National Farmers' Federation (NFF) new president David Jochinke took over his family's farming operations in Murra Warra, north of Horsham in Victoria at just 18 years of age, and in his first full-time year working on the farm, a devastating frost meant they did not harvest a single grain.
Fires, floods, droughts, animal welfare debates, mental health issues you name it, and Mr Jochinke has likely had some experience in it or been on the ground with farmers directly affected by these issues at some point in his career.
Speaking to Farm Weekly journalist BREE SWIFT in late August (prior to Mr Jochinke replacing Fiona Simson as the NFF's president) , Mr Jochinke elaborated about the importance of listening to farmers' experiences and sharing their "human stories", saying they are the most powerful tools one can use when trying to influence the decisions of the government and government policy.
See what else was discussed below.
QUESTION: Did you always know you wanted to work in agriculture?
Answer: By grade two or three I had my mind made up.
I wasn't sure what exact role I would have.
But growing up, I always wanted to play with the machinery on the farm and my mother would always come and pry me out of the shearing shed to get me to go to school.
I would always take a day off to go to the local field days.
I love agriculture and I love hearing stories from those people working in agriculture.
I get a lot of passion and inspiration from seeing people succeed in the industry.
Q: Can you tell me a bit about your upbringing/ family?
A: I'm a third-generation farmer and I've always farmed in Murra Warra, north of Horsham in western Victoria.
My mum worked as a primary school teacher and my dad was a farmer.
I went away to boarding college for years 11 and 12 to study agriculture, but during that period my dad got really crook so I came back to run the farm when I was 18.
My older sister is now a primary school teacher in Melbourne and my nephew is super keen on the farm - he comes up every school holiday.
He wants to go to ag college and carve out a career in the industry too.
Q: How did you manage the responsibility of taking over the family farm at such a young age and what did this experience teach you?
A: I guess I'd put it down to having a fair bit of grit, character and determination.
I got a lot of things wrong, but I learnt quickly the best thing you can do is talk to your neighbours and the people around you and educate yourself.
I was fortunate the ag college was only 25 minutes from the farm, so over two years I would travel there everyday to learn all about agriculture and then I would apply what I had learnt straight away on the farm.
We didn't start cropping until my mid-term exams were finished and then I would hop in the combine (harvester) and we would work as hard as we could.
Our farming cycle was more based around my educational calendar.
I still managed to do well at college, getting dux for both years while looking after my mum and dad.
I had a fair few things going on at the time, so it was a bit silly and I don't know if I'd be able to do all that again.
But I've also been fortunate in that I've had a lot of opportunities presented to me early on.
Q: How did you get your start in the agricultural advocacy space?
A: After college I became heavily involved in the industry.
I remember people in our local community began complaining about how the silo line was going so slow and I asked them, 'Well, what are we going to do about this?' and the response was 'We can't do anything'.
I thought to myself, 'I don't want to be in an industry where you're just a passenger - I want to be in an industry where you can make changes and improve things for everyone'.
So I attended my first Victoria Farmers' Federation (VFF) meeting and came back as the secretary treasurer.
Q: Can you tell me about your family farm today?
What do you crop/ do you run livestock and how has it evolved over the years?
A: We used to be 50:50 Merino self replacing stock and cropping.
Now we're predominantly cropping and we buy trade sheep in and out - lambs mainly.
We grow lentils, canola, wheat and barley mainly and then faba beans and the odd chickpea crop.
Q: What's been a few of the biggest challenges you've faced in managing your own farm?
A: My first year out of college was 1998 and we had a late frost in October which destroyed all of our crops.
So in my first full-time year on the farm we lost everything - we didn't harvest a single grain.
Learning how to manage risk from an early age was definitely a hard lesson learnt, but that lesson carried us through the droughts in the 2000s.
It's a pretty close-knit community where we farm, so we've seen a lot of mental health issues pop up and have lost a couple of neighbours.
We've also had neighbours sell out, so there's been some very hard periods for our community, and that definitely made me double down on wanting to get more involved and make a change in the industry.
Q: You were the former treasurer, vice president and then president of the VFF from 2011 to 2020.
In the years since then, how do you think farming groups such as the VFF have evolved?
A: Nowadays it's more about creating excellent policy and making sure we're involved in rural and farming communities.
We've become a lot more socially aware and a lot more focused on trying to get the consumer to understand the issues because, ultimately, they are the ones who have the market power through the choices they make at the supermarket and the political power through how they vote every few years.
So it's kind of gone from the mountain coming to us, to us having to go to the mountain.
Q: What was the biggest challenge the VFF faced during your almost-decade there?
A: We had everything - from the industry being completely gutted of water, to dairy crises, to raging fires which burnt properties to the ground.
In the instance of the fires, we assisted the recovery process by trying to drive fodder into those areas and organising community donations.
We also had a role to play in making sure those farmers weren't forgotten about in the years that followed, as they underwent the rebuilding process.
We helped the industry through absolutely terrifying floods, which washed away livestock, crops and vital infrastructure.
There were also some pretty massive animal rights versus animal welfare debates that culminated in protests in the centre of Melbourne.
Throughout my time there, the industry probably faced every extreme, so I made it my priority to listen to the people affected and to go to as many meetings as I could.
That's because when you go to government, you need to be able to convey the effect that events or issues are having on farmers.
There's nothing more powerful than telling a real life story, but you only hear those by being on the ground.
Q: Labor's plans to phase out Australia's live sheep exports will have huge consequences for WA's farmers, who make up 90 per cent of the trade.
As hope continues to fade for the sector's future under the Labor government, are there specific avenues you think the industry needs to focus on to give itself the best shot of survival?
A: It's no secret that this is a huge issue for all NFF members.
