THE shift to a user-pays model for farm advisory services has progressed faster than expected, with both private consultants and commercial businesses filling the void left by the harsh cuts to State government extension services.
While most of the former NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) officers who have set up their own businesses across the State in the past two years say one-on-one work with farmers isn’t supporting them, they are confident of growing demand.
Consultants say as word spreads about the payback in relation to costs, the monumental change in mindset about paying for a service traditionally supplied by the public sector was occurring quickly, fuelled also by competitive fees given the relative strong supply of expertise.
Rural supply store networks also appear to have ramped up investment in field personnel, no doubt on the back of what they see as an opportunity to build customer loyalty by meeting a gap in producer requirements for technical support.
However, there is still some concern about the longer-term sustainability of the independent private agriculture consultancy game, with industry leaders saying a good deal of expertise has been lost due to the DPI slashing investment.
One hiccup has been in some cases those with the best expertise haven’t had the skills to sell themselves, so private business hasn’t worked for them, according to NSW Farmers’ Ian Hendry, Bathurst.
He said farmers needed up-to-date knowledge, ongoing trial and research data, and professional direction to remain viable in a world where profit margins were so slim.
“Where ex-DPI officers have gone into private business, the result has been fantastic and progressive farmers have made very good use of their services,” Mr Hendry said.
“But there are gaps – geographically, economically, industry-wise and in areas like research and trial work.
“We need to be acting now to ensure farmers are adequately serviced in the future.”
Mr Hendry said commercial businesses had taken up some slack and while they played a valuable role, there was a need to ensure ongoing, independent advisory services.
“The hope is eventually the Local Land Services will catch up to a greater extent but we are still a long way from that,” he said.
“There are big concerns that career pathways no longer exist, that once these people whose training and career progressed through the public sector, retire the numbers won’t be there to replace them.
“Universities are telling us there is a downturn in agriculture training.
“The agriculture consultant needs to be an attractive career – we have to make that happen in a way that can be sustained.”
Frontrunner to the private consultancy game, NSW beef advisor Bill Hoff-man, said there was always a segment of the farming community that saw value in paying for one-on-one strategic advice.
Mr Hoffman, who has 40 years’ experience in the beef industry and runs his own enterprise near Casino in northern NSW, left the DPI in 2010 to set up Hoffman Beef Consulting.
He provides advice to a range of beef producers interested in improving their productivity and profitability, industry groups and government agencies.
“There is a subtle difference between the service expected when there is a fee and that provided by the public sector,” he said.
While some farmers had fallen through a gap – those who were unwilling to contribute in any form towards advisory services – Mr Hoffman said the private sector, via consultants and larger agribusiness, was meeting demand.
“The mindset now is that this is the model of the future for farm advisory services,” he said.
“There are commercial businesses with extremely professional people advising clients and while that role has been provided for many years, it has certainly been stepped up in the past 12 to 18 months.”
Business seemed to be strongest for the cropping sector, with former Cooma DPI livestock officer sheep, Doug Alcock, who now runs Graz Prophet Consulting, saying the longer payback period had held back the grazing industry.
The small size of a lot of grazing enterprises for whom investment in advice was a significant cost had also had an effect, he said.
Norco Rural reaching out for the future
PROGRESSIVE northern NSW dairy co-operative Norco’s rural agribusiness division, Norco Rural, has always had a strong farmer technical support focus but the past year has seen additional investment in agronomic and field officer positions.
New Norco Rural animal production field services officer Bruce Lyle said the co-operative wanted to be on the front foot in forming relationships with producers and providing the sort of advice and cutting-edge information and knowledge they needed.
Norco Rural this year has run field days, producer information sessions and forums on everything from seasonal management strategies to the latest in herd reproductive science that have attracted hundreds of producers.
“It’s about solving problems with the producer and it’s the future of doing business in rural supply,” said Mr Lyle.
Norco Rural is going from strength to strength, with 30 retail outlets from Bundaberg in Queensland to Newcastle, with three additional stores added in the past year.