Article – Online vision set to reignite NFF

2 April 2015
Colin Bettles
North Queensland Register
THE National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) unveiled cutting-edge plans to implement a world-leading online advocacy and policy development platform to federal politicians last week.
NFF chief executive officer Simon Talbot briefed the major political parties in Canberra about details of the ‘Listen to the Land’ project, which aims to unite Australia’s farm sector online and generate improved commercial opportunities.
Mr Talbot said ‘Listen to the Land’ was looking to connect 112,000 Australian farmers – just for starters – via slick, electronic communications.
The NFF is gathering six months’ worth of online data about various online interactions or conversations about the farm sector, to help guide the digital platform’s design.
Mr Talbot said the new online forum would give Australian agriculture the capacity to advocate effectively in a style similar to GetUp! and Animals Australia. But more importantly, he said, it would help ensure Australian farmers get to tell their own stories directly to the rest of the world and politicians, and take stronger ownership of their brand.
“NFF’s mission is to be the voice of agriculture but we can’t be the voice of agriculture if we’re not online,” he said.
“What we’ve actually found over recent years is that other people actually know how powerful the farmer brand is, but the farmers not using that brand; people are actually using it against us.
“We’re not strong online, but if you look at GetUp! they run a brilliant campaign and they’re about 675,000 members strong.
“Animals Australia is 800,000 members strong, but here we are at the NFF with our 35 member groups and our limited, if not ineffective, online presence.
“We’re going to build an online farmer platform where farmers can have communication and discussion with each other and debate policy development, which will be a first and what we should be doing,” he said.
“At the moment it’s no good developing policy which takes three to six to eight months.
“We want to be able to develop policy and road-check it in real time, which is what the rest of the world’s already doing.”
Digital infrastructure for farmers
Mr Talbot said another key to the project was developing an online “dashboard” which offered best practice farm management tools producers can use to improve on-farm practices.
He said by having access to best practice information like sales data, long-term climate forecasting, and pasture growth rates, the online dashboard could be used to help broker better interest rates and insurance rates for farmers.
Mr Talbot said the project was focused initially on recruiting young farmers, as they’re more likely to adopt the technology.
But it will also push for support, through the federal government’s Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper process, to generate digital infrastructure for farmers.
“This all feeds back to the party briefings which were about saying, ‘we don’t have a long-term vision for agriculture’ – but that vision should be about doubling Australian ag’s value by 2030,” he said.
“And we’ve done the numbers on it; it’s real. It’s what New Zealand’s doing; they’re going to double their ag value by 2025.
“They made the commitment in 2012 and they’re on their way to doing it. It’s not an elaborate formula – this is value not volume,” he said.
“We’ve seen commodity prices move now so people believe in that.
“But we’ll never be able to double ag’s value by 2030 if we don’t actually put the building blocks behind it and part of that is connecting farmers online and getting digital access across the country.”
Mr Talbot said federal politicians of all persuasions reacted positively to the NFF briefing last week, saying they found the plan “extremely refreshing” while exhibiting “a level of optimism from the farm sector that hasn’t occurred before”.
“Some of the feedback I had directly was: ‘It’s so nice seeing farmers identify a road-map for success rather than ask for a handout or a hand up’,” he said.
Strong voices of opposition
GetUp! was founded in 2005 and describes itself as an independent advocacy group run by a small office of staff, interns and volunteers in Sydney.
“The GetUp community has grown to include over 677,500 members who are not afraid to stand up and have their say about important progressive political issues, helping shape the direction of Australian politics,” its website says.
Animals Australia runs high profile online political and public awareness campaigns, networking “like-minded people”, including many that target farm sector practices.
The campaigns also collect public donations to support broad animal rights or welfare activities while connecting with similar groups, domestically and globally.
“We use this website (in conjunction with email) to centralise our communication, which enables us to respond immediately to campaign developments and also helps to keep costs down,” its website says.
“If you want to help us improve the lives of the millions of animals incarcerated in cruel factory farms across Australia, to help put an end to the indefensible live export trade, or to tell the powers that be that animals and their welfare matter – then we want to hear from you.”
Mr Talbot said the NFF’s online aspirations were not profits or to make “a power-grab”.
“If the NFF’s mission was to be the voice of agriculture, we’ve lost that by not being online,” he said.
“We look at the best practice of our peers and competitors online – and they’re dwarfing us and taking the farmer voice.
“We need to actually get ourselves online and start communicating back to the cities what farmers do, in a positive way; in terms of productivity, value adding, branding, vibrant lifestyles, rural communities, technology application in food production etc.”
Politicians were also briefed on the NFF’s restructure plans and final model, which may be finalised at its next members’ council meeting in June.
“We’ll have a unified central brand but will also have independent commodity autonomy and we believe it’s very similar to what some of the best practice overseas models are, such as the US, UK and NZ,” Mr Talbot said.
“It’s taken us 18 months to get there, but this is a journey we all have to embark on, otherwise we’ll lose our members and we’ll lose our voice.
“We’ve always said this is the golden age of Australian agriculture but we’ve got to be unified to execute it brilliantly.
“I think it was a bit of watershed week for us, to get the majority of our members aligning on a model and present that to a couple of caucuses and have them say ‘you’re on the right path’.
“So we’re unifying, getting a stronger voice and going online, which got a tick of approval.”
In January, the NFF appointed former Coles and AWB corporate affairs executive Rob Hadler to spearhead a four-member project management team at FTI Consulting to achieve an end result on restructuring national farm representation by June.
It followed up on a report by Newgate Communications released by the NFF last October which recommended adopting a “unified model” for national farm advocacy – with a key plank being to remove duplicative State structures and streamline available resources, to operate under a single brand.
Courtesy of the North Queensland Register