Nats outline next bold ag plan

09 Feb, 2017 02:00 AM
The Nationals WA deputy leader Central Wheatbelt MP Mia Davies (left), party leader Brendon Grylls and Agricultural Region MP Martin Aldridge with future investment plans for agriculture.
Seizing the Opportunity in Agriculture has brought agriculture to the forefront.
The Nationals WA deputy leader Central Wheatbelt MP Mia Davies (left), party leader Brendon Grylls and Agricultural Region MP Martin Aldridge with future investment plans for agriculture.

THE Nationals WA will today announce another bold plan for the agricultural sector, including a $35 million research investment for grower groups.

The plan aims to develop on this term's $300 million Seizing the Opportunity in Agriculture initiative, which won increased spending on research and development, water resources and northern roads.

Ahead of the launch, party leader Brendon Grylls detailed to Farm Weekly the initiatives he would pursue if the party holds the balance of power in parliament after the March 11 election.

"If you look at our history and you look at what we have done in northern ag development, through Seizing the Opportunity in Agriculture and our Water For Food program - the commitment to agriculture has been consistent with the history of The Nationals WA,'' he said.

"Seizing the Opportunity in Agriculture has brought agriculture to the forefront and, even better than that, made it mainstream news.

"We have found a way, with our policy, to encourage international investment and reward existing farmers who want to grow and expand and I think there has to be a balance.

"We are scoring a few goals – we are seeing major investment and expansion of beef herds from existing pastoralists in my area.

"In 2012 we said that would happen and if you judge sentiment and what we spoke about in 2012 to now, it has been a complete transformation."

The Nationals WA agriculture policy continues to push agricultural investment, but not necessarily through the Department of Agriculture of Food WA (DAFWA).

In 2015, Royalties for Regions (RfR) began providing grants of $50,000-$500,000 to grower groups to undertake research and development into innovative solutions focused on supply and value chains, to promote WA agriculture and expand international markets.

The Nationals WA said it would expand these grants to allow grower groups to continue to undertake R&D by investing $35m over four years from RfR funds.

"We made an absolutely determined decision that we wanted to push the R&D into the grower groups, because they were production focused,'' Mr Grylls said.

"They are the young innovative farmers, they were saying they weren't even sure the department's focus was their focus.

"Given what the department was doing was based around growth and production systems and yields for those growers – there was a disconnect happening."

Though the program earned criticism for supporting grower groups over DAFWA, Mr Grylls said a widespread view was that its R&D unit has been reduced.

He encouraged a wider debate about DAFWA's future, beyond the current rhetoric about staff reductions.

"We said we would support the grower group model and we got a lot of criticism," he said.

"The department wasn't doing it, but we had a whole new group of people wanting to do it.

"Some of those criticisms were cheap."

Mr Grylls said the grower groups said they wanted one thing while the department was heading down a different research path.

"It was given to people who needed the R&D and were more in charge," he said.

"They were able to set priorities and a focus.

"We are getting more input from young farmers on where they want their R&D money to go and this creates new grower groups."

With a farming background in Corrigin, Mr Grylls said he understood growers' frustrations.

"When I was on the farm I did some research trials for the department and as a farmer, in my header, in my paddock, I couldn't see how the trial I was doing had any relevance to what I was doing in my business – it was ridiculous," he said.

The Nationals WA deputy leader and Central Wheatbelt MP Mia Davies echoed Mr Grylls statements.

"Before the grower grants in the last round, I didn't have grower groups in my electorate, so traditionally it was very reliant on the department," Ms Davies said.

"We didn't have Liebe Group or South East Premium Wheat Growers Association (SEPWA) and now we have groups in the eastern Wheatbelt, who are focused on attracting funding and can access the grower grants.

"It has been a big challenge for them, but it has allowed them to do research that suits local conditions.

"From their perspective, it puts them in far more control of their destiny, than having to rely on what others say is the important thing to pursue."

Agricultural Region MP Martin Aldridge said there had been a shift in agriculture thinking since the 2013 election.

"At the past election we had the $300m Seizing the Opportunity in Agriculture policy and in the context of that, we had Labor's commitment of $30m to Tier 3 rail and the Liberals had about $50m to university R&D," he said.

"I agree with Mr Grylls, I don't think the focus from agriculture has gone backwards, the efforts have increased.

"DAFWA and the universities are still being engaged through that funding flow and indirectly through growers or other bodies.

"In the past four years, there has been a sentiment change in industry."

Mr Aldridge said farmers had changed their view that they did not want their children to come back to the farm.

"The articles I see in the media are about the opportunities," Mr Aldridge said.

"There are still people focused on DAFWA and staff numbers and I don't think measuring any agency's performance by staff numbers is a good indicator.

"Many of the young farmers I talk to are positive about the future."

Mr Grylls said the international and domestic interest in agriculture had moved the industry into a "boom time".

"The international focus on WA agriculture has underpinned a new confidence in the sector," Mr Grylls said.

"Billions of dollars pouring in has created new opportunities - look at Pardoo Beef Corporation in the Pilbara for example - which gives the opportunity for every existing pastoralists to partner with and grow.

"We have lifted the whole sector and given them options."

He said when mining moguls Andrew Forrest and Gina Rinehart invested into the beef and pastoral industry it boosted confidence in the industry and transformed the agricultural space.

"When the multi-billionaires started taking their money from resources into agriculture that was a pretty good signal (for a boom), Andrew, Gina and Kerry (Stokes) haven't got it too wrong too many times in their careers," Mr Grylls said.

"Their big profiles have wrapped interest in the sector and because of that people who have wanted to retire have got good prices.

"But I think we could just about draw a line for that positivity when we announced our policy in 2012, we are proud of the fact we have transformed agriculture and we will continue to invest."

Mr Grylls argued the industry could leverage off the government's projects, which were also helping to reduce costs and red tape.

"Where it gets better from here is to see and focus on how we get the expediential growth from our investment," he said.

"And I think we have started that."

The Nationals WA's political strategy is to win all the regional seats at the election, so it has the balance of power in parliament and can negotiate on policy outcomes for regional WA.

Whether their agriculture policy can help deliver that is yet to be determined.

Mr Grylls is confident.

"We hold most the seats in the regions, so they would except us to continue to invest in those programs," Mr Grylls said.

"And we are doing that.

"The Water For Food program had a substantial injection of $87m, as it is critically important and continues to push the boundaries.

"We will be afforded more respect this time around for this policy."

Jacinta Bolsenbroek

Jacinta Bolsenbroek

is a senior journalist at Farm Weekly


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