The call of the farm speaks to so many

"Trough activated, Captain!"

“Trough activated, Captain!”

Alex was excited as he pulled on his boots this morning. He had full custodianship of the big Dolphin torch and lit our way through the paddock to open the gates in time for the cows.

With the gates open and the track diverted, Alex checked the operation of the trough, just as the sun’s glow lit the sky.

The Little Man is growing up with the call of the farm in his blood, something that makes him unusual for Australian kids these days, something that’s a real privilege.

He doesn’t realise it yet and I suspect many of the Year 8 students I met today don’t, either. Two DEPI experts and I were part of a panel drawn together to help inspire a new generation to follow their passions and keep learning all the way through life. A lofty aim that’s somewhat daunting, for it took two tragedies to find my way here.

During the questions that followed, one boy illuminated the elephant in the room: “Is it better to get a job you really like even if it pays badly or should you go for one that pays really well?”

For me the answer is clear. While Lynne Strong is undoubtedly correct when she writes that an adequate financial reward is key to seeing more young people return to agriculture, it’s not the only thing. Profits support a passion but rarely do they invoke one.


NFF Blueprint written with a thumbnail dipped in tar

The NFF Blueprint is finally here and it’s a great document. I’ve only dedicated half an hour of speed reading to the report but, really, the report is so well laid out, you don’t need much more time than that to get the gist of it.

There are just seven themes: Innovation, Research, Development and Extension; Competitiveness; Trade and Market Access; People; Agriculture in Society; Natural Resources and Transformational Issues.

It’s big picture stuff and so high-level that it could be accused of having about the same level of meaning as most corporate mission statements. For example, there are three goals set for Agriculture and Society:

“Build better community understanding of and trust in agriculture”

“Improve credibility, cooperation and goodwill, including with activist groups”

“Develop coordinated and proactive approaches to communication”

All three are rated as high priority. The matching strategies are equally as broad and after reading the report, I have little idea of who, what or how these will be achieved.

I don’t think that’s a bad thing. As the NFF says:

“The launch of the final Blueprint report is not be (sic) the end of the road for the Blueprint. The Blueprint document will provide a starting point for the discussion of the key issues and for collaborative action on those issues that are shared across the sector.”

“The NFF will work with key stakeholders across the Australian agriculture sector and government to host a series of forums scheduled for 2013 onwards, designed to drive the Blueprint forward. These forums will develop specific strategies, assign responsibilities, provide resources and set timelines for the next stage of the Blueprint – the legacy phase.”

As it stands, the Blueprint is just a rough map written with a thumbnail dipped in tar. The legacy phase will be telling: can the NFF harness enough energy to make sure that once the rubber hits the road, we gain traction and will it be able to steer the course? It’s in everyone’s interests to make sure it does.

I’m not a member of the NFF but this report signals that Australian agriculture may be developing just the leadership farmers so desperately seek. You’ve won a fan!

What does a real farmer look like? Something exciting!

Exciting news item number 1: The lame and denigrating Dev and Dale ads seem to have vanished. I await the Co-op’s next breathless announcement regarding its marketing with great anticipation!

Exciting news item number 2: The perfect antidote to Dev and Dale has been created by the Brits. Reality show, Farmers Apprentice, follows 10 people (selected from 600 applicants) as they slug through a five-day bootcamp in a quest to win 10,000 Pounds.

Something like this can be done here in Australia. It’s a wonderful way to show people from all walks of life that farming is neither “McLeod’s Daughters”, “4 Corners” or “Dev and Dale”. It’ll build bridges, inspire new careers and provide an enormous morale boost to crusty types like me.

PS: This is me bathed in glory just the other day.

I declare this!

I declare this trough…open!

It only took five minutes to install the valve and float but this was the final step in opening up a new paddock that took 18 months to complete. For me, this is what real farming excitement is all about – the thrill of pulling off a big project.

The farmer’s wife

A really disturbing media story about a male-only farm succession plan set Twitter alight today. It’s so incredible I’ve been wondering if it’s a hoax but, then, maybe not. There are some pretty strange characters in any corner of society, so I guess it is possible there is a deluded beef farmer out there who thinks he’s a sheik.

