Farmer advocacy is facing a funding crunch, according to outgoing Australian Dairy Farmers chief executive officer David Inall.
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Outgoing Australian Dairy Farmers chief executive David Inall says farm advocacy faces challenges

This is occurring at the same time as increasing demands are being placed on farmer representative organisations.

After 31 years in farm advocacy roles here and in the United States, Mr Inall is moving out of the sector at the end of this week, having accepted the position of CEO with the Master Grocers Australia, an employer organisation for 2700 independent retailers across Australia.

He said things had changed significantly since he started as a policy officer with the NSW Dairy Farmers Association in 1991.

“Over time the resourcing of peak commodity groups and state farming organisations has decreased significantly,” he said.

And no one has been able to identify a solution to the problem.

“The NFF (National Farmers Federation) is on their third review of ag representation,” Mr Inall said.

Options such as sponsorship had been tried but hadn’t succeeded.

“The money is still in the industry, but how do those organisations access it,” he said. “The model is outdated.”

Increasing demands

Mr Inall said the demands placed on farmer representative organisations had increased in the time since he was first involved.

In the digital age, governments moved fast on issues while global issues also played a bigger role.

This had created a resources strain.

ADF had a staffing level of 3.5 that needed to be across a wide raft of issues.

“One of the things I pride myself on is the good team I’ve had for five years,” Mr Inall said.

The key had been to focus on key areas where ADF could deliver results.

He nominated $1 milk ending and the dairy code of conduct as two wins during his time as CEO.

Many organisations and individuals played a part in creating noise around $1 milk and highlighting it was a bad deal for dairy farmers.

“But where ADF really comes in is we’re the national voice of reason,” Mr Inall said.

“Right at the very end, we were there to have very sensitive and discreet conversations with Woolworths that led to that announcement when Woolworths were going up 10 cents.”

ADF played a key role in the development and implementation of the dairy code of conduct.

“That’s been the most significant government intervention project in the industry that I can recall for some considerable time,” Mr Inall said.

“And while many organisations may like to claim ownership, rest assured that it was ADF that did a lot of legwork to get that over the line and particularly developing content for it.”

Mr Inall said some of this work necessarily was behind the scenes.

“You know it’s a bit of a tightrope to walk, where you don’t necessarily want to upset the people that you’re dealing with, but you also need your members to know what’s going on,” he said.

Mr Inall said effectively communicating with farmers was a challenge with limited resources.

ADF used the media and provided updates via email but the most effective way was to talk directly with farmers.

“There is no better way to communicate than actually be face to face, actually get out on the road and be sitting in front of a whole lot of farmers and have these discussions,” he said.

“The budget really just doesn’t allow it – it’s a big country obviously to get around.”

ADF tried to make the most of limited resources by holding meetings with farmers in conjunction with the state dairy farming organisations but it was still challenging.

Big issues

Mr Inall nominated labour as the biggest issue facing the dairy industry. He said he was aware of farmers who had sold their cows and got out of the industry simply they did not have staff to effectively run the business.

“We know there’s multi levels to this as we’ve found through our agricultural workforce strategy,” he said.

“We’ve taken an election platform to the government, which I think is one of the best pieces of work ADF has done, we took 38 policy ideas to government and we are now starting to work through those.”

Labour issues were everything from getting people to work on farms, getting visas and the backpacker resource not being what it was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The key to solving the problem long term was promoting dairy as a career, which was happening through programs like Cows Create Careers.

Mr Inall said in his role in the past five years he had met with participants in the young farmer study tours and was impressed with the quality of people attracted to the industry.

“There’s clearly a lot of smart, young ambitious people out there and they have my utmost respect,” he said.

“So the industry is still attracting people like that, which is great.

“What I’d love to see is for those people to get more involved in the advocacy side.”

Static production levels in Australia, even with buoyant prices, were also an issue.

The industry needed to work out how to create pathways for people who wanted to be involved to be able to milk cows.

The other big global issue was around animal welfare and environmental stewardship and increasing demands being placed on farmers around these.

But there had to be a balance there in terms of farmers being able to keep on producing.

But increasingly I believe what works well for agriculture … is you need to work with the government as a partner in our business. – David Inall

Mr Inall pointed to the Australian Dairy Industry Sustainability Framework as helping to achieve that balance for the industry.

The sustainability debate highlighted the other big change that had occurred in the relationship between farmers and their organisations and governments.

“If I think back to ’70s and ’80s, which was before my time, but certainly in the ’90s, there was this sense that if agriculture wasn’t happy, one way – almost a leading way – in which you would respond would be to take on the government,” Mr Inall said.

“And whether it was marching in Canberra or certainly putting out aggressive media statement showing the government’s got it all wrong.

“Now that’s still important and, as a lobbyist, I’d say that it’s critically important that the government knows that you’re there to hold them to account and they know that you’re going to call them out if we think they’ve got it wrong.

“But increasingly I believe what works well for agriculture … is you need to work with the government as a partner in our business.”

Mr Inall said it was vital to have good relationships with people in the departments advising governments, as well as with the ministers and government members.

“What I pride myself in doing is building a reputation so that they know that ADF is the trusted body,” he said.

Fonterra Cooperative Group, the world’s biggest dairy exporter, raised its earnings forecast for the second time in three months after a strong first quarter driven by demand for protein products.

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