There is a lot of ‘chatter’ mostly in the media and mostly from the uninformed like politicians that Australia has the agricultural productive capacity to become the ‘Food Bowl of Asia.’ Is it true?

Part 1.

There are those in the city who are plotting and have the money.

Is China Australia’s land of the Golden Fleece? Or is there a danger we could lose our money on the way to the goldfields? Fear not there is hope. Why? Well, for one thing there have been several very high profile meetings under the banner the ‘Global Food Forum’. Never heard of them? Not surprised, they were advertised in places where those on the land were unlikely to see the the advertisements.

When I saw the ‘Global Food Forum’ first advertised in The Australian and had a look at the list of speakers I thought they were notable in the world of finance and agribusiness if not agriculture, that is I couldn’t see many farmers on the list, but my interest was aroused non the less. I then enquired as to the price of a ticket and added on two nights accommodation in Sydney and the cost of plane ticket and the thousand kilometre round trip in the car to get to Perth, I decided the whole thing was out of my reach, way out.

Disappointed because I couldn’t afford to go, I gained some pleasure out of becoming cynical about the whole thing. Just another Pitt Street Cockie talkfest I reasoned, and those Pitt Street Cockies are so clever they know the answers before you ask the question and most of them don’t know where Western Australia is anyway!

I noticed the host of the event was a multi millionaire, one of the biggest carton manufacturers in the country, so he had a whopping vested interest.  I deduced he would have said to himself, ‘more food, more cartons, only two manufacturers in Australia so it’s worth a punt.’ I looked up the definition of the word ‘altruism’. Never met the man so I don’t know if it applies.

image003Will these men save or ruin Australian agriculture. We need to hear what they have to say.

Generally the participants made up a very impressive ‘Who’s Who’ of Australian agri-business and ag-science. Then there were those who had done extremely well and were feted in the business world in Australia, like the boss of Coles – Wesfarmers man of the moment.  No doubt there to tell us again that Coles are the farmer’s best friend. Woolies weren’t on the list of speakers but I’ll bet they were in the audience.

I can’t for the life of me see how Coles and Woolies executives can be the farmer’s friends, they might want to be, but there’s a big difference between wanting and being. You cannot drive the price down to the producer, so that it’s cheaper to the consumer and at one and the same time dismiss claims from the producer that they are going broke – simple in my book but apparently very complicated for others..’

So from being enthusiastic about the ‘Global Food Forum’ I became a shoulder shrugging cynic and decided the meeting would be nothing more than a bunch of rich boys and girls having an good day out on their expense accounts.  They would probably tell each other what was wrong with Australian agriculture and how they were going to fix it and make a fortune out of ‘The Food Bowl of Asia’ on the way through.

I decided with some truculence that the meeting would be no place for someone like me who considers they live at the sharp end of agriculture. No place for this septuagenarian, hard working author, web site owner and writer, occasional contributor to overseas agricultural magazines, retired farmer who won’t leave agriculture alone. The self-analysis made me even more truculent, maybe a bit angry?

If the truth be known, if I’d had the money I would have gone to Sydney, just to be in the presence of so many movers and shakers in agriculture, if only to tell them to a man and a woman that they have lost the lines of communication between themselves and the man and woman on the land. Trust has been replaced by far too much mistrust even suspicion.

The country- city divide is now a chasm and getting bigger as accusations and chatter of deals with foreigners, especially the Chinese, thrive on nothing more than rumour, it’s almost xenophobic paranoia. I know a man who on the main street of his home-town was congratulated on the sale of his farm. He didn’t even know it was for sale.

This is not the last time I will mention the country city divide. In this context it’s not the supermarket customers and the farmers who don’t understand each other, as we shall see, it’s the city, the financiers, bankers, brokers and the likes of Richard Goyder who need to build bridges and develop an understanding with ‘the country’ and the people who live in it. Have a look at a few farm budgets, prices paid and prices received. Ask himself what his Board would say if he presented them with a budget with the same percentage profit for Wesfarmers, as those who supply Wesfarmers.

