INDOMITABLE Kojonup farmer Michael Baxter has been crowned winner of the WA Pastoralists and Graziers Association’s (PGA) Achievement Award for 2014.
Mr Baxter received the prestigious prize at the PGA’s annual convention dinner at the Crown Perth Casino tonight before about 150 guests.
The award recognises the humble Kojonup farmer’s continuing legal battle against his neighbour Steve Marsh over genetically modified (GM) canola use and property rights.
In the decision handed down in late May, Justice Ken Martin comprehensively rejected Mr Marsh’s claim for $85,000 compensation and permanent injunction to stop his neighbour growing or swathing GM canola.
In June, Mr Marsh and his wife Sue announced they would appeal the decision, with the grounds for the appeal lodged on July 25.
The PGA grains committee backed Mr Baxter’s campaign from the outset, in line with its support for individual farmers being able to access profitable technologies.
In his presentation speech, PGA president Tony Seabrook described Mr Baxter as a strong supporter of new cropping technology. He said the Kojonup farmer “remains instrumental in championing the rights of farmers to grow legal and safe crops”.
“Nowhere was this more evident than during the recent Supreme Court of Western Australia case where an organic farmer in Kojonup tried to stop his neighbour from growing GM canola,” he said.
“Our winner played a pivotal role in this court case because he was the defendant. His unyielding determination to not back down to the bullying tactics and relentless persecution from anti-GM groups placed a heavy toll on his professional and personal life.
“Thanks to his efforts, growers in Western Australia are not restricted in the choice of what they grow and how they grow it.
“This attitude and sheer doggedness in the face of adversity, exemplifies the very foundations of what this Association stands for.”
The dinner was told Mr Baxter graduated from Narrogin Agricultural School and started working as a shearer throughout the Kojonup District before taking over the family farm about 20 years ago.
His three sons, Cody, Reece and Ash and sister Ros were also present when the award was made.
Mr Baxter’s legal battle ignited when his neighbour’s organic farm was decertified by the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASAA) in late December 2010 due to the presence of GM canola swathes.
But the final judgment dismissed the plaintiff’s claims in terms of negligence and nuisance pointing to concerns with NASAA’s certification rules.
Mr Marsh was supported by various groups including the Safe Food Foundation which raised $750,000 to support his case, including holding public rallies and fundraising functions, while Slater & Gordon Lawyers acted pro-bono.
However, Mr Baxter was advised against making public comment leading up to the two week trial in February as pressure mounted on his family.
Speaking to Fairfax Agricultural Media after the judgment was handed down, Bradley Bayley Legal partner Brian Bradley praised Mr Baxter’s resilience.
“I’ve got to know Michael Baxter very well over the past three years and he’s a typical Australian farmer who’s as honest as they day is long,” he said.
“He’s an intelligent, well balanced, fair minded man and I’ve found him to be a person of great integrity.”
“He had to sit back and virtually suffer in silence while this campaign against him was being run.
“Fortunately he had great support in the Kojonup community, from the vast majority of the farming community there and a lot of moral support from other quarters.”
PGA Grains Committee president John Snooke also praised Mr Baxter’s resilience to the ongoing anti-GM campaign.
“Mick was initially very stoic in the face of uncertainty but he had a gut feeling that he was right and that he had done nothing wrong and wanted to defend himself,” he said.
“And that’s why the PGA supported him and his right to farm the way he wants.
“He was absolutely resolute in his position and was never going to change that position and give in to the demands for damages and in the end he won the case and good on him.”
When the court judgment was handed down in late May, Mr Baxter said his on-farm practices would remain unchanged “because there’s nothing wrong with GM and the court proved that”.
He said his neighbour only found nine plants growing on his property 12 months after the GM swaths blew over from his farm.
“They carried on and said it was all a huge contamination but really, only nine plants isn’t much of a problem is it?” he said.
The PGA conference also held a forum on GMs where experts outlined the technology’s future to producers.
An opening video message from Prime Minister Tony Abbott also thanked the PGA for its stance in opposing the carbon tax, which was recently repealed.
“Back in 2011 you called the carbon tax agronomic vandalism and you were right,” he said.
“The PGA has been absolutely unflinching in its opposition to the carbon tax and I am pleased to report that the carbon tax is gone.
“The government is putting in place the policies that will assist Australia’s agricultural sector.”