Nothing could have forecast the year that has been for our nation and the world. As I cast my mind back to January, the dire situation for the bush was surreal.
The grip of drought was unrelenting. It seemed unfathomable that towns like Stanthorpe and my home centre of Tamworth were on the cusp of completely running out of water.
And, then a bushfire season for the ages, with what will forever be known as our Black Summer. More than 100,000 sheep perished on Kangaroo Island alone. All up it's estimated that 1.25 billion animals were lost. Most tragically, a number of farmers lost their lives.
The compounding nature of the disasters felt biblical. In fact, a plague of locusts did rip through what was left of pastures in parts of western NSW and Queensland.
The NFF's goal for agriculture to notch up $100b in farmgate output by 2030 seemed perilously out of reach. Less than 12 months on, as we put an arguably record grain crop in the bin, in many places the landscape and agriculture's fortunes have been completely transformed. On my family's property, thick stubble indicates a plentiful harvest and cattle have their heads down in thick green pasture. The ecosystem is alive again - birds, insects and native plants are thriving. And, our rivers are flowing!
Although the bank balance will take a long time to recover for many, with farmers back to business the target of a $100b farm sector is again in reach.
Responding to the COVID challenge
But, all is not great for our nation as a whole. Agriculture has not been at the coalface of the crisis. Farmers have very much played a supporting role to fellow Australians, doing what they do best - growing food and fibre.
COVID-19 saw many Australians get back to basics with a focus on what really matters: family, financial security, health and wellbeing. In March, the NFF issued a public reminder that, thanks to our farmers, Australia is one of the most food secure nations in the world. Our #GotYourBack campaign, a call to reassure Australians and to deter panic buying, reached up to 6 million people and was supported by the Prime Minister.
At the start of the pandemic, the NFF and our members mobilised to ensure agriculture and the supply chain was deemed an 'essential service'. This classification guaranteed, subject to new protocols, that abattoirs, saleyards, shearing sheds, wool auctions and packing sheds could keep operating, and farm inputs and outputs could keep moving.
When border restrictions tightened, the NFF demanded from National Cabinet that common sense prevail. Reports of farmers told to transport sheep by plane and shearers being forced to re-route through capital city airports would have been laughable if they weren't so serious. The NFF led targeted advocacy to ensure city-centric bureaucracy didn't impede agriculture.
Getting Australia growing, again
During July, in a televised address to the National Press Club, I was pleased to launch the NFF's plan for agriculture to lead Australia's COVID-19 recovery. The Get Australia Growing plan draws on many policy and investment priorities the NFF has earmarked as needed to propel agriculture's growth to $100b by 2030.
The plan includes a focus on revitalising regions including a renaissance of bush-based food and fibre manufacturing. COVID-19 highlighted the risks of our reliance on goods produced overseas. There is a huge opportunity to bring food and fibre processing home and to bring jobs and people to our regions. Just this week, with the supportive coalition of leading industry bodies, the NFF launched a Regionalisation thought-leadership paper. It's designed to kickstart an agenda to ensure regional Australia is the engine room of jobs, economic and population growth, revitalising regions and alleviating the chronic overpopulation of big cities.
Supporting free and fair trade
Agriculture relies on international trade, with over 70pc of the food and fibre we produce going overseas. Recent trade disruptions highlight the need for Australia to reaffirm its commitment to free trade and a rules-based trading system. This system has served Australia well, and time-specific disruptions should not see us abandon the significant benefits the rules-based trading system has created.
To this end redoubling efforts for favourable food and fibre market access from free trade agreement negotiations with the EU and the UK and establishing and deepening trade ties with India and Indonesia should be paramount.
China accounts for 28pc of all agricultural exports. Disruptions to this trade have and will hurt Australian farmers, those working up and down the food and fibre supply chain, and our valued Chinese customers. Australian agriculture developed trade relationships with China that stretch back to the 1980s. The relationship has seen many instances of disruption and disagreement, but has endured and strengthened over time. The NFF supports dialogue that will ensure the Australia-China relationship will continue to develop in a positive way, based on mutual benefit and respect.
Live export win rights the wrongs
A highlight of 2020 was the finding in favour of the Brett Cattle Company and adjoining parties in the class action against the Commonwealth resulting from the then Labor government's shut-down of the live cattle trade to Indonesia in 2011. The landmark case was led by the Australian Farmers Fighting Fund. The Federal Government rightly decided not to appeal the case. We now wait for the determination of damages to qualifying parties.
The win goes a long way to righting the wrongs of 2011, that caused so much enduring pain in northern Australia. The case is a warning to government of the ramifications when proper process is not followed. Most of all, it is a stirring demonstration of the power the bush has when it unites for a common cause.
In its 41st year, in 2020 I was proud to preside over an NFF that continued to work hard to prosecute the national issues of most importance to farmers. These included ongoing efforts to ensure the Murray Darling Basin Plan delivers for agriculture, communities and the environment; agriculture's role in a reduced emissions-future; farm safety improvements; increased access to digital connectivity and a more strategic approach to farmers' levy contribution.
Navigating the challenges of travel restrictions, the NFF's Member's Council and Committees adapted to virtual meetings. The NFF's policy positions on which we advocate are the product of our committee and taskforce work, and are a credit to the men and women who contribute all year round.
The NFF is nothing but a sum of its members and in 2020 we have been pleased to grow the membership, including the expansion of the Horticulture Council. The council is made up of state farming organisations and horticulture peak bodies and has proved a valuable forum to tackle the pressing issues confronting the sector, none more so than the current workforce shortages.
This year we marked the third annual Diversity in Agriculture Leadership Program, an initiative to boost the number of women in the leadership ranks of our industry.
In 2020 the program was supported by 24 partners from public and private sectors. Members of the now 30-strong alumni have taken up high profile and high impact leadership roles. I'm also proud that for the first time in its history the NFF Board has equal gender representation.
Future focused, future ready
Having just embarked on my second and final three-year term as president, I challenge our industry to think about what the NFF structure needs to look like to be ready for a second impactful 40 years. The current model has served us well, but can it be improved? Can efficiencies be gained, and representation enhanced?
It's all part of positioning our farm sector to be the best it can be, to achieve $100b by 2030 and, once that's done, to set our sights even higher.
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