Yes, it directly affects WA farmers at the moment, but it will also have consequences for farmers across Australia, who don't want to lose potential future opportunities for the sector as well.
The strategy at the moment is simple.
First of all it's to prove that their (Labor's) policy is based on an opinion, which relies on historical information rather than today's science.
That needs to change and we need, as an industry, to demonstrate that to the government and the wider community.
Secondly, at election time we need to make sure there is a better, alternative policy in place that people can vote for rather than shutting down the trade.
Finally, it's also about looking at other legal avenues to ensure the industry has every opportunity to survive.
That is something that I know the Australian Livestock Exporters' Council (ALEC) is pursuing.
We have a good chance of defeating this.
But it's a long game, so we need to keep everyone focused on building that pressure up until the next election.
Q: You attended the WAFarmers' meeting in Katanning last month and saw the concern within the industry about the State's Aboriginal Cultural Heritage laws, which are set to be repealed.
What do you think this backflip by the State government demonstrates?
And do you think it is going to have a big effect on the drafting of the Federal government's cultural heritage policy?
A: We know indigenous issues are on the Federal government's agenda.
We want to make sure, as an agricultural community, we find the best balance between farmers, acknowledging that there's some high value heritage sites across Australia and we have a role to play in protecting those sites, but also not burdening our farmers.
We want to keep farmers farming and we don't want the financial burden of protecting these heritage sites placed on them.
Those sites shouldn't become a liability for the farming community - they should be an asset.
If we can work in harmony and get it to the point where agriculture can thrive and where that heritage is also protected - that's the ultimate outcome.
In the past, we've had the pendulum swing too far one way on that ledger, so we need to bring that back to the centre and have a real conversation which supports positive outcomes for both groups, but that doesn't burden either side.
Q: Do you think what's recently happened in WA on Aboriginal cultural heritage has helped spark more conversations on the east coast on how the government might/should tackle the issue?
A: It definitely has.
It's also shown the power of advocacy and everyone pulling together, so full credit to everyone who has been involved.
Success has many parents, so it's fantastic so many people showed up and had their voices heard.
It also sends the message that Australians are very engaged on this issue.
Hopefully WA's experience has highlighted to those living on the east coast the power people hold by actually engaging on issues and showing up.
Q: A free trade agreement (FTA) between Australia and the European Union is yet to be realised after the EU objected to Australian food producers using terms such as feta.
Do you think an agreement with the EU will be able to be reached in the near future, and is there any leverage you think the Federal government might be able to use in its negotiations?
A: The conversation around what should or shouldn't be included in that agreement needs to be had in the context that these foods and food techniques are part of Australia's DNA, because we absolutely are a multicultural nation.
To celebrate that, we should be able to use those terms and words for our produce, rather than having specific geographical indicators placed on them.
When you have a generic name or way of producing something that's been here for generations - that needs to be acknowledged in these agreements.
The Federal government has done that and supported Australian agriculture.
I believe we can come to an agreement with the EU because we have a very similar approach in how we like to do trade - we both like to be rules based and we like to be sustainable.
Our sustainable language might not be exactly the same as the EU at the moment, but we are working toward a sustainability framework where we will be able to describe and prove Australia's sustainability credentials.
The EU market is so huge, Australia would never be able to satisfy it on its own, so the risk of Australia taking or displacing massive amounts of their own production will never happen.
We need to make sure we highlight that.
But when the EU does look to import goods, we need to be their preferred supplier.
I think that's where our leverage and opportunity is.
We have the support of our government and we know they want to do a deal with us, it's just about making sure we continue the conversation and stay firm on the areas we know we can negotiate on, while also being aware of the areas we can't.
Our FTA with the United Kingdom is a gold-standard agreement and is something we want to aspire to for any FTAs going forward.
Q: What are some tangible improvements that could be implemented by the Federal government and industry to help address the agricultural sector's ongoing workforce shortages?
A: We do need seasonal workers in agriculture for our harvest periods.
Traditionally, we've looked to supplement that through backpacker and visa seasonal worker programs.
We need to make sure those programs have attractive and flexible arrangements.
We also need to make sure there are incentives for Australians to move to regional areas and, an example of this could include things such as taxation settings.
The liveability of our regions also relies on the provision of housing and services.
The stats are showing half to two thirds of Australians are employed by the government through some means, so the government has a huge role and responsibility in where our population flows.
It needs to recognise this and step up on the issue.
Q: What do you think is the biggest threat facing the agricultural industry?
A: Government policy.
And that relates to trade, making sure they get our workforce settings right, making sure they get our regional housing right and, when we talk about biosecurity, making sure that is placed at the right setting for the right diseases and pests.
We need to make sure our government policy is contemporary and we're working to help drive and set the agenda.
We can't wait to be asked for our opinion.
If we do that, we will be left behind.
Q: With NFF president Fiona Simson set to retire in October, do you plan on putting your hand up for the role?
And if elected, what are some things you plan to continue or do differently than Ms Simson?
A: It's no secret that I have a huge desire to have this great honour to serve Australian farmers.
I want to take that role on, I'm prepared to travel, I want to hear from farmers and I want to advocate for them.
There's a lot of contenders out there who probably want to take on the mantle as well, so I understand there is probably going to be a good field of candidates, and that's a positive thing for agriculture to have so many people interested and keen to support the industry.
For me, it is about keeping the NFF as the premier organisation that speaks on behalf of rural Australia and agriculture and ensures their agenda is on the lips of everybody in Canberra as well as all the other levels of government.
We want to empower our grassroots members and member organisations to be part of our negotiations with the government and be part of the solution.
Q: If you weren't working in the ag industry, what do you think you would be doing?
A: I think I would be studying my guts out to get into the ag industry.
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