Two farming leaders with differing views

28 Nov, 2014 01:00 AM
Meckering farmer John Snooke has chaired the Pastoralists and Graziers Association's (PGA's) Western Graingrowers committee for the past four years.
There's nothing wrong with the requirements but they've gone over the top on what we have to do.
Meckering farmer John Snooke has chaired the Pastoralists and Graziers Association's (PGA's) Western Graingrowers committee for the past four years.

JOHN Snooke and Duncan Young may share similar demographics in terms of their age, farming locations and what they produce.

But the two growers are key leaders at contrasting farm lobby groups that hold divergent views on key issues, including CBH's future as a co-operative entity.

Mr Snooke has chaired the Pastoralists and Graziers Association's (PGA's) Western Graingrowers committee for the past four years, hailing from a family farm at Meckering in the Central Wheatbelt.

The 42-year-old is also a dedicated WA Liberal Party member with strong views on market competition, with aspirations to one day win an electorate and prosecute those ideals in State or Federal parliament.

Mr Young is situated about 45 minutes away from his grains rival, at York and Beverley, and seems more content to shape an on-farm future, to ensure it's passed on to a fourth generation.

At 43 years of age, he's about to become the WAFarmers Grains Council president to cap-off an apprenticeship that's lasted more than a decade during some of the industry's most turbulent times.

Despite those differences, their views align on some critical topics, including a growing distaste for government regulations that stifle farm productivity and profits.

"There's nothing wrong with paperwork as long as it doesn't put too big of a cost on your farming practice," Mr Young said.

"But at the moment that cost seems to be rising and I think it's something that not only us, but the PGA also want something done about it."

Mr Young said to licence tractors, headers, trucks and other heavy vehicles, farmers are now processing the same volume of red tape as businesses that haul up to 60 trucks "east-west", despite only using those vehicles during harvest.

"There's nothing wrong with the requirements but they've gone over the top on what we have to do," he said.

"The one solution would be that agriculture could go under a different set of rules and regulations but that's probably not very palatable for the government."

Mr Snooke said the PGA was driven by a strong faith in the value of market-based competition while rejecting deliberate political intervention in commerciality.

He said the emergence in recent years of supply chain competition for CBH in WA was a "fantastic development for our industry".

"We've seen the start of that competition with Bunge in Bunbury and hopefully the Kwinana zone will also be broken soon too," he said.

"We obviously support any further development of competition in the supply chain.

"We've witnessed what the exporters are bringing to the marketplace and that's a consistent high basis to our grain prices.

"If we can replicate that in the logistics supply chain it will be fantastic and will sharpen everyone's pencils and benefit the bottom line of grain growers.

"At the end of the day competition will put downward pressure on the costs of using those services and will certainly help CBH rationalise their system."

The two grains council leaders are also in agreement on the need to repeal the Genetically Modified Crops Free Areas Act, given the Office of Gene Technology Regulator already approves the safety of GM crops.

"There's no need to have two levels of prohibition in this country in regards to GM crops," Mr Snooke said.

Mr Young said his Council members also believed the WA Act duplicated Federal powers and is therefore "irrelevant".

Grain on rail is currently a big issue for WAFarmers but is not causing anywhere near the same level of concern or public commentary for the PGA's members.

One high profile issue the two men vehemently disagree on is the future of CBH's co-operative structure.

Unlike the PGA, Mr Young said his council didn't support a corporatised CBH model "in any way".

"My personal view is that I'm very supportive of co-operatives," he said.

Mr Young said there was more upside to CBH operating as a co-operative and more downside to the PGA-preferred publicly-listed, corporate model, "and most of those downsides end up hurting the farmers hip pocket".

"It's a short-term sugar hit for long-term pain," he said.

Mr Snooke said the PGA had been relatively quiet on the CBH corporatisation issue in recent times, preferring to tackle other issues like the Marsh v Baxter GM court case "but our position hasn't changed".

"This issue is never going to go away - it's the PGA's position that there needs to be an equity release for CBH members," he said.

"Firstly, we believe a corporatised CBH will be the best way to bolster that company going forward, with competition emerging.

"Importantly, it will release much needed equity for WA farmers.

"There's at least $12 billion worth of debt in the WA wheatbelt and relieving $4b of that on growers balance sheet will make a massive difference."

Mr Snooke said he believed corporatising CBH would also "rid this industry of politics".

"If you're a CBH director and you pitch an election message that you're going to retain a wheat bin in everyone's' backyard, you're probably going to get re-elected," he said.

"I'm not critical of farmers voting for that member, because logistics are an issue for farmers - and we want to get our crop into the bin quickly - and obviously the convenience factor is huge.

"But rationalisation does need to occur and in fact it needed to start 10 years ago for good reasons but has not occurred."

Another major battleground of difference is the Grains Research and Development Corporation and whether its compulsory 0.99 per cent grower-levy should be retained, along with matching government funding which generates about $200 million per year.

PGA is prepared to forgo the government funding and cut the levy in half believing that approach will help invoke efficiency gains through more targeted commercial activity.

But Mr Young said his members are happy to retain the government co-funding and leave the levy untouched.

"GRDC is a big beast and there have been some problems but I think in general it has travelled really well," he said.

"Certainly a lot of the research outcomes are world leading and while you can have the argument over some wasted money, which can happen in any organisation, the vast majority of the research that's done is good research."

Mr Young said GRDC's structure could be changed in future to "iron out some of these issues".

But Mr Snooke said a levy that's being administered by a legislated monopoly was "displacing better commercial outcomes".

"The GRDC has spread its wings everywhere into places where it could be done better by commercial players or consultants," he said.

Mr Snooke said he was concerned that grains industry productivity gains of about 0.2pc also included on-farm productivity gains "which really has nothing to do with the GRDC".

"When you really analyse that figure, our grains industry is going backwards and we're just not getting the leaps in plant breeding," he said.

"I think we need to look at the GRDC levy because it's too high and needs to go down at least half a percent which we think will force the GRDC to prioritise better.

"At the moment it's like a scattergun approach and they're not doing anything well.

"It has taken us a long time to get to this point but we'd actually like to see the government keep its money and give us control back of our levy and that will bring about far better outcomes."

Colin Bettles

Colin Bettles

is the national political writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media
Date: Newest first | Oldest first


29/11/2014 12:02:30 AM, on Farm Weekly

Yep I listened to Mr Snook on the radio, I think on the county hour a while ago talking about the PGA membership and trying to tell us how the industry was riding on the back off a few, If only those few actually represented the the majority off growers instead off trying to push the agenda of only a few, their membership would surely improve. I think the PGA is vastly underestimating the WA growers' ability to sort the wheat from the chaff.


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