YOUNG farmers are leading the charge to try and tap into the federal government’s new $5 million program aimed at strengthening agricultural leadership that’s oversubscribed by 500 per cent.
Money was put aside in this year’s federal budget for the initiative first announced by Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce in the Coalition’s agricultural policy, revealed during last year’s federal election campaign.
It’s understood a total of $25m worth of applications was received from various farming groups, when the government’s official deadline closed on May 17, to try and access the once-off funding bucket of $5m.
Grants available in the competitive bidding process can be used to fund activities like professional development, training courses, webinars or strategic planning.
From the outset, it was forecast the $5m would be hotly contested by a plethora of national farm groups looking to improve their representation powers, including the Cattle Council of Australia (CCA) which has undergone significant restructuring in recent years to try and establish a grass-roots membership base.
The National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) has also invested heavily to try and streamline its membership structure and re-brand over the past three to four years, to invoke a more unified and influential national voice to represent the agricultural sector - including enhanced online advocacy - but that process has stalled in recent times.
Membership of major commodity groups like horticulture and grains remains problematic for the NFF, while other state bodies like Tasmania and SA are currently excluded.
But Mr Joyce says the new $5m fund can support the sector by helping to ensure agricultural leaders and their organisations are equipped with the skills they need to fulfil regulatory responsibilities like consulting on the use of farmer-levy funds, supporting biosecurity responses and managing structural adjustment.
Future Farmers Network (FFN) Chair Dan Korff said it would now be interesting to see what comes out of the leadership fund.
Mr Korff said the FFN had applied for about $400,000 over the three years of the fund – with applications allowed a maximum $500,000 - to run a “modern, relevant” mentoring type program.
He said the program would start with a three or four day summit in Canberra involving 30 to 40 people representing various commodity sectors, where small groups of participants would be paired-up with a mentor for 12-14 months.
Another summit would also be held where the first group would be wound-up and replaced with other similar sized intake of participants to match with their mentors, he said.
“Two intakes of about 40 people really looking at developing networks linking the young people with older wiser heads with experience in the areas of expertise that the program participants are working on to build their confidence and experience and generate some really tangible leadership outcomes in the end,” he said.
“For example, a group of young producers could be paired with a minister or someone working in farm policy could be paired with a producer mentor to increase their knowledge of the issues.
“I really see it as being about crossing those barriers where there’s poor knowledge or lack of communication and understanding of the practical aspects of the agricultural industry, where that lack of knowledge could really cause damage and have unintended consequences.”
At the end of the FFN’s leadership program, Mr Korff said he’d like to see a really strong “cohort” of leaders developed who can communicate clearly to politicians, industry bodies and the general public about what they do and how and why they do it.
He said they could then help instigate “a bit of culture change about being proactive in how we talk about our industry and getting on the front foot”.
It’s understood Mr Joyce had originally flagged a large portion of the $5m could be used to resolve some of the cattle sector’s ongoing representative headaches but CCA missed the original deadline to apply for a grant before gaining an extension which saw a last minute application submitted, focussed on advancing its restructuring process.
While the NFF declined to formally comment, it’s understood an application has been submitted to advance its restructure and also to operate another program, managed through the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation, focussed on upskilling commodity leaders in specific areas like corporate governance and communications
In a recent opinion article, NFF CEO Tony Mahar recently said Australia’s $9 billion horticulture sector - which he described as fragmented and diverse - could benefit from more united efforts on international issues like biosecurity and domestic issues including industrial relations and labour hire.
“The actual number of representative groups in the horticulture sector is the subject of considerable debate but suffice to say it’s a busy space,” he said.
“There are at least 40 separate entities all seeking to represent and advocate on behalf of their respective growers.
“We are acutely aware of the need for a coordinated and single voice to progress the interests of Australian agriculture including the huge potential and possibilities available in the horticulture industry.
“Further to that we are even more aware of the risks of a fragmented and disjointed approach and what a negative impact this can have on policy and advocacy.”