National Farmers' Federation President Brent Finlay.
National Farmers' Federation President Brent Finlay. Contributed

Ten questions on the future of Australian agriculture

National Farmer's Federation President Brent Finlay answers ten questions facing Australian agriculture, covering why it's so important Australia's markets have sweet palates, why Indonesia still offers so much promise and the importance of investing in "the one thing that can kill a farmers' business overnight".

 

What are the three biggest issues for Australian farmers at the moment?

The biggest issue is actually converting the opportunity we have on the back of three cracking trade agreements with South Korea, Japan and China.

Turning that wonderful opportunity that's there now into dollars inside farmgate and the supply chain has to be profitable.

Two is having the infrastructure to move our product from inside farmgate to our customer whether they are domestic or international.

Three is connectivity.

To be able to access phone services, internet services.

Australian agriculture is modernising very quickly but we need a signal, we need a service that works across as much of this big country as we can.

How can farmers stay viable in the face of continuing electricity price hikes?

It's a huge cost particularly for irrigation but also those who use a lot of energy in their production system.

As always farmers are looking at their costs, where their cost cells are, trying to reduce costs as much as they can.

It's also where they can look at alternate energy sources.

You've always got to be reviewing your production system.

Is it going to be viable to be going it in five to ten years?

We may have to change what we do, we don't want to change, but maybe if it becomes too expensive we may have to do something else.

I don't see energy prices coming down in the near future.

Do you think current cattle prices will hold much longer?

We know that we're at record levels, we've just come back off the top of record levels, we know the cyclical nature of agriculture, we know things never stay up forever.

I think it's wonderful for producers of cattle that are seeing some of these returns, I'm also very mindful of the fact there are people out there who have no cattle to sell and that is an absolute tragedy.

And they may have sold them at very low prices.

We're seeing cattle prices come down around the world.

And they're certainly going to come under pressure.

We've heard about all the opportunity China has to offer. But do you believe there are any other emerging markets Australian producers should be looking to?

I certainly do.

At the NFF we are very excited about a free trade agreement being worked on and developed with Indonesia.

We've talked about Indonesia a lot over the last three years.

A first class FTA with Indonesia would mean so much to Australian agriculture.

They're already our biggest customers for sugar.

They're big customers for grain, they're big customers for live cattle and we're also putting boxed beef in there.

I know the dairy industry is very interested in Indonesia as well.

Do you think the tax on sugar in the UK will effect cane farmers in Australia?

I heard the media last week around the tax on sugar and I think people have got to undertand there's always hype around some product at some time.

You've got to look at the science, you've got to look at the facts behind these things.

We obviously have a huge developing population through Asia and in Asia they do have a sweet palate.

So hopefully if there's any loss in some of these old traditional markets, they're picked up in new markets.

Do we need to be investing more money in biosecurity?

Absolutely.

For Australian agriculture, but more so for Queensland agriculture because Queensland's the front line.

I'm absolutely passionate about biosecurity.

We've got on farm biosecurity, regional biosecurity, state biosecurity, national biosecurity, you can never have enough money invested in it.

When I was president of AgForce six out of the nine incursions were in Queensland.

And I sat on the state biosecurity committee that had briefings weekly about what was going in.

Biosecurity is probably the one issue that can destroy your business overnight as a farmer.

It can affect any industry, but it is one of the few things when you sit down and work out what can destroy your farming business and that's biosecurity.

Is there any concern about the amount of hobby farms springing up in some areas and that land not being used efficiently?

Not really for me, I mean we live in a democracy, people have a right to do what they do when they want to buy land.

I think it's important hobby farmers respect that there may be commercial farmers around them and then not seek to impose a whole range of conditions on those commercial production systems.

We have to be very wary of that.

We also need to just monitor land use and how our land is being used because it's actually the most precious recourse that we have in food production.

And we have nine billion potentially on this planet by 2050 so food producing is a critical, critical land use.

How much of a priority is research and development to your organisation?

Yes we talk about it all the time.

There's research, development and then there's, even more importantly now, is around extension.

There's a lot of R&D sitting on shelves that hasn't been picked up by industry, adapted by industry, used by industry.

Part of it is commercialisation but the research is there and getting that reseach out, having farmers, graziers, pasturoals, look at the research and use that into their production systems.

We're not utilising what's been done.

But we need new research as well.

And our R&D system, it's the envy of a lot of the world.

Certainly it always needs tweaking and it needs scrutiny but ours is world-class.

You've got to have the farmer actually want to reach out and use the research but they've also got to know what that research is.

How should we be looking at overcoming issues of water security into the future?

Well there's water security and water usage.

One is that it's interesting the five biggest rivers in Australia on flow rates are all in the Gulf of Carpentaria and at the moment we have a drought in the bottom half of the Murray Darling Basin.

And we're having a lot of irrigators with none or very little allocation.

Australia is a dry continent, we always know that.

I guess it's around efficient water use.

We've had wastage through open channels in some regions.

But then energy costs come into this, we can't afford to waste a drop, I know that's a common catch cry.

But like anything we've got to use it as efficiently as we can, it's a precious resource.

But we also need to be able to continue to develop new farming land where there is water.

What's the best way going forward to look after the interests of agriculture and the environment?

It's science.

Science is important and I think there's a lot of confusion.

It's very easy to get caught up in emotive debates.

It's really important to understand what's doing what, what the cause is, is the cause man-made?

Now everybody loves the reef, everyone respects the reef but agriculture is very important.

There's got to be a balance here and it's not about putting people in different corners.

We need more discussion between environmentalists and Australian agriculture but we need the science.

And not their science versus farmer science, we need to be able to find that common ground.

That's so important because the reef catchments are very important agricultural production regions.



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