AS the agricultural industry winds up another huge, record-breaking harvest and the State's farmers are hopefully finding some time to reflect on the milestones achieved over the past 12 months, the State's freshly minted agriculture minister, Jackie Jarvis has quietly and confidently taken the seat of her predecessor, Alannah MacTiernan, at Dumas House.A relative newcomer sworn into parliament in May 2021, only a few weeks into her new ministerial role Ms Jarvis was thrown straight into the deep end, travelling to the State's north to visit pastoralists hit by the devastating Kimberley floods.With 25 years experience in agribusiness, Farm Weekly journalist BREE SWIFT sat down with Ms Jarvis to get to know some of the views of the woman who will no doubt have a great influence on how the sector responds to the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead in 2023.
Question: You recently travelled to the Kimberley region to visit pastoralists affected by the record breaking floods caused by Ex-Tropical Cyclone Ellie. Was it good to learn more about the pastoral industry in the State's north and what was that experience like?
Answer: In Margaret River we've had several large fire events over the past decade or so, so I also had some insight into how the response works with emergency management groups and agencies.
I get an email that comes through twice daily from DPIRD (Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development) on where we're at with the various emergencies going on around the State and that includes the fires happening down south.
Then I get to sit in on the broader emergency response video conference teams meetings, so while I have been thrown into the deep end, I think I kind of knew what to expect.
Getting up in a plane up there was useful because if you haven't lived there before you can't really visualise the floods or what 15 metres of water looks like.I don't think the general public recognises what an important role DPIRD plays when there is an emergency.
I previously worked for the agency so I had a bit of an insight that DPIRD is a key emergency response agency for animal welfare and I knew that they would be playing a role.
Q: How will you be working to support those pastoralists affected by the floods and businesses like the Kimberley Meat Company, which employs about 100 people in the region?
A: I will be working closely with Don Punch, the Minister for Regional Development, to look at what we can do to assist the Kimberley Meat Company going forward.
When I was there, a lot of journalists were asking what the impact is going to be on Perth meat prices...and the mindset wasn't about the farm businesses that have potentially lost millions of dollars in livestock.
The reality is, most of the meat we eat in WA is from our southern meat producers or it's imported from the east coast.The Kimberley Meat Company is dealing more in the ground beef market, so it's not going to have a huge impact.
While 75 per cent of our population in WA lives in the metro area and food security is important, it's also about educating people to understand that these are businesses as well that have been severely impacted - so let's see what we can do to make sure they can keep running.
Q: While your predecessor's lack of support for the live export industry became apparent at various times throughout her tenure, the Premier and yourself have confirmed your party's support for live export.
This is despite the Federal government confirming its intentions to phase out the industry, but not in this term of government.
There are fears that this confirmation by the Albanese government to phase out the industry will shake the confidence of WA farmers and perhaps position a few to move out of sheep.
How do you plan on influencing the party's policy on live export on a Federal level?
A: The Premier and I have been very clear that we believe the measures in place are sufficient and that the northern summer export ban has been sufficient.We are very strong on that.
WA is also the third largest wool producer behind New South Wales and Victoria, so it ties into our wool production as well.
I have briefed Federal Agriculture Minister Murray Watt on that and explained to him that while we are the third largest wool producer, unlike Victoria and New South Wales, we don't have 25 million people on our doorstep to consume all of our sheep meat.I explained to him how the WA sheep industry operates, particularly in regards to live export and that balance between being a prime wool exporter as well.
At the end of the day it is a decision for the Federal government, but my role as the WA minister is to advocate for Western Australia's agricultural industry and that is what I will continue to do.
Q: There is a bit of funding sitting there for carbon farming projects, and there are parts of the industry that still aren't sold on the idea of carbon farming and carbon sequestration.
What's your opinion on carbon farming and do you plan on pushing more farmers to adopt carbon farming practices?
A: I won't be pushing farmers to adopt any farming practices.Just like I'm the Minister for Small Business, I won't be going in and telling people how to run their small businesses.
