AGRIBUSINESS is often defined as the movement of products from “paddock to plate”, so it is perhaps fitting that the force behind the Agribusiness Council of Australia (ACA) Roy Duncanson has had experience in all aspects of that chain.
He was raised on the family farm Westholme at Bulyee during the heady days when the Western Australian government was making “a million acres (0.4million ha) per year” of virgin bush open for selection.
His father took up 1600 hectares of bush block at Lake Varley and at Ravensthorpe, and like so many others at the time, set about turning them into farms.
The recipe was simple, just add a mixture of sweat and money, which worked for many but it was not helped when, in 1969, the bottom fell out of agriculture.
That year much of the WA Wheatbelt had drought, wheat quotas were introduced and the price of grain, sheep and wool collapsed.
The beef industry was one of the few profitable ventures but a few years later, beef prices also collapsed.
As a country boy, high school meant boarding school, and while Roy was a boarder at Hale in 1969, things changed for the worse with the shock death of his father at the age of 35.
New land was a long-term investment and wheat quotas were based on the history of past production, so Roy’s mother was faced with a farming enterprise that was not yet a major income producer and a wheat quota that was well below the potential of the enterprise.
Given these difficult circumstances, she decided to sell the farms.
Roy transferred to a government high school, where he maintained his good marks, and upon graduation he enrolled at The University of WA to obtain a science degree.
Finding it not to his liking, he changed his enrolment the next year to an arts degree, a move that still didn’t excite him.
Year three saw a move into the workforce and, eventually, to a farm at Esperance which made him realise that agriculture was his real interest, so he then enrolled at Muresk into its new Bachelor of Business (agriculture) degree.
As one of the few taking that course at Muresk in its first year and because he was older than most, he was elected as a student representative onto the Muresk board.
The board was then chaired by Sir Donald Eckersley, inaugural National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) president and an ex-Muresk student from 1940.
After graduating as the fifth to receive the new agriculture degree, Roy asked Sir Donald for a reference, with The Don immediately writing it out for him longhand.
“When I applied for a job at Wesfarmers, I am sure that his reference played a major part in their decision to offer me the job,” Roy recalled.
“I went to work in what was then the new Wesfarmers building, remaining there for three years while involved in the formulation of the company’s first corporate plan.
“In a move that seems strange today, I was able to double my Wesfarmers salary by accepting a job as the manager, corporate planning, for the State government to develop the first State information technology (IT) plan.’’
However, Muresk was not forgotten, for “while at Wesfarmers I had recommended that they fund a professor’s salary at Muresk, a suggestion that resulted in a proposal to pay the extra cost of allowing a lecturer’s position to be upgraded to a professorial one to become the first Wesfarmers Professor of Agribusiness”.
After moving to the government, he again suggested that it should also fund a professorial chair in IT for the Curtin academic staff, but “being government, they not only agreed, they funded the total cost”.
After various other jobs including a period as regional manager, agribusiness, for the Department of Primary Industries in Queensland, he returned to WA.
Back in the West, Roy became involved in the “Save Muresk” campaign when Curtin University walked away from its involvement in its remote campus, leaving Muresk in limbo.
Except for about three parliamentary members, the government seemed totally disinterested in Muresk, but Roy discovered that an Agribusiness Association existed, so he called on it to take a lobbying role.
It appeared that it “didn’t do lobbying”, having been formed to organise a couple of national conferences, but “it occurred to me that there was a need for a proper agribusiness organisation”, he said.
He was well aware of the two types of democracy – direct democracy where every member is involved in the decision making, and representative democracy, where a few are elected to represent the views of the many.
Australia’s parliamentary system is based on the representative model, because a combination of numbers and distance make it impossible for individuals to participate in decision-making forums.
“But with the advent of the internet and almost universal communications networks, the use of direct democracy becomes possible, as communications between thousands are cheap and virtually instantaneous,” he said.
Enter the Agribusiness Council of Australia (ACA), an organisation based on the premise that with the aid of modern communications technology, it could operate as a direct democracy.
As farmer numbers fall, the number of organisations seems to increase, with WAFarmers claiming recently that there were “1400 groups all jockeying for time with the agriculture minister”.
He was correct in his assertion that a lot of the resources servicing these groups could be put to better use if all that money and people could be spread among fewer groups.
This is particularly so as WAFarmers, the National Farmers Federation and most farmer organisations, operate as representative democracies, a system that consumes a large percentage of income in day-to-day running costs.
The ACA was set up to make use of the latest communications technology so that members’ views and wishes can easily be ascertained, with an added bonus that the internet was adapted in-house at a cost of about one per cent of NFF’s system.
ACA obtains information sought by all or some of its members, which is then sent to key decision-makers (politicians) and back to those requesting it.
“We don’t make policy or make public statements, the ACA is a communications link obtaining information from or passing information amongst our members,” Roy emphasised.
“We don’t hold meetings and our elections are solely to elect the board of management, with our membership divided into three distinct groups – individuals, not-for-profits and private agribusiness.
“Farmers can join the one that suits them best.”
Although farmers only constitute a small percentage of the agribusiness chain, the ACA has a major role in this area, and even though other farmer organisations see it as a competitor and/or a threat, it really is complementary.
To illustrate, if farmers were represented by a group called Farmers and Friends (F&F), it would have an office in the city and employ professional staff to assist in preparing submissions, discussing issues with governments and industry and lobbying to have its policies accepted.
If it had an arrangement with ACA, it would not need to have branches, zones, regional committees or even meetings, as the functions they normally fill could be done in a fraction of the time and a fraction of the cost by ACA.
The F&F could still have an annual conference to elect office-bearers and even have the occasional regional meeting if it wished, but the members would get a far better service direct - and for a lot less money.
However, Roy noted that “although farmers are well aware of the importance of the factors beyond the farm-gate, few realise just how far away from that gate the factors impinging on their operations and profitability go”.
“These factors include storage and transport, but also all involved in the processing, wholesale and retail areas, plus governments at all levels and businesses that can affect the returns to the farmers,’’ he said.
“When this is considered, it becomes obvious that all of those factors not only occur at State and federal level, but at an international one also, so ACA has already expanded overseas.”
Conditions and expectations vary tremendously around the world, with Roy illustrating this with one ACA member who farms in Nigeria, selling banana suckers to fellow farmers.
“He only produces a few suckers per day for sale and by our standards he would be called a subsistence farmer, so how do we communicate?
“He uses a modern mobile smart phone.”
Although Roy believes that the ACA has a lot to offer existing grower organisations, irrespective of their structure or aims, it is continuing along its current path at a State, national and international level.
As ACA has an open door policy, has it had discussions with WAFarmers or NFF?
“We don’t make public statements, so you would have to ask them,” he responded.