WHAT is the point of an agricultural think tank conference on top level policy when most industry members are struggling to cope with unprecedented energy costs, shrinking rural communities and attracting skilled workers to increasingly technical roles?
Next week, the Australian Farm Institute’s (AFI) annual conference will be held in Sydney next week.
“We don’t really make it for all and sundry. Of course, all are welcome to attend, but it’s about strategic issues, not just what’s happening now,” AFI executive director Mick Keogh said.
“It’s a matter of tossing ideas around, hearing from people who have looked in detail at these issues and planting seeds of thought in decision makers - from business or government.
“Hopefully, the effect we have is like a pebble on a pond and creates ripples that have positive impacts.”
The public debate over energy is the prime example of AFI’s potential to impact change.
The effect we have is like a pebble on a pond and creates ripples that have positive impacts
“Media coverage can overlook drier, more complex topics, even when these issues are having the biggest negative impacts,” Mr Keogh said.
“In the energy debate I don’t think the the metropolitan media has made a mention of the regulatory situation’s impacts on regional customers like meat processors, who are really at risk of being caught out.”
Pioneering energy farmer, David Mailler, from Uralla in the NSW New England will take part in the conference’s session on energy.
He says Australian agriculture should develop its own energy and go “off the grid”.
Another interesting development which is likely to feature in discussion is a move from agricultural producers into “collective bargaining” for energy supply.
A group of Victorian companies applied to the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission as the Eastern Energy Buyers Group to run a joint tender processes for electricity, gas and gas transport. Members would pool their electricity and gas demands and place tenders in the market.
“Collective bargaining makes a huge deal of sense, because electricity supply is dominated by three players, so gaining more leverage is a sensible approach,” Mr Keogh said.
High prices risk pushing processing and other energy intensive ag facilities, which are significant regional employers, out of the bush.
“There is a risk that future decisions on locations of processing facilities will discount regional locations at the expense of more energy secure locations,” Mr Keogh said.
Intensive energy users, like dairy, citrus, other irrigators and processors suffer far more than broadacre agriculture, where power bills typically amount to 1pc to 2pc cent of total business costs.
Vast regional electricity networks, supported by a dwindling pool of customers, could be at risk of becoming uneconomic – especially as customers turn away from grid power toward renewable supply.
“There is a serious risk for agriculture in regional areas of stranded assets, with enormous implications for local employment.”
Employers such as processors migrating away from the bush would compound a well noted trend in agriculture, which is posing yet unanswered questions to workforce development.
The size of farm enterprises has grown, the number of farmers has shrunk and demand for skilled technicians is rising as automation and machinery replaces labour and farming practice becomes increasingly technical.
“There has a been a bit of a quiet revolution in agriculture, where for the first time ever the number of people employed in the farm sector over the past few years has exceeded the number of owner occupiers,” Mr Keogh said.
“There are brand new opportunities for skilled people to take part in the sector, but that change is something we need to think about. These people won’t just pop out of the woodwork.
“There has been a change in the nature of people needed in the sector. It’s not muscle and grunt anymore, but there are real opportunities for career development.”