Simon Smith, NT Farmers President
On behalf of the Board of NT farmers I am pleased to offer this end of year reflection on your organisation’s achievements for 2022 and our aims for 2023.
It has been another challenging year for farmers and farming across the Territory but one in which NT Farmers has once again had the back of all members. Whether it be labour availability, market access, biosecurity, advocacy, extension services or communication and networking, our passionate and dedicated staff, so ably led by CEO Paul Burke and Director of Projects and Regions Simone Cameron, have delivered.
Few of us entered 2022 knowing who Volodymyr Zelensky was and perhaps fewer the Greek letter Omicron. Yet they would shape our year; one by defending liberty and the other by liberating our urge to spend!
The resultant energy and supply chain pressures created a chaotic twelve months for farmers. Escalating fuel and fertiliser prices, rising interest rates, low unemployment and a surge in inflation that added cost of business and wages all put pressure on farmers. Albo replaced Scomo and Natasha replaced Michael but no one replaced the 200,000 pre-covid backpackers who helped pick and pack our crops! Yet somehow through this year of upheaval our resilient farmers have cobbled together harvest workforces and got crops to market. Many have had strong years and I hope all have at least broken even or better.
CEO Paul has outlined elsewhere in this newsletter the breadth of our achievements throughout 2022 including workforce assistance, the great extension and support work of our project officers and our successful Food Futures Roadshows to name a few.
There are several other initiatives I’d like to highlight.
With workforce solutions remaining front and centre for NT Farmers, our tireless Policy and Communication officer Iain Forrest helped co-ordinate a trade mission to Timor Leste in September. As participants in the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme, Timor Leste was the obvious choice for an NT specific pilot project aimed at a more flexible and tailored seasonal worker system. In essence we want the NT to become the destination of choice for the best farm workers from Timor-Leste.
To achieve this we are offering a package of two-way benefits including targeted and expanded pre-departure training, on-farm support in the NT to reduce absconding and attrition (eg organised social activities, connectivity to home, pastoral care) and up-skilling opportunities to benefit host employers but also improve farming productivity in Timor Leste (e.g financial and English literacy, machinery licenses, first aid, WHS, tailored hort/Ag courses).
Training will be offered on-line and will have the dual benefit of also provide gainful use of downtime for workers on our isolated farms. Similarly, we see flexible Visa arrangements and regular flights between Darwin and Dili as an opportunity for workers to have a few weeks break at home rather than being idle after busy periods or during production breaks.
Our proposal was extremely well received by the Timor Leste Government, including the Prime Minister, relevant Ministers, and departmental heads. At present we are in discussion with the office of the Minister for International Development and the Pacific (Hon. Pat Conroy) and the NT Government regarding funding. This is an ambitious three-year project but one that has the potential to provide serious long-term labour solutions for our members.
In a similar vein our proposed ‘Cultivating a Workforce’ initiative targets attracting Australian or visiting workers through a digital and social media marketing campaign. The proposal includes free tourist vouchers, subsidised or free training such as first aid, WHS, white card, machinery licenses as well as pastoral care needs like connectivity, social activities and ensuring appropriate accommodation, facilities and working conditions.
NT Farmers will continue to do whatever we can to bring workers to the NT in a very competitive labour market. However, at the end of the day, staff attraction, retention and productivity are the purview of business owners/managers and there needs to be an appreciation that whatever is offered by way of remuneration, conditions, accomodation care and respect needs to be stronger than ever before.
I am particularly proud of our RD&E survey. One hundred and four responses to a half hour survey of 30 questions was an outstanding achievement. A big thankyou to those who participated and particularly the staff and board members who encouraged and cajoled!
The data assembled provides unique insights into our industry around not just R&D priorities by sector, but importantly grower preferences of by whom and where research is done and by who and how they prefer extension services delivered. For example, growers overwhelmingly would prefer to see nutrition, irrigation and pest and disease trials on member’s working farms, new crop trials and biosecurity are strongly seen as the province of DITT while collaborative extension activities are preferred.
We now have an important tool to assist partners such as DITT, DEPWS, The Innovation Hub, CDU and the newly minted RINA, as well as funding bodies, with prioritising our needs over their wants! The Board’s RD&E sub-committee, which includes the aforementioned collaborators, will provide the forum for this co-ordination and inspiration.