The carbon farming projects are important in relation to our global markets.
We have the Federal Agricultural Minister Murray Watt in Europe at the moment trying to explain Australia's green credentials.
CBH Group also understands that global consumers want sustainability, so this is about what the market wants.
Huge producers like Nestle want the grain that goes into their products to be produced sustainably.No one has to do anything - these changes are market driven.
Overseas consumers are demanding a level of sustainability which is proven and WA farmers are already leading the world in no-till farming and stubble retention and all these sorts of practices which build soil carbon.
The Carbon Farming and Land Restoration program allows farmers who want to access those international markets to register their projects with the authority that measures carbon.
We are already the most efficient dryland farmers in the world, so it's really just about mapping what we do and taking that burden of risk off them.
Q: What are the main goals you would like to achieve for the agricultural industry?
A: I think we need to focus on rebuilding our export markets as well as building new export markets.At a Federal level they are certainly working to rebuild our relationship with China, and we have already seen the pay off for the crayfish industry.
But there are other products like barley that we need to get back into those markets.
I'm really keen to make sure that we re-engage with our existing markets to get a much better understanding of what they are looking for, so those markets can continue to grow.Western Australia has such a small population domestically, if we're going to do any value adding, we really need to take care of our export markets.
Q: Some of Alannah MacTiernan's main detractors accused her of just sticking to her own agenda rather than listening to and working with the agricultural sector.
How do you plan on working with the ag sector? Will you be taking a bit of a different approach?
A: My approach to lots of things is different.
Alannah was a big personality with a big vision.
I'm not an expert in grain growing and I'm not an expert on pastoral leases.
I'm probably a much more pragmatic person more generally, so my approach will be I'm here to listen and learn and my role is to understand what we can do to support the agricultural sector.
Whether that's to advocate for the industry with our international markets, at a Federal level with my cabinet colleagues, or to remind people about how important the industry is to our food security.
Q: Worker shortages are an ongoing issue for the agricultural industry.
How do you plan on supporting farmers in getting more workers into the industry?
A: The worker shortage is across Australia and across all industries.
My husband and I farm down south and my husband pruned all 14,000 vines himself this year due to the worker shortages - normally we would have had contractors do that.
I'm also the Minister for Small Business, so I absolutely feel it.
Where there are those big seasonal labour demands in industries like tourism, hospitality and farming, to a certain extent, we have relied really heavily on those working holiday visas and backpacker numbers.
I've been told that, from a Federal level, our backpacker numbers are back to pre-pandemic levels.Pre-pandemic, at any given time, we had about 400,000 backpackers in Australia on working holiday visas.
We got down to less than 40,000 so it was a big dip.
Backpackers are really important for those unskilled, highly seasonal jobs.With regards to permanent positions - it's a bit of a partnership and I think the agricultural sector needs to be better at selling what they're offering to Western Australian school leavers.
I get a bit tired of this rhetoric that Australian kids don't want these jobs because they're too hard.
I know lots of kids who are going into jobs in the construction industry or veterinary nursing, and these are hard, physical jobs or jobs where they're working with animals, so why aren't we attracting them into the agricultural sector?
It's a little bit of a chicken or egg situation where the industry says, 'people aren't banging down our door for a job, so therefore we're not advertising or promoting the jobs or thinking about traineeships for young people'.
You can do a traineeship in agriculture which is the equivalent of a trades apprenticeship, we're just not very good at promoting it.
My three daughters went to high school in Busselton, and I don't think anyone spoke to them about a job in agriculture.
By contrast, I remember talking to a dairy farmer years ago that had one of the closest farms to that Busselton/ Vasse area and I said to him, 'have you ever thought about taking on a trainee?' and he said 'where would I find the kids?'.
There were literally five high schools within a half hour drive.