Most of the comment on Twitter has been expressions of disbelief, which is reassuring, but quite a few people have drawn parallels with their own upbringings and perhaps I should not be surprised at all. In fact, Australian family farms are generally passed on from father to son.

While there’s a dearth of research on the topic, a 1996 University of New England study on farm inheritance found:

“Farmers approach succession within a distinct rural ideology where farming is seen as man’s vocation, with great value placed on self-reliance, independence and hard work. Central to this ideology is the concept of patriarchy whereby women are inherently viewed as dependents, being either the wife or daughter of a farmer (Poiner 1990, 33-52). Marriage has been the usual point of entry into farming for women. Although daughters are often required to participate in the work routine on farms, they are not often encouraged to think beyond the possibility of marrying a farmer, and to consider farming as a career (Nalson and Craig 1987). Patriarchy also entails the exclusion of daughters from inheritance of land (Voyce 1994).”

“The majority of respondents entered farming with some form of assistance from their parents (or the parents of their spouse). This usually involved parents bringing the respondent into the existing farm business or parents leaving land to respondents, or helping them to purchase land. We found that daughters are not, as a rule, involved in farm businesses. The proportion of families where daughters are working on the farm, are partners in the farm business or share in the ownership of land is less than ten per cent. We also found that sons are more likely to inherit land from their parents, and be helped by their parents to enter farming, than are daughters. This has the potential to cause ill feeling. As one respondent wrote:

“‘My parents are giving their farm to my oldest brother to maintain it as a viable business. This effectively disinherits me and my sister and other brother. This is not fair, but my father wants to keep the farm intact and in the family. There is very little by way of compensation. This is a common scenario in the rural community.’

“Of course, interest and commitment to farming varies among women. Some embrace the opportunity to farm with great enthusiasm and play an active role in the family enterprise. Others reject the notion of farming as a career. These women may continue with a career outside farming or confine their activities as far as possible to those equivalent to an urban woman in unpaid domestic work (Nalson and Craig 1987). Whether women are free to exercise their choice between these alternatives is debatable.”

I’d like to think that we have come a long way in the 16 years since this research was conducted but I’m certain we still have a long way to go. The local dairy expo still advertises a “Women’s Pavilion” full of crafts and preserves (well away from the machinery displays). Our own milk co-op thinks it’s funny to portray women on farms as fluffy accessories. Major banks publish ads trumpeting that even the farmer’s wife has a say in the business.

Perhaps these are examples of out-of-touch advertisers playing on dated stereotypes. Perhaps it reflects current reality. Either way, isn’t it time we told them we’ve had enough?

Cranky questions for the NFF about Woolies and the Blueprint

The NFF has “welcomed a new major partner in the Blueprint for Australian Agriculture: Woolworths”. Yes, one of the two giant supermarket chains that has slashed the value of milk to less than that of water is now helping to chart our farmers’ futures. My future, my children’s futures.

"It’s a matter of funding..."

In a media release, NFF president Jock Laurie said: “Having Woolworths on board will ensure that what consumers believe are the key issues for Australia’s food producers are captured in the Blueprint”. I felt betrayed. After the red mist settled, I wrote a list of six cranky questions and called the NFF. Admirably, the NFF’s Ruth Redfern has responded.

Would love to hear what you think! You can also participate in the Blueprint at

1. How do you anticipate farmer reactions will be to Woolworths’ involvement as a “major partner” in the Blueprint for Australian Agriculture?
We hope that farmers see Woolworths’ involvement in the Blueprint as positive. From our perspective, having Woolworths on board as a partner means that we can reach more farmers and more people in the supply chain with what we believe is a very important project.

Importantly, being a partner in the Blueprint does not mean that Woolworths has any more input into the outcome than any other single participant in the process. They have the same amount of input and the same opportunity to contribute as you do – so if you’re a farmer or anyone else with an interest in, or involvement with agriculture, and you haven’t attended a Blueprint forum or completed the online survey yet, please do so – as the more input we get, the stronger the outcome will be for our sector.

2. What is the rationale for such high-level involvement of Woolworths?

Having Woolworths (and Westpac, our other major partner) on board will allow us to take the Blueprint to as many people as possible. It’s a matter of funding – running a project like the Blueprint requires money, and as the NFF is a not for profit organisation, we couldn’t do this without support. By sponsoring the Blueprint, Woolworths and Westpac are actually putting money back into agriculture by supporting a project that will help us achieve a strong and sustainable future.