Another beneficial outcome of the survey is that NT Farmers will now develop ‘shelf ready’ projects where clear sector or cross-sector priorities have been identified. These projects can then be pitched to collaborators rather than the usual waiting and hoping a funding opportunity presents. Several of these will be showcased at this year’s AGM.
Our other Board sub-committee, the Water Reference Group (WRG), has also been very active this year. While some aspects of its role are seen as a contentious, I would argue it is the most important of the Board’s initiatives.
Farmers are key stakeholders in the water space but we are only one among many. This NTFarmers facilitated ‘think tank’ (including NLC, Northern Cotton Growers Association, DITT, DEPWS, CentreFarm, AFANT, ECNT, RDANT, Territory NRM and others) gives us a unique opportunity to inform and be informed. Chair and board member Kate Peake (also CEO for RDANT) does a phenomenal job wrangling the disparate parties to achieve consensus on many key issues while accepting there will be fundamental ideological differences on others. There are strong personalities with strong viewpoints at these meetings however there is also a genuine intent by all participants to drive better planning and policy outcomes and through this, to the surprise of some no doubt, helping ensure farmers have guaranteed access to water for irrigation. To avoid muddying the waters, if you’ll excuse the terrible pun, the WRG does not speak for NT Farmers and therefore has made a separate submission to that of NT Farmers on The NT Strategic Water Plan.
Another Board priority for 2023 is to move our funding arrangements with both DITT and DEPWS to Service Level Agreements (SLA’s). The existing annual IDSP (Industry Development Support Payments), along with one-off grants and project funding, have been vital in the establishment of NT Farmers and have enabled our continued and expanded support for farmers and farming. However, your board believes SLA’s will better recognise the maturity and collaborative nature of our current relationships with key Government Departments as well as better acknowledging the ever increasing services NT Farmers delivers for the benefit of not just our industry but the Territory as a whole. While this has been a tough year for staff, growers and allied trades it has also been a demanding year for your Board. The requirement for strong governance, clear strategy- setting and the protection of our organisation’s reputation have increased commensurate with our rapid growth in influence and profile under our exceptional CEO Paul Burke.
There have been challenging subjects to tackle and strong conversations had within the board, and with the CEO, however they have always occurred with respect and objectivity and with the best interests of NT Farmers at their core.
I want to acknowledge the huge effort and support of your voluntary board who have somehow found time outside their day jobs to have the organisations back throughout the year; Paul Mclaughlin, Vin Lange, Andrew Dalglish, Andrew Colbeck, Bruce Connolly, Brett Gill, Jessie Jenkins and Gavin Scurr.
I also want to acknowledge the additional contribution of your Board’s executive members; Kate Peake, Frank Miller and Martina Matzner. Thank you for the many additional meetings, emails and phone calls.
As we look to 2023 two items loom large.
In January we begin the recruitment process for a new CEO to replace Paul whose contract expires on June 30. These are huge shoes to fill however we believe the strength, profile and culture of NT Farmers will attract some high-quality applicants. Paul assures me he won’t be going far and will be there to assist with the transition and to continue to mentor the many fantastic staff he has recruited.
In February the staff and Board, with input from members and key stakeholders, will develop a new five-year strategic plan. Setting the future blueprint is important at any stage but never more so than with an incoming CEO. Having member input will be a first for our organisation so I encourage all interested members to have your say when the time comes.
We couldn’t do what we do without the close and frank working relationships we enjoy with the leadership teams at DITT and DEPWS. Thank you to Luke Bowen, Phil Hausler and Lorraine Corowa at DITT and Jo Townsend and Amy Dysart at DEPWS. Thanks also to
Dr. Anne Walters and her team in Plant Biosecurity and Mohammad Sohail Mazhar and his team in Plant Industries for your truly farmer focussed collaboration throughout the year.
While we have faced challenges in the NT, our thoughts go out to those far less fortunate. In particular everyone impacted by flooding across much of Australia and those in war ravaged Ukraine. We hope 2023 brings better times.
Finally, to our members and friends thank you for our continuing support of NT Farmers and of each other. Enjoy the festive season like never before and on behalf of the Board I wish you all a safe and prosperous 2023.