Last week, calmer now, I had cause to look again at the proceedings of the ‘Global Food Forum’. I was researching a piece on the number of people in the Developed World who claim that at times they don’t have enough money to put food on the table for the whole family. This is not Third World people going hungry; these are countries in the OECD, among others.

It’s all in an article that I found interesting and left me wondering if we should be looking towards China as much as we do for opportunity. Maybe there are other places that need us more? What was evident from the figures was that we need to keep a weather eye on what we produce and process in this country. If we are not producing and processing what we need for ourselves, inevitably we will enter into competition with others for the available processed food in the world. With demand increasing so too will price. Any comparative advantage we had when we grew and processed food ourselves, and exported our surplus will have evaporated.

I did a search and found the transcript of proceedings from ‘Global Food Forum’ held in March. My intentions were not entirely honourable, maybe that’s a bit tough? Let’s say my intentions were a bit mischievous.

I was looking for a quote from the ‘Forum’ to support my contention that there is one hell of a lot we have to put right here in Australia, before we start think about filling a food bowl for Asia. For instance, unbelievable as it may seem, we now import more processed food than we export. That is what driving prices ‘Down, Down, Down’, and has caused many of our food processing industries to fail or move offshore. There is no such thing as cheap food.

Here in Western Australia (WA) we are proud to own the biggest agricultural relic in the Commonwealth, probably the world – we have a Potato Marketing Corporation, the last of the great agrarian socialist statutory boards. It is a Dinosaur that still issues licenses to WA growers specifying how many tonnes of potatoes they can grow and of what variety. The Corporation have in the past and no doubt still do, enforce by law, their statutory powers.

While all this nonsense is going on, Coles and Woolworths and no doubt the other companies, import thousands of tonnes of potatoes into the country.

Australia will import over 150000 tonnes of potatoes this year, mostly from the EU, Canada and America all three of which are hardly in the Developing World, although we will come back to this later, the basic wage in all three countries is far less than that of Australia, in some cases half of what is paid here and, more importantly, in all three countries, farmers receive a government subsidy to grow potatoes.

Is it any wonder that a couple of months ago in WA, the best mashed potato in the world (My judgement!), Woolies home brand all the way from Belgium cost just $4.00 a kilo, the same price as loose potatoes grown in WA. Just add a knob of butter a bit of salt and pepper and ‘bingo’!

I  just knew that by searching the transcript of the ‘Global Food Forum’ I would find something. A phrase, a comment, a remark, something stupid, that would demonstrate how far Pitt Street was from my constituency, and how far we were from them. So I started to read.

Without realising it, I got sucked in. I read all 118 pages of the transcript of the ‘Global Food Forum’ proceedings in one sitting. It was compulsive reading.

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If you want to do the same, and I recommend you do, go to: http://resources.news.com.au/files/2014/03/26/1226865/431165-global-food-forum-2014-opening-transcript.pdf   on that page you  find a full transcript of the proceedings. The banner above was used at the proceedings with the sub-heading; ‘Australia’s Place at the Table. I didn’t agree with every speaker, far from it but I didn’t find the ‘dolt’, the clown I was looking for.

The list of speakers, you will see is impressive. Men and women whose names would grace the table at any conference on Australian agriculture. There are names I’m fairly sure you won’t recognise, but important people just the same, ‘backroom people’ if you like? Some you will find as you read the transcript take a long time to say nothing and some take very little time to say a great deal.

Much, most, nearly all of what was debated and argued at that ‘Forum’ will remain privy to those who attended the day and to those who have read and will read the proceedings – and that is a crying shame.

For all of my life, there’s been debate about the city country divide, how one side doesn’t understand the other and how damaging this lack of understanding and empathy it is to both. The ‘Global Food Forum’ will add to this problem enormously.

The BIG take home message for me when reading the transcript of the ‘Global Food Forum’ was that the city country divide, the lack of communication, the lack of understanding of the knowledge, the values, the attitudes and the beliefs and so a lack of appreciation and understanding of why the city or the country behave in the way they do, is no longer solely a question to be answered by the food producer and the food consumer. Now there is a bigger and potentially more far influential player on the field, in the Zoo, they are called the Big End of Town.

