TASMANIA’S geographical isolation might be seen as a disadvantage by some, but for Jan Davis, it’s one of the many strengths the State’s farmers can hang their hats on.
For Jan, who is the first female chief executive officer of the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association (TFGA), the outlook for Tassie agriculture is a positive one – a fact she wishes many on mainland on Australia would wake up to.
When she left the mainland four years ago to take on the role at TFGA, Jan readily admits she too had a lot to learn about Tasmania’s diverse agricultural sectors.
Today, Jan is a fierce advocate for the State’s farmers and her work at the TFGA has seen her included in the inaugural Women in Australian Agribusiness 100 list.
“There’s just so much potential here and I want to see it delivered on,” Jan says.
“It’s all positive here in Tasmania – we’ve got so many opportunities. The negativity that you hear on the mainland really shouldn’t have any traction here at all.”
No doubt the Tasmanian economy has been subjected to some less than flattering descriptions of late.
Most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows Tasmania recorded the highest long-term unemployment rate (2.1 per cent) as a percentage of the labour force of all jurisdictions in the year to March 2014.
But agriculture remains a shining light in the State’s struggling economy and it’s on an upward trajectory.
“At the farmgate, agriculture, forestry and fisheries, is worth about $2 billion to Tasmania and growing every year,” Jan said.
“At farmgate, not taking into account any value-add, it’s 10 per cent of the State’s economy. And that’s farmgate – if you put a multiplier over that it’s much bigger.
“One in every six working Tasmanians works in agriculture of some shape or form – it’s a big industry and as I say, growing.”
Jan describes Tassie’s farmers as innovators, spurred on by both choice and circumstance.
“Innovation has been driven by the fact that in much of the mainland, econonics 101 says you need economies of scale, well Tassie is never going to do scale because we simply don’t have that area,” she says.
“So instead of scale, our farmers have gone for a less common pathway which is scope or diversification. The farms here are very diversified and as a result of that they’ve actually managed to build business models that mitigate the worst parts of the agricultural cycles, both top end and bottom end.
“That means their businesses are much more robust in a lot of respects.”
The TFGA represents all farmers taking in all sectors including dairy, beef, sheepmeat, wool, wine and horticulture, and other newer sectors such as commercial poppy production for use in making opiate-based medicines.
It also represents the farmers who manage 880,000 hectares of private forests in the State, which is more than a quarter of the total forest cover.
While Tasmania’s farmers share some of the same challenges as their mainland counterparts, they also have to deal with some unique hurdles.
“We’ve got some of the best conditions in the world for improving our agricultural production, and if we can get a little bit more sense and sanity (at both state and federal government levels), we’ll be able to achieve some of those really important targets that we can see, that aren’t too far over the horizon for us,” Jan says.
“The biggest challenge I think is the limited scale of the state – we’re only tiny and the issues that you face with such a strong green tinge down here.
“When I say green, I don’t mean green with capital ‘G’, but I mean green with lower case ‘g’ where there’s a lot of expectations put on farmers here that aren’t put on farmers elsewhere and the limitation of working in a state with over 50 per cent of the state locked up and much more stringent environmental and other expectations around farmers.
“One of the biggest issues farmers here deal with is the fact that access is so limited. Freight is a huge cost and challenge to farmers.
“If we can overcome some issues surrounding freight, we’ve actually got some significant opportunities into the near Asian markets which are good too.
“The fact that Tasmania is subject to international shipping rules for our transport of product across Bass Strait is just insane.”
As a state farming organisation, the TFGA continues to kick goals for its members.
In the Australian Farm Institute’s (AFI) recently released report, Opportunities to improve the effectiveness of Australian farmers' advocacy group the TFGA rated highly in its effectiveness in lobbying.
While Jan says the TFGA can take some credit for that result, in a State the size of Tasmania, it's easier to be more visible and physically catch up with members face-to-face.
“Our farmers do feel they’re a lot more close to their farmer organisation and that’s because physically they are, as well as in terms of perception,” Jan says.
“And having the strength and support that the farmers give us means we have that cut-through that’s a bit more difficult in other places.
“Farmers here are so much closer to the major population centres in Tasmania - you can’t go anywhere is Tasmania without driving through farmland.
“Because it’s a smaller, more concentrated population, the six degrees of separation is probably only two or three here, so most people have still got family members that are on the land and that means that we do have an easier start.
“Although, we’re finding that with Hobart getting bigger and bigger and more people losing that link, our cut-through is becoming as challenging as it is for everybody else.”
While Jan was new to Tasmania when she started with the TFGA, she has a long connection with agribusiness representation roles spanning almost 30 years.
She has worked across most states in Australia, having served on the boards of a range of both not-for-profit and for-profit organisations.
Jan is currently a director of the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture, Skills Tasmania and the Royal Flying Doctor Service (Tasmania).
In the past, she has been a member of the boards of Plant Health Australia Limited, Horticulture Australia Limited and the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation; and also chair of the Australian Agricultural Colleges Corporation.
Born and bred in Sydney, Jan didn’t get involved in agriculture until her mid-30s.
“I have an honours degree in economics and ended up as a school teacher in the 1970s and whilst I was working I did a certificate course in horticulture,” Jan says.
“After a while I decided teaching wasn’t what I really wanted to do.
“Somebody rang me one day and said the nursery industry was looking for an executive officer, and had I thought about that?
“I thought, ‘that would be really interesting’. So I came in through the nursery industry and took a quite convoluted path to a) end up in farming, and b) Tasmania.
“I’ve followed jobs around the place and you always think you’ll end up going home, but home is here now and I’m not going anywhere. I keep telling the Tasmanians I’ve saved the best for last.
“I’ve moved around quite a lot, so I reckon I’ve got a pretty good base to make the judgement call I’m making and for me, it doesn’t get any better than this.”
The Women in Australian Agribusiness 100 is a joint initiative of Emerald Grain and Fairfax Agricultural Media supported by Syngenta.
Read more of our 100's stories here