The important thing is that the agricultural sector makes the most of this opportunity. Blueprint is about giving everyone that has an interest in agriculture the opportunity to say what they believe the sector should look like in the future, and what we need to change or do now to get there. If you don’t contribute, you’re missing the chance to say what you think our future should be, or to raise the issue/s that are of most importance to you and/or your business.

3. Has Coles been invited to participate and, if so, what has been its response?

Earlier this month, we posted letters about the Blueprint to 500 organisations and businesses in the agricultural sector – including Coles as they are part of the agricultural supply chain, and all the banks that work with agricultural customers – encouraging them to participate in the Blueprint and to pass information on to their staff, customers, suppliers and networks.

At this stage we haven’t heard back from Coles, but we do hope that they participate – just as we hope that all other people and organisations in agriculture and the supply chain participate. If they do chose to take part, they will have an opportunity to contribute that is equal to every other participant – be it a farmer, the owner of an agricultural supply business, a truck driver, a food manufacturer, or a retailer, like Woolworths.

4. Aren’t we already painfully aware of the demands supermarkets place on suppliers?

The Blueprint provides an opportunity for suppliers to raise these, and any other issues they see as critical for agriculture to overcome.

5. Why should a supermarket have such an important role in setting the agenda for Australian agriculture when so much of our produce is exported?

There are two important things to take into account here. The first is that Woolworths will have no more input into the Blueprint than any other single person, business or organisation that chooses to attend a forum or complete a survey. They are simply helping us make the Blueprint a reality. Setting the agenda belongs to everyone who takes part – so the more input we receive, the more representative and inclusive the outcome. It’s up to us, as an agricultural industry, to set our own agenda – that’s really what Blueprint is all about.

The second is that while 60 percent of our produce is exported, 40 percent of what our farmers grow is consumed domestically – so both the export and non-export supply chains are important stakeholders in the Blueprint process.

6. The two supermarket chains control 40% of Australia’s retail sales and are in the midst of a price war. How can Aus ag resist the push for lower and lower prices?

Having a strong and competitive retail sector is very important – for suppliers and for consumers. Ensuring farmers receive competitive prices for their produce – be it those farmers who are supplying their produce to supermarkets or those farmers who are shipping bulk commodities off-shore – is expected to emerge as one of the key issues in the Blueprint process.

How to get into social media without it taking over your life

I’ve been talking to lots of farmers in preparation for the free social media workshop I’m running at the Australian Dairy Conference on February 24 and three things seem to hold them back from getting into blogging or Twitter:

  • I don’t have time or want to make that kind of commitment
  • I don’t know where to start/not good with computers
  • I don’t want to “put myself out there”

They’re three really good reasons not to jump in the deep end and write a blog but there are two much easier ways to participate in online discussions.

1. Get a Twitter account, upload a profile and start making tweets and contacts
2. Comment on other blogs

Facebook is also very popular (especially with young people) but I’d recommend dabblers leave that until later if it appeals.

How to make use of Twitter

Victorian dairy farmer and UDV Vice President, Ron Paynter, recently wrote of his experiences with Twitter on dairy forum Udderly Fantastic and allowed me to use this excerpt:

“I’d heard of Twitter, and despised the concept of people slavishly following the every banal scrap of information from some air headed celebrity who only survives off the oxygen that being continually noticed gives them. Honestly, who cares what Kim Kardashthingy had for breakfast. I had recognised that during emergencies like the Qld floods, Twitter had played a part in keeping people informed, then later in the year, we had that powerful image of a massive social movement, co-ordinated through Twitter being instrumental in the Egyptian Government change.

Still, despite these clues about the potential of the ‘tweet’, I was a non-believer. Didn’t need it! No time to set up an account or learn a new way of communicating. Besides, what can you say that is at all useful in less than 140 characters?

“What changed was a ‘call to arms’ from some people already involved in Twitter. On a Tuesday night, between 8 and 10 pm, there was going to be a ‘Twitter Forum’ on issues around animal welfare in our industry. We needed people, real farmers, on Twitter to put our case forward and not allow the discussion to be hijacked by activists or the uninformed. So, @payntacow was born and @payntacow, along with several other new conscripts joined in on #agchatoz, the discussion forum location to see what transpired.