Maybe because there have been a few Chinese cheque books flying around and stirring up a bit of dust, the Big End of town is starting to remember where it used to play in Australia, before it was seduced by the mineral boom. Up until the 90’s when the growers ruined it for themselves, wool was Australia’s biggest export, with wheat and beef fighting over second and third place.

Has the big end of town suddenly realised that all the consumable goods in the world won’t be worth a cracker, industrial growth will not happen unless the people, the workers are properly fed. Properly fed will no longer mean a bowl of rice or noodles. The world now sees how we eat and they want the same.

There is a subtlety in how the city is starting to move closer to the country. Look closely now at the ‘suits’ the people on the stage and you will see the odd pair of R M Williams black boots with the business suit.  A leather bag, shirt or belt with the RM logo.  There might even be a pair of moleskins and a sports jacket or a blazer. It hardly seems possible but the ‘country’ might become fashionable again.

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Fortescue Metals Group chairman Andrew Forrest on his 280,000ha Minderoo pastoral lease in the Pilbara Source: Supplied

Then there are the almost daily pictures of Andrew Forrest showing he can still ride a horse, but he must remember to must keep his heels down – but they are good pictures and all add grist to the emerging mill that there are some good reasons why the Australian ‘city’ and its money should getting interested in Australian agriculture again.

Forrest’s few stations and a meat works aren’t going to feed China but it makes good story and it’s a start of what is a bigger objective – that of encouraging Australian capital to start once again investing and controlling as much as is practical the food processing industry in Australian agriculture, and showing leadership to the ASX and what every politician likes to call ‘the mum and dad’ in investing in Australian agriculture.

Ms Rinehart buying into Camballin and Nerrima cattle stations is even more interesting. And the old ‘Clover Meats’ in mothballs for years is reputed to be in the deal as well. Again someone who is independent buying Australian agricultural assets, this has to be a good thing, if only for her ability to read a balance sheet, which seems to have kept her off other boards.

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Gina and Ginia Rhinehart. Photo: Faifax Media.

 

Who Rules Australia?

Who rules Australia? Who controls agriculture? Does the Party or Parties we elected control the country or do those who virtually nobody voted for, the minor parties, do they run the country? Is this Democracy at work.

Who controls agriculture and so the Government? That’s easy, the major retailers Coles and Woolworths. They tell agriculture what they will pay for what they produce. Take it or leave it and we’ll import it. Irrespective of what they claim they don’t give a fig for the producer, all they are concerned about is market share. They wrecked the dairy industry in the uk and they will do the same here.

We have yet to see a Minister for Agriculture have a stand up fight with the major retailers because what they pay producers is below the cost of production.

One cannot help but ask the question why News Corp Australia, as part of one of the strongest, biggest, most powerful media companies in the world, one that they say can change governments, deliberately organised some of the most influential people in agribusiness, industry, investment and banking in Australia to meet together in one place for a day to discuss some of the big topics facing the world of agriculture as the global population heads inexorably towards of 9 billion, and then didn’t promote it?

Apart from it’s own papers, of which there is only one in the West and it doesn’t seem to have a great circulation among those in agriculture, I don’t remember seeing it advertised.

What remains a mystery is why, after going to so much trouble and expense to organise the day, and some day it was, why it would appear that News Corp Australia decided to keep the proceedings of the ‘Global Food Forum’ almost unto itself.

News Corp Australia missed the publicity boat for what could have been a big story for the country – just what the country needs to hear when times are hard.

Sounds bizarre, but the evidence so far is that the advice News Corp Australia took regarding the promotion before and the reportage after the event, whether it was formulated in house or by an outside agency, was wrong, it missed the target.

It was negligent, arrogant because it didn’t consider farmers and ignorant because it showed a total lack of understanding that no matter what their illustrious, even famous speakers had to say, it was all pointless if those on the land, farmers and their advisers weren’t there to hear what was said and, to make matters worse, it was poorly if at all reported in the rural media.

The ‘Forum’ certainly had the potential to get those on the land being cynical yet again about the divide between the city and the country. The country believes nobody in the city knows how difficult it can be when crops are poor and the weather is wrong and what’s worse, nobody cares.

