WAFarmers boss Stephen Brown opens up on joining vegetablesWA and his return to agricultural advocacy

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VegetablesWA CEO Stephen Brown.
Camera IconVegetablesWA CEO Stephen Brown. Credit: Iain Gillespie/The West Australian

The State’s $400 million vegetable industry faces a slew of challenges but none that can’t be aided by strong farmer advocacy, according to vegetablesWA’s new boss Stephen Brown.

In his first sit-down interview since taking on the chief executive role, Mr Brown said he planned to use his experience in not-for-profits, banking and agriculture to benefit growers.

The former WAFarmers CEO, Mr Brown filled a year-long vacancy left by long-standing vegetablesWA chief executive John Shannon when he took on the role in August last year.

Mr Brown said his initial focus had been on getting out on farms to meet as many growers and stakeholders as possible, to gain “ground-level” insight into the issues they were facing.

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“The main role of vegetablesWA is to understand what the issues are and then to work with governments and industry to find ways to mitigate those issues,” he said.

“The immediate aim was to get out and meet as many growers as possible, from the biggest, all the way down to the smallest.”

Mr Brown, who hails from Narrogin, has a more than 45-year association with agriculture – working for Wesfarmers, Bankwest and Farmpower in finance and management.

He is best known in the agriculture industry for his three-year stint at WAFarmers, where he served as chief executive until August 2017 and played a key role in lifting it out of debt.

After taking 12 months off as long service leave, Mr Brown joined Bendigo Community Bank in Jurien Bay and spent four years restructuring the Rural Bank side of the business.

He said it was a desire to get back to his agricultural roots and to work for a member-based organisation that drove him to apply for the role at vegetablesWA.

Both WAFarmers and vegetablesWA have historical roots within the agriculture sector, with the former formed more than 100 years ago and latter about 70 years ago.

But while WAFarmers was multifaceted, with councils for livestock, dairy, wool, transport, and grain, Mr Brown said he looking forward to drilling down into the vegetable industry.

“We are 100 per cent focused on the vegetable industry... we have growers from Broome to Albany, but WAFarmers was predominantly focused on the Wheatbelt,” Mr Brown said.

“I am looking forward to focusing on one set of problems, rather than many different industries with different issues.”

The Perth-based non-for-profit aims to help vegetable growers, industry members and government maintain and grow a profitable and sustainable vegetable industry.

Its members are predominantly based between Carnarvon and Albany.

Mr Brown takes the reins at time when vegetable producers nationwide were grappling with chronic labour shortages, with tonnes of produce last year ploughed into the ground due to there not being enough workers to pick the produce.

One of the biggest projects under way is vegetablesWA’s Building Horticulture Opportunities Capacity Project, which aims to develop a set of benchmarks across industry.

“Labour and inflation are the biggest issues,” Mr Brown said.

“When you find staff, finding accommodation is a major issue.

“There are also inflationary pressures on chemical and fertiliser, and insurance.

“Fuel is a big one, because growers get hit twice with the price for running their operation and then transporting their produce to market.”

Mr Brown said red tape was also major issue for farmers, who were faced with a need to focus “100 per cent in their business, rather than on their business”.

VegetablesWA president Dan Kuzmicich said Mr Brown was selected after a national search, and marked the next step in the organisation’s efforts to be a “strong voice” for industry.

The organisation’s export project development lead Manus Stockdale had been serving in an acting capacity but has now returned to his permanent role.

VegetablesWA is a member of national body Ausveg, and also works closely with Hort Innovation – a national organisation which is levy and Federal Government-funded.

The nation’s vegetable industry is worth $4.8 billion.

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