There was no abuse, no searing accusations, no threats of coming around and giving you a fat lip . The discussion, formed around six or seven key moderated questions, was sensible and civil and the activists were notable in their absence. The people who were there were interested, some had opinions, some were happy to lurk and learn, but all were supportive and looking for information or genuine debate. I was so impressed by the thoughtful fellow twitterers I met, that I went back to the #agchatoz forum the next week, and have kept on coming back.

Access to a smartphone or tablet like an iPad makes tweeting as easy as checking your watch. Twitter people who I am following include dairy identities such as Milkmaidmarian, Graeme Nicoll, Esther Price and Lynne Strong. Twitter lets you expand the source of ideas well outside your local area though. I’m following an ag teacher in QLD who is passionate about agriculture, a dairyman in Arizona, and a vegan activist in the US. Each day, there are new people or groups to follow if you think they may have something of merit to listen to, and each day, I pick up followers who want to listen to my views. It’s a really  interesting ongoing conversation that you can pick up on whenever you have a spare minute and phone handy.

“So, I’ve fessed up. I am a twitterer. And I was wrong about tweeting as being shallow and not interesting. What Twitter provides is a rapid way of sharing ideas and information, and the chance to have a real dialogue about the ideas, albeit in 140 character chunks.

I really believe that as an industry, we need to be involved in the discussions. I’d encourage anyone who can try Twitter to give it a go.”

Twitter’s limit of 140 characters is its strength. It’s easy to contribute in short bursts of time and you can still make more complex points by using it as a signpost to other information. In fact, Twitter is the number one way people find my blog.
Comment on other blogs
Commenting on other people’s blogs is a fantastic way to dip your toe in the water of social media without committing. It takes as much or as little time as you like and you can add valuable new information or perspectives right where the discussion is already happening.
Just a few words of advice:
• Of course, be polite, thoughtful and add to the discussion
• Save your energy for forums where people are genuinely interested in different points of view (I tried reasoning with activists and learnt my lesson the hard way).
Anyone is free to attend my workshop, Blogging and Twitter Made Simple, (even if you’re not registered for the conference) on February 24 at Ellinbank. We’ll get you up and running online whether you want to dip your toe in the water or jump in at the deep end!

Why good news in the budget for scientists is good news for dairy farmers

Much to my relief, the word is that the federal budget has not cut spending on agricultural research and development. Yes, ag R&D funding has been steadily eroded and needs to be restored but I was almost certain it would be slashed. Earlier this year, a review of the Rural Research and Development Corporation by the Productivity Commission flagged a dramatic reduction in funding for agricultural research.

Why do I care? Because we need to farm smarter all the time in order to make a living. The farm I run now bears almost no resemblance to the farm of my childhood 30 years ago. It’s the same 500 acres but we milk 50 per cent more cows and each produces around 55 per cent more milk than her ancestor did in the 1980s: a huge leap in productivity.

Although these numbers are impressive, we are far from exceptional. According to Dairy Australia, Victoria’s raw milk production peaked in 2001-02 at 7.4 billion litres – more than double the 3 billion litres produced in 1980-81. Yield per cow also increased from 3,012 litres in 1979-1980 to 5,864 litres in 2008/09.

We achieved these gains scientifically. Thanks to Target 10 and Feeding Pastures for Profit, we make much more effective use of our pastures, while programs like “Fertilizing dairy pastures” showed us how to grow more grass with the efficient use of valuable nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen.

Today, we are learning how to cope with new challenges brought by climate change: how to keep cows cool, new more drought-resistant pastures and declining fertility.

We must also be realistic about the rise of new competitors. Developing countries including China, Mexico and the Middle East are buying record numbers of Australia’s breeding stock in an attempt to fast-track the growth of fledgling dairy industries. India is also racing to become a dairy giant.

Australian dairy farmers do not enjoy the support lavished on our northern competitors. We can compete only because we are low-cost producers.

Although declining terms of trade mean we aren’t any richer than my father was, we are still on the land – thanks to government and farmer investment in agricultural R&D.