I suppose one can hardly expect Fairfax Media, who virtually control agricultural publishing in this country, to report on a News Corp Australia’s ‘Global Food Forum’, and on some of heavy hitters in agriculture who were invited to speak. Bit like asking the Vatican to report on Yom Kippur. Possible but highly unlikely.

Fairfax Media have a privileged position in the Australian agricultural media – they dominate it. Their domination is the result of a lot of hard work on their part and a confusing lack of interest by other media organisations in agriculture.

Agriculture doesn’t ‘make it’ anymore in the media, not unless there is some controversy about GM technology, or some trumped up film on animal cruelty, then every man and woman in the extremes of the media from fashion plates to dinner plates, find it just too easy to get media time.

I think it comes down to its easier to report on mining and the deals they are doing, than it is to report on agriculture. Anyone with the minimum of training and a little skill with a camera can report on a mining deal. Reporting on farming needs a great deal more experience and knowledge.

For some in the agricultural media at present even a basic understanding of agronomy and or veterinary science would be a great start, so too would an understanding that organic food is not going to take over the world, and GM crops, grown now for over thirty years are not causing goats to have two heads, or, far more importantly, have not been shown anywhere in the world to have caused problems with human health. Ask the Mexicans.

The ABC Country Hour, certainly in WA, has lost its position of authority and as the pre-eminent point of reference for farmers thirsty for information. Maybe the job description for the programme has changed? Maybe those who decide Country Hour editorial policy have made the decision to take the emphasis off what I would call serious agricultural subjects that affect the backbone of West Australian agriculture, and concentrate more on the, how can I put it without being rude or sued, the more social aspects of ‘country life’.

Back in the sixties and seventies, the ‘Country Hour’ would promote the following weeks programmes in the print media, so one could decide in advance what days one ‘had’ to be near the radio.  Forty years on I wonder how many people download the podcasts of the ABC ‘Country Hour’?

One of the problems with communicating with ‘agriculture’ and its management, the farmers, is that unlike any other industry in Australia, is has largely the same management team it had thirty years ago. Management turnover is slow, the average age of Australian farmers is in the late 50s, some areas the early 60s.

During the 1980s, as manager of a marketing group interested in changing farmer’s behaviour, we commissioned what was at the time some of the most comprehensive market research that had ever been done at the time into how communications worked within the broad agricultural community. We wanted to know how farmers and their advisers got their messages, their information. We were communicators and the knowledge we sought was fundamental if we were to succeed in our mission.

The research covered all media, radio, TV, print, word of mouth (down the pub or the club over a beer) meetings, seminars, field days, demonstrations and so on. We wanted to know how farmers and their advisers received their information and with which media they were most comfortable.

The communication landscape in the twenty first century is un nrecognisable form that of the 1980’s. We now have mobile phones, iPads and the like. Apps for everything. GPS and so many TV channels it’s hard to remember when there was just one and then two and then three. But has communication between client and adviser, bank and customer, researcher and landholder, has that changed?

I will bet almost anything that if the same research were done today the results would be similar to those of the late 80s. Of course the www would have to be considered, to do that one of the first questions in any research would have be about age and a self assessment of computer literacy. Talking to my peer group, I think some of the ‘bright young things’ who run the media ‘show’ these days might have assumed we know more than we do about the electronic media, beyond our mobile phone and emails that is. So what did we find when we went out there and asked questions?

Without going into too much detail, farmers in the 1980s said of themselves:

·       They were slow readers and usually too tired to read a great deal in the evening, which was the only time of day they had available. The print media was good for news on new technology and prices on machinery and some produce. (Remember the AWB was still around in those days and we didn’t grow a great deal of canola.) Agri politics was of more interest to the media than it was to the average farmer. Most had left school at year 10.

·       They fell asleep in front of TV and TV ads depicting farmers annoyed them because farmers were often portrayed as :

1.     Being ‘hayseeds’, 95 cents in the dollar type, or

2.     As a country ‘hick’ character that might amuse an urban or city dweller. False accents all the usual stuff, sometimes even bib and brace.

