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