Why farm advocacy is failing

06 Mar, 2014 01:00 AM
On every measure, Australia's advocacy groups are at a disadvantage to their overseas counterparts.

SOME Australian farm advocacy groups are in a slow decline towards irrelevance, the Australian Farm Institute (AFI) has found, and drastic changes will be needed if they are to keep afloat.

The institute also highlighted a paradox in farmers' relationship with advocacy groups: most farmers regard advocacy on their behalf as of increasing importance, but fewer and fewer are staying members of the groups who might do the advocating.

Ultimately, the AFI found, it may be that advocacy alone cannot keep farm groups afloat, and they will have to reinvent themselves around a different purpose in order to survive.

AFI's research, presented in Canberra on Monday, compared the effectiveness of Australian farm advocacy groups versus their counterparts in New Zealand, Canada and France.

On every measure, Australia's advocacy groups are at a disadvantage to their overseas counterparts.

The list of challenges confronting the nation's 50-odd farmer advocacy groups is long, AFI reports, and stems from deregulation and the influence of the internet, which have "...dramatically altered farmers' perception of the value of these organisations".

As a result, advocacy groups are grappling with "declining memberships, increased fragmentation and rising concerns about the future viability of some organisations".

It will be to no-one's surprise that AFI found the greatest weakness of Australian groups to be the sustainability of their business models.

(To simplify its analysis, AFI grouped all the advocacy groups it surveyed in each country into a single national aggregation. Individual groups will perform better or worse in different areas, compared to the national average.)

Peak farm body, the National Farmers Federation (NFF), has less than half the staff it employed a decade ago as it responds to an ongoing funding decline.

And, AFI executive director Mick Keogh said, the NFF's members would like to further decrease their contributions to the peak body as they grapple with their own financial challenges brought on by declines in membership.

With few exceptions, AFI reported, State farm organisations (SFOs) are unable to generate enough operating revenue from membership subscriptions or other services, and are relying on investments to keep them afloat. Membership of State farming organisations is shrinking faster than the loss of farm enterprises.

That is partly because advocacy is a poor basis on which to build a business model in an unregulated environment like Australia. Advocacy groups find themselves investing in work that might benefit their members, but which also incidentally benefits "free riders" who can enjoy the fruits of a lobbying effort at no cost.

Advocacy must also cover a lot of issues. Trying to stay across all the issues confronting a broad member base has led to fragmentation of effort and lack of co-ordination that AFI says "cannot in any way be considered effective".

On measures of "legitimacy" and "consistency", Australian groups also fare poorly against their overseas counterparts: declining membership is eroding their legitimacy, and clear messages around issues like free trade are being diluted by contradictory approaches to matters like increasing food imports and foreign investment.

Looking at competition among groups advocating different points of view on the same issue, notably animal welfare, AFI found that farmer groups failed to co-ordinate a coherent response, or to engage with other competing groups to better inform their reaction.

Lastly, the study found Australian groups poorly equipped to communicate through the new channels of choice for a growing number: social media and the internet.

So what's the solution?

If the challenges are clear, the answers are not.

If advocacy isn't an effective business model, AFI suggests that farmer groups must find other services and benefits to build their activities around.

Importantly, groups are going to have to find ways to "ring-fence" those benefits so they are only available to members, eliminating the problem of free riders and creating extra incentive for membership.

Overseas groups show that effective advocacy groups tend to be driven by strong local engagement, which then underpins the strength of the umbrella organisation. Finding attractive "members only" benefits for local engagement will be important.

But along with this inward focus on supporting members, AFI suggests that farmer advocacy must also start looking outwards - to proactive engagement with opposing groups, rather than reacting to events, and through better communication of their members' ideals via social media and the internet.

AFI's report Opportunities to improve the effectiveness of Australian farmers' advocacy groups is available here

Matthew Cawood

Matthew Cawood

is the national science and environment writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media
Date: Newest first | Oldest first


6/03/2014 5:06:56 AM

We are forced to pay for advocacy of MLA and the like and are constantly misrepresented by them so why would we pay money we don't have to be misrepresented by the VFF and the like? If these groups want our money do something about our terms of trade, if we are going broke slowly then so can they!
Jock Munro
6/03/2014 5:20:14 AM

Farmer advocacy now is little more than a dysfunctional circus. NSW Farmers has a wonderful workable constitution that seeks to unite all of the State's commodity groups. However, because the committee system has been completely undermined over the past decade members and non members can have little or no faith in the outcomes. Committee members are now free to undermine a majority committee decision and as a result other commodity groups have control of the agenda. Grain growers of NSW in particular can have no faith in the current process. It is little wonder at the lack of members.
Rob Moore
6/03/2014 7:56:47 AM

So Rob Moore contacts Agforce and the NFF and CCA with my rock solid simple trade practise rule that I need support on- last September. It is so apolitical that even the greens would support it BUT after 8 weeks and after phoning all the offices numerous time - they hadn't even looked at it - let alone given me the courtesy of constructive criticism. If you aren't a member of Agfarce- they virtually hang up on you.I have emails from CCA that there is "no merrit " in my PPP bill.. that stands to improve "farmgate" returns greatly.Trouble is they get their funding from state gov and corp sponser
6/03/2014 9:15:50 AM

Dear Cocky MLA is not an advocacy group nor does it represent, it is an R&D and Marketing company that is funded by by the Federal Government on behalf of the red meat industry!
6/03/2014 9:30:42 AM

Until some group takes up the batten for all farmers (both large and small), and forgets the machevallian representation that currently prevails......farm gate returns will remain locked in to below the level of the 1970's. How does a small farmer know where to go to put up a point of view let alone put up the view. Forget about faith in current outcomes.....these outcomes are destroying the grass roots. e.g. why do we have a minimum wage..yet not a floor in the domestic cattle market? Which advocate group is pressing this very relevant issue? What value has MLA added to farm gate product?
6/03/2014 9:44:56 AM

This blame game has to stop, as does the traditional "us vs them" approach of representative organisations. Also, producers must recognise that they are a part of a bigger whole...the food supply chain. It and them make up the second biggest industry in Australia. Think "inclusive" check out Agribusiness Council of Australia.
6/03/2014 10:08:39 AM

Want to know where your margins went? On the myriad of suits-in-boots clipping the ticket on this industry with self-appointed 6-figure salaries and Director fees, using constant chaos to look active. It is not a plan for advocacy, it is a plan to get hold of the money jar. It is about lobbying to get money to get paid. How any organisation that represents virtually no one, but can still get hold of public funds is something that needs a dramatic overhaul in Australia.
Peter Comensoli
6/03/2014 10:18:04 AM

Good report Mick. Now what? Over to the leaders of the failing Advocacy Groups to fix their failures...like leopards change their spots! Where's the passion? Stick to a task until it's done! Befriend your enemies! Drive drive drive. Don't try to sell membership; it will follow success...and amalgamate instead of differentiate because, after all, every farmer has the same basic business in need of a voice to handle the issues that are beyond their control as individuals. Now, where are those leaders we're looking for or can they rise up from within the current crop?
6/03/2014 10:46:07 AM

Dear ando, MLA is also funded by $5 per head levied on the sale of EACH cattle beast, paid by the producer to the govt. Unfortunately grass fed cattle producers don't get much return from all their contributions.Returns at farm gate at on a par with 30 odd years ago.
6/03/2014 11:36:56 AM

You get what you pay for ! Most farmers either don't pay for representation, or if they do they pay peanuts (compared to comparable groups in the US for instance). So don't complain when you have no representation, or worse, representation by monkeys !
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