THE National Farmers Federation (NFF) has returned a lowly rating in a new report benchmarking itself against six other international farm lobby groups, like the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF).
The detailed internal report, analysing and comparing the effectiveness of key farmer representative organisations, was prepared by NFF policy officer Chris Young and finalised last December for the peak lobby group’s members.
It will be used to help inform NFF’s current restructure plans, following FTI Consulting’s appointment last week to expedite the 2014 Newgate Communications report which recommended a streamlined, “unified model” be adopted.
Australian Farm Institute (AFI) executive director Mick Keogh and Australian National University associate professor and reader in policy studies Dr Darren Halpin were also given key acknowledgements in the 30-page report.
The National Farmers Union of England and Wales (NFU) topped the ratings of global farm lobby groups, followed by equivalent organisations in France, New Zealand, the United States, Ireland, Australia and Canada.
“The key strengths of the NFU are their secure and diversified business model, their length and breadth representation of all farmers and their effectiveness in utilising online technology to both advocate and communicate to members, as well as to promote farming to the general public,” the report’s executive summary said.
The report conducted three case studies on the AFBF, NFU, and Irish Farmers Association, investigating business model strengths, coverage, legitimacy, consistency, competition, and e-capacity.
It used the same criteria adopted by the AFI’s report released in March last year which compared the NFF with peak lobby groups from NZ, France and Canada.
In the AFI report, France’s Fédération Nationale des Exploitants Agricoles topped the ratings, followed by the Federated Farmers of New Zealand, the NFF and Canadian Federation of Agriculture.
Online communication 'deficiencies'
NFF CEO Simon Talbot said the NFF rating sixth against a global peer set of seven agricultural representative groups could have been far better.
“We’re not the best out there – we rated ourselves sixth – but to represent farmers we ultimately want to be number one or two,” he said.
Mr Talbot said the comparative analysis identified the NFF’s “deficiencies” in use of online communications and tools, compared to the six other peak lobby groups.
He said the NFF board had subsequently given its executive arm endorsement to “leap into the online space and identify tools and techniques to better represent farmers”.
“It’s an area where we’re deficient so we need to correct it,” he said.
“We are behind our peer set in terms of online tools, engagement, listening, commercial offerings and web-pages.
“But through our members - if we can get stronger policy feedback and advocacy online - that’s the way of the future.”
Mr Talbot said other related research had recently compared the NFF’s performance against other advocacy and lobby group peers in Australia, like those from the mining and business sector.
“Again we’ve slipped down the rankings; we used to be number one,” he said.
However, Mr Talbot said if the NFF could unify 400,000 farmers and farm employees throughout the nation, in particular with improved online operations, “we would be back to be number one again”.
“We know we have the mandate, we know we need to become more effective and we do know if we do unify or federate properly, and ultimately it’s up to the members, we can be number one again,” he said.
“Fifth is great - in terms of our peer set in Australia and sixth in our global peer set - but it’s hard to have the stump or farmgate conversation and say ‘we’re doing a good job because we’re fifth or sixth and slipping’.”
Mr Talbot said NFF stakeholders and members wanted to see their representative group rating higher and lobbying government more effectively to achieve the sector’s needs.
He said the next federal election in 2016 would be won or lost on the fate of 12 to 14 influential rural and regional seats.
“This is not about who wins the next election – it’s about a long-term view of the strategy for farmer representation,” he said.
“But we want to be able to take to the next election a 20-year mandate.
“We think agriculture should be like defence – you don’t just chop and change it from election cycle to election cycle.
“You actually say, ‘we believe in agriculture and we believe it underpins the Australian economy in the Asian century and therefore it needs a minimum of 20-year strategy that involves a competition set, infrastructure and new markets’.
“We want to take that message strong into the next election but we can’t take it strongly unless we have 400,000 people aligned.”
The report’s key findings showed the strong farmer representative organisations had diversified income streams including income from sources unrelated to agriculture; separated their policy development and lobbying functions; and utilised for-profit lobbying firms where necessary.
They also took advantage of social media and public member mobilisation in a means that did not compromise their insider status as granted to them by key policy actors and linked themselves closely with appropriated agricultural related companies in a manner that did not compromise their legitimacy or independence, but allowed for better member service and revenue streams.
They were also “more likely to be classified as a Unified or Federal model” the report said.
The NFU case study also revealed the NFU effectively utilised other companies, namely office and staff sharing with NFU mutual, to help achieve goals; mobilises members and supporters without risking their insider status, and is proactive in selling the story of agriculture to the general public through campaigns such as ‘Back British Farming’.
Excerpt from NFF report – what peak national farm lobby groups do well:
The National Farmers' Union of England and Wales
Effective use of online communication such as YouTube to sell the story of agriculture
Maintains insider status with government despite mobilising the general public behind the cause of farming
Successfully utilises other companies, namely office and staff sharing with NFU Mutual, to help achieve their goals
Fédération Nationale des Exploitants Agricoles (France)
Provision of extension services serves as revenue generation and membership incentive
Federated Farmers of New Zealand
Streamlined organisation structure allows for quick policy development and efficient allocation of resources
American Farm Bureau Federation
Dedicated lobbyists, and when necessary engagement of lobbying consultants
Proactive programs aimed at educating the public about farming
“Go Team” network of online influencers
Recognise the value of the AFBF brand and effectively use this to generate revenue and media attention
The Irish Farmers’ Association
Have developed an excellent iPhone application that offers service to members, potential for revenue and promotion of the IFA brand
National Farmers’ Federation (Australia)
Successfully leverages its insider status as granted to it by government
Canadian Federation of Agriculture
The long-term fragmentation of the industry can lead to severe issues for the peak body.