3.     Being a stereotypical RM Williams type did not go down well either.

4.      or worst of all, some advertisers used a well known face, a TV personality to portray a farmer endorsing a product, that just destroyed all credibility of the person and the product.

5.     They were also annoyed when they were depicted as being rich. The rational being farmers are rich because they use big machinery and when they say ‘the biggest harvest on record’ must mean they are rich, mustn’t it?

·       ABC Breakfast sessions were good as they were the beginning of the day. Weather forecast and usually something interesting that was happing or going to happen in the local district.

·       The ABC Country Hour (not sure if Blue Hills had finished) was the not to be missed hour of the day. In the opinion of farmers and their families The Country Hour was by far the most popular and reliable source of information they had. The ABC staff were seen as knowledgeable, capable of communicating complicated messages; equal to their audience in knowledge and experience, and as researchers what we found interesting was that the ABC country based people, all over Australia, were seen as being a vital part of the farming community.

·       TV got a mention but it had to be on the right subject and aired at the right time. Sundays were usually footy or golf days. The ABC was seen as the only country TV possibility.

What has all of this got to do with News Corp Australia’s ‘Global Food Forum’? To the best of my knowledge what happened at the forum got a bit of a run in The Australian and in The Weekend Australian in WA. Not newspapers that is readily available in the country newsagents. And that was it.

It may have been advertised in other News Corp papers over east, I don’t know.

A transcript of over 100 pages, on a subject very dear to my heart, that kept me so interested that I read the lot at one sitting, failed to get out into the country, into farming land. That is an indictable offence in an industry, which has such poor communications and thirsts for first-hand information, especially from the city. The country wants to know what the city is thinking regarding agriculture as they are being filled with stories of foreign investors hovering offshore

You may not agree with my view of the ‘Global Food Forum’ meeting. You may not agree with my views of what was said according to the transcript. Well I don’t care what you think. The big positive for me is that the discussion is taking place, all News Corps Limited have to do now is find a place at the table for me and a few more farmers, their advisers. Tell us so we can tell you.

Australia is too big, so it’s too time consuming and expensive to try and hold a national conference, or more likely what will be required in a ‘Global Food Forum’ series is a number of national conferences.

Yet for that very reason because of time and cost, people are meeting all over the world via the wonders of cyberspace and the Internet. Don’t as me how they do it, but I went to the most wonderful production of ‘Tosca’ ‘’beamed’ down to Albany from Perth.

The sound was amazing, the picture was stunning and the night was a night at the opera.

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A friend at the University of Western Australia tells me he has attended and participated in a ‘national’ conference from another university and it was ‘beamed’ I have no other word for it, into UWA. Isn’t that what we on the land want from those in the city?

There are conferences that take place every day in business and particularly in medicine where all who attend, no matter where they may be, Perth or Penola, can listen and learn and have their say. Run them at the Universities, get the students involved as well.

It’s worth a try isn’t it? Most regional centres around Australia can accommodate the technology; we in WA can accommodate the time difference. All State governments should be interested and have a vested interest in bringing the city and the country together in a way never contemplated before.

At least it would give the country the chance to have a look at some of these people from the city, no matter where they come from because at the moment the gap between city and country is becoming a chasm and that is not a recipe for progress.

Main Photo “Golden Fleece Inn York” by Kaly99 – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons – link

Roger Crook

About 

Over the last fifty years or so Roger has worked in agriculture, since 1967 in Australia. From farm labourer, to station and farm manager, then progressively to a senior management position in agribusiness as the marketing and sales manager of what was at the time the biggest agricultural chemical company in Australia, ICI (Australia- Rural Division), Roger has both a practical farming and comprehensive agribusiness background.
After a brief spell as the marketing director of a big public relations company in Perth, Roger formed his own consultancy specialising in agribusiness communications and the marketing of Australian agricultural intellectual property overseas.
Roger says he will only ever be 'semi retired'. He believes Australian agriculture is at the crossroads so he has set up the 'Global Farmer' as a forum to both pose, debate and hopefully answer some of the challenges being faced by the Australian family farm and so by Australian agriculture.

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