Farmers need to be prepared to put up their jobs and cast their nets a bit wider.It doesn't help that we have a really small regional population, particularly if you live somewhere like the Wheatbelt region, where your young people might be going off to boarding school or university.
I don't have any answers but I know the solutions can be found by the industry working together with the government and I'm open to ideas on how we can do that.
Q: The worker shortages have also likely led to an increase in fatigue related accidents on farms.
Following the 12th fatality in 12 months in the Western Australian agricultural industry, WorkSafe Commissioner Darren Kavanagh established an enquiry into the issue of farm safety.
Do you anticipate that the results of this inquiry will be useful to the farming sector in improving its safety standards and addressing the issues which lead to accidents each year?
A: I think any review into farming safety will be a valuable tool for the farming sector.
Farming is an industry where they're using a lot of dangerous, big, heavy equipment and where a single lapse in concentration can be catastrophic.
With small businesses people are perhaps not as careful with their own safety as they might be with that of their workers so when we hear about these deaths and injuries, more often than not, it's the owner-operator of the farm business.
The mining industry does this stuff really well, so maybe there are some lessons to learn, but WorkSafe is the right authority to be doing this and it will definitely be worth looking at what their findings are.
Q: Getting our State's grain to port tends to be a contentious issue every year, with record breaking harvests putting extra strain on CBH's existing infrastructure and over the past few years there has also been a lot of support for the reinstatement of the State's Tier 3 grain rail lines.
How do you plan on working with minister Saffioti to help improve the State's grain supply chains?
A: I met with the CBH Group my first week on the job.
We talked about the fact there has been $200 million committed between the Federal and State governments for increasing those freight supply chains.
CBH is really positive about that and they are committing similar funds, so I think we are already working together - that's already happening.Minister Saffioti and I also spoke about it within days of me being sworn in.
There are certainly some bottlenecks in the system but we need to be mindful now that we have a major crisis in that we have farmers and horticultural businesses in Kununurra that are going to struggle to get their goods to market in Perth because major roads have been washed out.
So it's time to put this in context - money has been committed, the work is happening, CBH are very happy with what we've committed and they have also committed to upgrading their infrastructure to get their product to port.
Yes, there are always going to be frustrations and bottlenecks until we get this work done but building roads and railway lines and upgrading infrastructure takes time so we just need to get on with the job.
Q: Having been in the role for a few weeks now - what are some new things you've learnt about the agricultural industry?
A: The number of people in the industry who just get on with the job really amazes me.
For example, the Kimberley Pilbara Cattlemen's Association has 2.5 full time staff and when we met them on the ground in Broome they had rung every pastoralist on the river and were coordinating hay supplies.
Even the Grain Industry Association of WA (GIWA).
I worked for GIWA for 12 months in a workforce project years ago, but I didn't realise that all of their directors are volunteers.
So you have this organisation that does great work for WA graingrowers around industry standards, works with the GRDC (Grains Research and Development Corporation), promotes all of these events and runs all of these forums and has a really professional board that are all volunteers.
So it's the fact that there are all these great organisations and businesses that are doing such a great job and just getting on with it.
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Q: What do you think you are going to most enjoy about the agriculture and food portfolio?
A: Well I love having a chat.I went out to DPIRD and spoke to the staff there and told them I don't have particular expertise in any form of agriculture.
My husband and I are grape growers but I haven't gotten into the vineyard too often - I was more involved in the business side of things.
But with the various job roles I've had I just love learning about how different parts of the market work and how different industries work.
I'm really amazed by some of the scientific work going on as well.
On the radio I heard DPIRD have done these trials where saline water is being used to make tomatoes sweeter.
To me that's mind blowing and is perhaps technology you can export because there are lots of countries that are struggling to have clean, potable water available for drinking water and then also to have water available for agriculture.
These record harvests are on the back of a lot of hard work from the producers themselves, but DPIRD does so much work in the research space and then you combine that with the work of InterGrain, which is half owned by the State government and produces different varieties of grain, it's no wonder the industry does so well.