Meanwhile, down on the farm

Wednesday, 01 September 2021


    A new program designed by GrainGrowers Australia in collaboration with the AICD hopes to fashion future Australian farmers — and future- proof the agricultural sector.

    Whichever way you look at it, the face of farming is changing as the world moves on urgent issues of food security and climate change and Australia approaches what once seemed a stretch goal, set by the National Farmers Federation (NFF), to build the value of its agriculture sector from around $60b in 2019 to $100b in 2030.

    Powered by new digital technologies, a do-or-die bent for sustainability and global recognition of its clean, green produce that’s only heightened with the pandemic, Australian agribusiness now looks set to kick that goal. And this is despite coalescing challenges in the natural environment, international market access and volatile commodity prices.

    Australia has always been “the land of... droughts and flooding rains”, which puts Australian farmers at the forefront of feeling the impact of climate change, says David McKeon GAICD, CEO of peak body GrainGrowers Australia. Farming businesses are also contending with headwinds of the economic kind that can impact long-term business profitability.

    McKeon chooses his words carefully when describing successful farming operations. Cutting-edge. Exciting. Complex. Farming businesses depend on the same critical success factors as any company, he notes. Clear strategic direction, a strong understanding of risks and how to manage them, organisational skills and the ability to leverage their competitive advantage.

    “Over time the faces of the people driving commercial farming businesses are changing,” says McKeon, noting that there’s an increasing diversity of age, gender, business skills and experience coming on to family farms. “Many farmers these days have had previous careers, in agribusiness, agronomy or law, for example.” They are — or have the potential to be — thought leaders, influencers and agenda-setters.

    As workforces and leadership transform, many farmers hold the key skills for directorships to lead the industry’s next stage. But they are inherently time-poor, remotely located and, by necessity, focused on their own businesses. “They have not had the opportunities to build their confidence to stick their hands up for industry organisation boards or even commercial agribusiness boards,” says McKeon.

    David McKeon GAICD, CEO of peak body GrainGrowers Australia

    David McKeon GAICD, CEO of peak body GrainGrowers Australia

    Farmers on the board

    That looks set to change with a course that’s the first of its kind in agriculture, designed by GrainGrowers Australia to ready the new generation of farmers for board selection by sharpening their CVs, and honing hard and soft skills — including an understanding of directors’ responsibilities, governance and critical- analysis tools.

    The first cohort of eight participants now undertaking the OnBoard program runs counter to the stereotypical image of the Aussie farmer. With its five to three female/male gender split, participants are agronomists/economists, academic researchers, marketers, entrepreneurs and local government leaders.

    “We were overwhelmed by the number of quality applicants,” says McKeon, who anticipates the course will put “the right people with the right skills in the right places” to future-proof the grains industry and agriculture more broadly.

    The course is intended to give farmers on the ground the ability to directly influence the strategic directions of commercial operations, industry research and development, and help drive a government policy agenda conducive to ensuring farming businesses thrive. “It’s about enabling farmers to control their own destiny,” he says.

    Farmers use a lot of core director skills as part of running their day-to-day businesses, notes McKeon — the ability to assess strategy, understand and oversight organisational risk, ensure clarity of internal controls, manage complex financial arrangements and the finances of a business through a range of scenarios and circumstances. “Quite often, they haven’t had the training to hone those skills and put formal structures around how they operate.”

    The AICD’s Company Directors Course is a central component of OnBoard, which puts an emphasis on peer-to-peer learning. “Participants from a wide range of experiences and geographies, from all over Australia are coming together to form strong networks. Farming can be quite an individual and remote lifestyle, so the ability to connect with others and bring together their different perspectives is valuable,” says McKeon.

    And, undertaking the AICD course in their own states further extends participants’ exposure and experience by helping them build shared learnings with people outside the agriculture sector.

    Everybody wins

    McKeon believes some graduates will go on to future careers as directors in listed companies in other sectors. Just as agriculture has a pervasive relevance for everyone, the industry also provides food for thought and insights on the major challenges of our times.

    For example, as stewards of large tracts of the Australian landscape, farmers must think both sustainably and profitably as they continually evolve their practices.

    “They are at the coalface of sustainability challenges, so they have something important to bring to the industry and commercial boardrooms right across the country,” says McKeon.

    “They are at the coalface of sustainability challenges, so they have something important to bring to the industry and commercial boardrooms.” David Mckeon Gaicd, CEO Graingrowers Australia

    Likewise, on broader issues of industry and institutional trust, the importance of community trust in farming practices and food-production systems is top of mind. “How to exceed community expectations in the way we operate is discussed in the boardrooms of ASX companies and over the fenceposts between farms in the eastern wheat belt of Western Australia, for example,” he says.

    Market risk is another common issue. The grains industry is a net exporter, and ongoing access and premium positioning in international markets is of critical importance to Australian farmers who don’t have the same level of subsidies and support as many of their international counterparts.

    Issues such as the current case before the World Trade Organization on China’s high tariffs imposed on Australian barley, are discussed in ASX-listed boardrooms and have a direct impact at the farm gate. “Farmers make decisions every day around which crops to grow and tailor their production systems to meet international and domestic customers’ needs, and they are well-equipped to step up at a board level,” says McKeon.


    Technology is rapidly reshaping the agribusiness sector and unlocking significant opportunities for growth. CSIRO Futures lead economist Dr Katherine Wynn outlines some examples that will help drive growth in Australian agribusiness in coming years.

    Round-up time

    For producers in Australia’s $19b livestock industry, locating and monitoring the activity of livestock is a time-consuming and often costly matter. A number of products are emerging in the form of “smart” ear tags or neck bands. CSIRO worked with Ceres Tag developing next-generation tags to track and monitor livestock.

    Smart Paddock, a Victorian-based company is developing smart tags for livestock. The solar- powered “Bluebell” tags and collars provide real- time information to producers about the health, temperature, movement and behaviour, and can geo-locate animals in the herd. Biometric data is collected on the tag, which operates as an Internet of Things sensor, and data is analysed using cloud- based software. The system is being tested on 15 farms and properties with about 1200 cattle tagged.

    Know your boundaries

    Virtual fencing enables livestock to be confined or moved without using fixed fences. CSIRO’s patented virtual fencing technology uses neckbands with coordinates, wireless technologies and sensors to control the location of livestock without the need for actual fences.

    ePaddocks use satellite images and AI to produce the paddock boundaries based on vegetation signatures and land features.

    Traceability tech

    Responding to consumer demand for transparency, traceability and provenance technology will optimise supply chains, validate sourcing claims and minimise food loss. In terms of Australia being able to capitalise on the growth opportunities, this is an area that will see rapid potential in the next three to five years.

    One example is T-Provenance, an Adelaide- based agritech startup that worked with CSIRO’s Data61 blockchain specialists to develop tracking software to enhance traceability for Australian fresh produce exports.

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