“WHERE to next” for sheep producers affected by proposed live export industry changes was the theme of a grower group forum at Darkan recently.
Compass Agricultural Alliance (CAA) hosted the meeting which drew 100 attendees and provided an opportunity to discuss current industry issues in a positive space.
CAA president and local producer Tim Harrington said there was a gap in the conversation surrounding the live export industry which was being played out in the media.
“A lot of people are talking about our industry, but the people who are being left out of the conversation are the people most affected by it – the farmers,” Mr Harrington said.
“We want to focus on looking forward to the positive things we can do, which was why we provided the speakers with talking points to drive the discussion towards productivity, rather than towards venting frustration.”
Mr Harrington said he was concerned about preaching to the converted.
“It doesn’t help us as farmers to just be having the conversation with ourselves,” he said.
“This forum was a good way for producers to feel like they had a chance to have their say, ask questions and hear from the people who are working on their behalf, but what’s the next step?
“Communicating to the wider public what we do, why we do it and show that we’re not barbarians has to be a priority.”
Representatives from WAFarmers, Pastoralists and Graziers Association of WA and Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development as well as State and Federal politicians provided updates from their perspective and answered questions.
Icon Agriculture’s Andrew Ritchie gave a snapshot of benchmarking data collected from CAA members, demonstrating the potential impact a live export ban would have on producers in the room.
Mr Ritchie said CAA members ran 335,000 ewes which was more than five per cent of the State’s ewe base, so collectively they had a right to be heard in this context.
He said the group collectively produced about 2.5 million kilograms of wool per year and last year sold about 250,000 sheep, of which each business on average sold 4600 head.
“But what I wanted to show you was that in terms of profitable businesses, the top 25pc of my client base on average over the past five years have cropped between 40-60pc of their farm,” he said.
“So if this enterprise was to be impacted, you’d be impacting the whole farm business.
“The top 25pc of producers will feel it even more because, compared to the average, they produce 13pc more lambs per hectare, 15pc more wool/ha, they have a higher lambing percentage, they have less losses and they sell their sheep at a higher value.
“So the people who stand to lose the most are the best farmers.”
A shadow over the day of positive discussion was news of Federal Labor’s plan to phase out live sheep exports over 10 years if it won government at the next election.
Federal Liberal Party senator Slade Brockman said the news from Canberra was disappointing.
“But I’m not going to turn this into a bashing of my political opponents because one thing I think is important for the industry to do is to make sure they keep up the connections on the other side of politics,” Mr Brockman said.
“It’s vitally important that Labor doesn’t see it in their interest to run away from agriculture and take a contrary position to the well-being of agriculture in Australia.
Mr Brockman said Labor was being pushed from the left in a lot of its inner-city seats by the Greens.
“The Greens obviously have quite a radical agenda in this area and it’s very important for the agriculture industry to make sure it continues to have strong voices to the Labor Party both in Canberra and at a State level,” he said.
“So where next? We’ve got to leverage the positives, we’ve got to find a way to communicate to that audience that does have a positive view of you (farmers) and your industry and explain why this is an important part of it.”
The Nationals WA leader Mia Davies was keen to hear feedback that she could relay to her State and Federal colleagues.
“Your presence here today is powerful,” Ms Davies said, echoing sentiments from Mr Brockman who said such a strong turn out of local producers at the forum demonstrated animal welfare was always foremost in the minds of farmers.
“It’s wonderful to see so many people passionate about their industry and wanting to get involved in making positive change,” Mr Brockman said.
Ms Davies said until producers told her otherwise, the live export industry was here to stay.
“So all of the messaging that I take to my Federal colleagues and when I’m speaking to the media is this something that we can’t afford to lose,” she said.
“When we say that, it helps to be able to turn around and have the rest of the team standing behind us.
“Because I can tell you that when we’re having those debates and it’s only us standing up the front, it diminishes the power of our words in the media, because people expect us to be out there picking a fight with the opposition or making those public statements.
“So my first message to the group is we need to make sure we speak with one voice and that you have a very clear message to give to the decision-makers.”
Ms Davies said communication was the key.
“We are not people who are generally overt in the way we engage with the media and we probably don’t want to engage in conflict.
“But I have to say it’s probably a time to step out of the comfort zone for the entire industry.
“I think absolutely and most definitely industry needs to have a plan about how they can demonstrate they’re not the greedy farmer.”
The point was raised earlier in the forum that farmers in the group were expressing concerns about how their image was been portrayed in mainstream media.
“I think that’s a valid point to make,” Ms Davies said.
“No one is sitting in this room and wanting to be portrayed as a heartless or unfeeling individual.
“This is a business and you are all managers of business and the welfare of those animals comes first – that is a no-brainer to everyone sitting in this room.
“But it’s not to the majority of the population.
“Part of the communication to the broader public has to be that this is more than just farmers as individuals because it’s about communities and our way of life.”
Nationals WA agriculture spokesman Colin de Grussa also gave a presentation.
“Let’s make sure that the good things we’re doing are being heard so the Animals Australia story isn’t the only side of the story we hear,” Mr de Grussa said.
He has a farming background and offers a unique perspective on the issue, having done a Nuffield Scholarship a few years ago where he studied how farmers communicate with the consumer and politicians to get better policy outcomes for their industry.
“There are examples around the world of how countries such as Germany and England have set up a one-stop-shop that is the central point for everyone to contact for information on agriculture so everyone gets the same message,” Mr de Grussa said.
“It requires everyone to put their hand in their pocket, it requires industry groups to come together and fund it and get behind it but it can be done and I think the time for that in Australia absolutely has to be now – we can’t wait.
“We absolutely must stand up and be counted because this industry is too valuable to just throw our hands in the air.”