep as a member. Disunity is a killer for the lobbyist. As such, has the rural sector's message suffered because of age-old competition between farm sectors and organisations? Yes, admits Fargher.

"Agripolitics is not a unified sport. I don't want to be critical of our membership but I'll go out on a bit of a limb here. Farmers are independent and resilient. When you work by yourself, against elements outside of your control, you need to be.

"But those same good qualities make it a challenge to get people to work together. We have a vast array of different industries and sub-groups. As farmer numbers reduce and sectors like services become more pronounced - and groups like pharmacists, engineers and miners get organised - there are simply not enough of us to be arguing among ourselves.

"That is where leadership comes in and the NFF's job is to get people working together while respecting each other's differences.

"When we go to government with a unified response we can pick up Parliament House and take it with us down the road. But when we lack unity as we leave the Hill, others with their own messages follow us in the door. If we're all over the shop we just do not win."

Brand capital
Fargher says that brand capital is crucial for their role, and he certainly believes the NFF has it. A complete restructure of the organisation has provided for better representation and governance, and a more unified and flexible approach to policy making and advocacy activities.

"Someone once said to me that lobbying in Canberra is like a kitchen pantry and you've got jars of Vegemite on the shelves: a mining jar, a pharmacy jar, a farmer jar, and so on. The government go to different jars and use some of the Vegemite. If you don't keep refilling the jar, one day it's empty and gets taken off the shelf. And then it costs you millions of dollars to get that jar back on the shelf again. So we know we need to invest more in the brand."

Flexibility is also a key to lobbying. Fargher admits that the NFF has not always been as easy to do business with, and they haven't been as flexible as they should have been. That is changing.

"We're a very democratic organisation but not always quick to move. Policy moves very quickly now. If you have a meeting and discuss things for six months, you're out of the game. So we've had to change our internal structures to be more flexible, more responsive."

But it is 2009. Stereotypes of the whingeing farmer or aloof city slicker has been around for some time. What is the path to a more valued rural sector in the hearts, minds and wallets of urban Australia? Can we rebuild an emotional connection to producers in an online world? When you view as a right the ability to buy out-of-season fruit and vegetables at your supermarket, do people care whether their bananas come from Brazil?

"We've done market research on this issue," says Fargher. "We believe people do have an empathy with farmers. They do see them as hardworking people, salt-of-the-earth types.

"However, that lack of understanding about how farmers do what they do and why, exists. That does matter. So we are using the capital around people's positive perceptions of farmers and marrying it to communicating how farmers treat the land and animals, and are using better technology and techniques.

"If we combine those things - where and from whom their food comes from and that it is being produced ethically and sustainably - we believe we will have the community's ongoing support.

"It is about leadership. I can't control what every farmer says. I can't control how every farmer treats their animals. I can't control the environmental practice of every farmer.

"But every time I stand up, I can talk about the positive, ethical, sustainable, job-creating production techniques in this country, and I can ensure that leadership around me does the same. We have so many good stories to tell."