Farm groups move on unity

Rueben HaleThe West Australian

Australia's peak farm lobby groups and commodity organisations have taken first steps towards creating a single farm representation body.

Last week WAFarmers, as part of a National Farmers Federation multimillion-dollar farm lobby group merger project, joined representatives from several State farming and commodity organisations for a two-day workshop to focus on the next steps of Project Streamline and Strengthen.

The workshop was facilitated by KordaMentha Consultants and delivered detailed action plans for the work streams critical to the next phase of PSS.

The project committee developed action plans to address the financial, legal, information technology, member services, member benefits, communications and human resource management aspects of creating unified national farmer representation.

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The meeting aimed to kickstart the process of developing a new company structure for the delivery of shared services across the farm lobby network.

At the meeting, a technology platform which will underpin the delivery of database and corporate services was discussed.

The platform will enable farmers around the country to "design their own dashboard" and access climate change statistics, production system data, flock and herd data, which could also be linked to the Meat and Livestock Australia online services.

WAFarmers president Dale Park, who attended the workshop, said a new national farm lobby group would give farmers strength in numbers with the new group, likely to be called Australian Farmers, having 60,000 farmer members across the country.

In recent times, WAFarmers has struggled to balance the books and registered a decline in new memberships and sponsorship dollars, with recorded losses of more than $500,000 for the preceding three years.

The string of disappointing financial results for the State's largest farm lobby group had forced Mr Park at the time to warn its remaining 600-odd members that the 103-year-old organisation had to find new sources of income to survive.

However, in August this year, WAFarmers' fortunes seemed to have taken a turn for the better when, under an exclusive deal with Coles, the group netted $100,000 of new money from sales of its own branded milk, which was reported at the time to have catapulted the group back into a positive financial position.

Mr Park said farm lobby groups across Australia would benefit from increased representation and he expected the majority of Australia's peak farm lobby groups would eventually merge into the one organisation, with National Farmers Federation Canberra office a likely contender to be chosen as the head office because of its close proximity to Federal Parliament.

"Under the merger arrangements, WAFarmers would become an Australian Farmers WA branch, as would be the case for other peak farm lobby groups in each other State around the country," he said.

"The creation of one voice for farmers across the nation will give us strength with 130,000 members across the country."

Mr Park also said there would be other benefits for its members to be part of a larger organisation.

"There will be an on-line facility for members to access across the country, which will offer up-to-date information at their fingertips," he said.

"The AF national office would handle about 20 per cent of the workload, centred on issues such as trade and biosecurity, with the remaining 80 per cent of matters to be handled by the individual State branches."

Mr Park said the new structure would replace chief executives with State managers, so in WA, current WAFarmers chief Stephen Brown would become State manager.

"AF head office will collect membership fees but current variations in fees across Australia will mean a national fee structure will still need to be agreed," he said.

"Dairy and pork will also be independent commodity groups."

National Farmers Federation president Brent Findlay said WA's farmers should be excited about the project because it was about farmer representation and getting organised to provide a clear vision about the value of Australia's agriculture doubling in size in the next 15 years.

In coming weeks, the committee is expected to appoint a person to act as integration director for the project and the establishment of a project management office to provide support.

The NFF board will be considering options to fund the implementation at its board meeting next week.

After the implementation meeting in November, the group hopes as part of this, key milestones and deliverable goals would have been identified for completion in the lead-up to the November NFF Members Council meeting.

The group also hopes the plans will have "a real shape" by June next year.

However, Pastoralists and Graziers Association president Tony Seabrook said he had no intention of being part of any new national farm lobby group.

Northam farmer Wayne Smith said he would happily join a national farm lobby group, but not the PGA nor WAFarmers.

"For me I would much prefer a unified body that would speak for all Australian farmers," he said.

"I've just returned from a trip to Europe and I noted how strong the farmer organisations are over there because they stand as a united body.

"To look at the influence the French farmers had on their Government's policy after the recent demonstrations … shows what can be achieved by being united."

Mr Smith said farmers around Australia would benefit from one body.

"We need a strong national and united voice to talk to government and politicians to tell them what we need because as smaller State-based farming organisations, it seems a challenge sometimes to get them to listen," he said.

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