No easy future for farm groups, says Stewart

28 Feb, 2016 01:00 AM
BEEN THERE: Former AWB chair and now Multikraft Probiotics Australia executive director Brendan Stewart says agriculture representative groups may struggle for relevance unless they change their format.
BEEN THERE: Former AWB chair and now Multikraft Probiotics Australia executive director Brendan Stewart says agriculture representative groups may struggle for relevance unless they change their format.

AGRICULTURE is always going to have a bright future but it sometimes lacks the direction it needs.

So says former Australian Wheat Board chief and agripolitical veteran, Brendan Stewart.

But he says it with a full appreciation of the difficult job farm representative groups face.

"I think it's hard for farm organisations to continue to be relevant to their members in a day and age where communication technology is the forefront of everything we do," Mr Stewart said.

"Farm organisations existed in the first place as communication avenues and avenues of getting bulk discounts.

"The reality is these days the competition in the retail sector is so strong that an individual farmer by and large can get the same discount as those buying in bulk can."

He said the lack of direction is sometimes the result of competing interests in farm leadership organisations.

It was Mr Stewart who steered the Australian Wheat Board through the turbulent "wheat for oil" saga and the ensuing Cole enquiry in the 2000s.

Mr Stewart himself was cleared of any wrongdoing but faced intense media and industry scrutiny.

Although he describes himself as currently "between farms", Mr Stewart says you can never really leave agriculture once you've been involved with it.

The Chinchilla resident has taken up an executive director position with biological farming input supplier, Multikraft Probiotics Australia.

If farmer organisations are struggling for relevance, they may have to take on a different form in the future according to Mr Stewart.

"If you think about most of the organisations that effect change in government policy, they are not traditional organisations that have an office and 100 people spread throughout a state or a country," he said.

He cites and as examples of the new wave of policy influencers.

The days of maintaining regional district offices with 100 staff are a luxury he sees will eventually evaporate, with staff needing to be very tech savvy and able to respond quickly to issues.

"They are all battling for money, they are all financially stressed and farmers can't afford to put any more money into their organisations the way they are," he said.

"In the day where they aren't compulsory, you've got to demonstrate a real benefit to put your money into them."

He commended the work the National Farmers Federation is doing in replicating social change platforms with an agricultural slant.

"Getting 150,000 'no' votes online is going to be more effective than Brendan Stewart flying to Canberra and sitting outside the minister's office for two days for five minutes with him," he said.

Mr Stewart said there are no immediate plans to get back into agripolitics, and that he's appreciating being in an environment where making commercial decisions will have benefits for farmers.

"We have to do things better, we have to do things smarter," he said.

"While we've always got to focus on the profitability of the farm gate, I think profitability at the farm gate starts well before the farm gate and finishes well after the farm gate, so we need to focus on the whole chain.

"It's a tough gig. It always has been."


Ashley Walmsley

is the editor of Good Fruit and Vegetables.
Date: Newest first | Oldest first


Jock Munro
28/02/2016 3:10:44 PM

Mr Stewart actually steered AWB LTD away from growers and the corporates took over with Cargill being the eventual winner- a terrible travesty but a symptom of a Nation that has well and truly lost its way. The audacity of Stewart to pontificate on farmer representation.


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