WELCOME to the second Get Muddy Q&A. This month, I stalked around the sitting of a new parliament in Canberra and the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) annual general meeting to pull up a seat with NFF chief executive officer Matt Linnegar.
Matt’s a chromatic character who grew up in the city, studied agriculture, and has worked in the sector ever since. He’s no doubt looking forward to leading the pointy end of our national agricultural body through calmer political waters after a tumultuous period this year that has seen three different federal agriculture ministers.
Matt makes some interesting points that come back to a couple of key messages. That is, agriculture has a bright and exciting future ahead, but as a voice we’re lacking in numbers and often singing a different tune.
Q: Matt, you were born and bred in Sydney but have studied and been working in ag for 20 years. What was it about agriculture that grabbed you?
A: My father, who was from Temora, always said I was a ‘fish out of water’ in Sydney and I would take every opportunity I could to get out and onto a farm. I spent a lot of time on my uncle’s beef property on the upper Macleay River near Kempsey, NSW. I loved getting involved and then developed a real appreciation for the diverse job that is farming.
Q: What has been your biggest personal challenge within the industry?
A: There have been many but helping steer NFF towards its full potential is definitely the biggest challenge to date.
Q: What are the most common misconceptions about the role of the NFF?
A: Not too many about the primary role of the NFF, however one of the biggest hurdles is that we represent a number of farm organisations rather than individual farmer members.
Q: NSW Farmers president Fiona Simson recently said on ABC radio that “Whilst we continue to go to government with a fragmented voice, government can do whatever it damn well likes and we’ve only got ourselves to blame.” What are your thoughts on that?
A: Fiona was expressing her frustration that while we have a respected national voice in the form of NFF, others choose to go to government directly. While this is their right and may produce results for individual organisations, if there are multiple messages on a single issue of national significance, it can disempower farmers. There is no more true statement in politics than ‘disunity is death’.
Q: Some farmers I’ve spoken with question the effectiveness of corporate membership of the NFF, how do corporates add value to the NFF’s cause and consequently their fellow members, both large and small?
A: Corporate members add real strength to the NFF voice. They provide value in the development of sound policies and help us to identify issues of common interest through the agriculture supply chain and better inform others in the supply chain of farmers’ views.
Q: Barnaby Joyce said in his first address to the lower house as Minister for Agriculture that in some cases his own portfolio has become a "mere ambassador for agriculture". Talking to my father’s generation of farmers, they also believe the NFF is similar. They say that in comparison to 20 years ago the NFF has also lost aggressiveness and effectiveness. Why do you think that is, and what’s changed?
A: Well firstly many things today are different to what they were 20 years ago. For instance the rallies at parliament house 20 years ago have been replaced by social media campaigns – and just as farmers came to parliament house 20 years ago to protest so too did many farmers support NFF on campaigns such as Animals Australia bags in shopping centres. But some things don’t change. We still unashamedly and doggedly pursue the interests of farmers on everything from live exports to removing the lion’s share of costs associated with the carbon tax. We can be stronger still and will be stronger if our support grows. But we have less farmers each year and membership across some organisations is dropping in line with broader social trends. So the key to becoming stronger is to find new ways to get farmers involved and to do more with other across agriculture to strengthen our voice. We are working on this right now.
Q: Lastly, aside from Barnaby Joyce’s selection of ties, what do you think the most exciting thing is about the new government?
A: It may not sound that exciting but the prospect of putting in place the foundations to improve farmers’ lives over generations to come without major policy shocks!
Follow matt on Twitter: @mattlinnegar