Pictured L–R:   Executive Director Richard Heath with researchers Teresa Fox and Samuel Admassu.

Looking back, moving forward

Richard Heath

The AFI celebrates a milestone this year, with 2019 marking the 15th year of operation for the Institute. In that time, the Institute has addressed a broad range of contentious issues such as carbon trading policy, advocacy and agricultural representation, and water policy. It has also been at the forefront of investigating the implications of new impacts on the agricultural sector such as innovation and technology and social licence. The recognition of new issues and the way that they develop is important if the AFI is to remain relevant.

Like all organisations, the Institute must evolve and adapt to suit the needs of its stakeholders. For example, when the AFI was established it was considered that public policy which impacts on agriculture sat squarely in the domain of government. This has shifted, and private investment in RD&E and the influence of venture capital and other fund investment in agriculture is now much more significant. While private investment is obviously not directly subject to public policy, there is still the need to promote ideas and strategies that increase the likelihood of that investment being deployed in the most advantageous way for both the investor and Australian agriculture.

The recent Accelerating Precision to Decision Agriculture project is a good example of the intersection between the imperative for public policy development and the parallel desire from private investors to have clear direction and signals for how the industry is going to engage with digital agriculture. With these changes in mind, the AFI is undertaking some strategic initiatives this year to improve the organisation’s ability to meet the objective of “enhancing the economic and social wellbeing of farmers and the agricultural sector in Australia by conducting highly credible public policy research and promoting the outcomes to policy-makers and the wider community”.

Research

Selecting the appropriate research to carry out is obviously a critical factor for the Institute remaining relevant to its stakeholders. The current process for determining research priorities each year involves an annual workshop held in February at which the Research Advisory Committee (RAC), invited corporate members and the Board discuss policy gaps that are appropriate for the AFI to focus on. Three or four projects are developed through that process and (if funded) become the work program for the Institute for the following year.

While this process has served the Institute and its stakeholders well, in 2019 we will transition to an agile research priority setting process (rather than annual). AFI members will be invited to submit priority areas on a continual basis through an online portal and through direct communication. These priorities (along with those contributed by the RAC) will then be discussed by the RAC on a quarterly basis by webinar and developed into appropriate responses.

In addition, we will establish a network of farm/rural-based research fellows that the Institute can call upon to assist in compiling research and commentary. The research fellow network will continue to ensure that AFI outputs always have practical farm business implications of agricultural policy as a core focus of its work. The AFI is keen to leverage the tremendous analytical capacity that exists throughout Australia in farm businesses and local communities and capture that knowledge to inform policy research.

Events

AFI has held an annual Agriculture Roundtable Conference each year since its inception in 2004. These Roundtables have proven invaluable as opportunities to flesh out topical policy issues and remain a core element of AFI’s schedule. In the past this event has been held at year’s end in different cities. However, last year we staged the Roundtable in Canberra in October in order to coincide with a series of related events, including the National Farmers’ Federation Congress, the Farmer of the Year and Rural Women’s Awards, and the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation Gala. This strategy (to enable attendance and improve links between event themes and discussions) proved very successful and we aim to continue this in 2019. Another advantage of taking the Roundtable to the nation's capital was the opportunity to bring farm policy discussions to the policy-makers.

Our mid-year conference, to be held in Brisbane on June 26–27, will canvass the impacts of farming in an increasingly risky climate. This topic will build on findings from research recently completed on Risk management in Australian agriculture as well as research currently underway on the need for a national climate change strategy. The conference topics will not just be confined to the direct impact of climate on farming practice but will explore many of the indirect but equally significant ways that climate change is impacting on farm business risk. Issues such as impact on investment in the agricultural sector and consumer trust in agriculture, informed by perceived attitudes towards climate, will be explored at the conference.

Publications

The Farm Policy Journal and Farm Institute Insights newsletter remain cornerstones of AFI’s extension activities. In 2019 you will notice both publications have enjoyed a facelift, with a cleaner layout and refreshed visual style. We will increasingly encourage and enable members to access these publications digitally, although hard copies will still be available.

Staff

As you would be aware, in May last year AFI founding Executive Director Mick Keogh left the Institute to take up a position as a Deputy Chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. Our current team - of myself as Executive Director, Katie McRobert as General Manager, Tracey Bligh as Administration Officer, Sally Beech as Designer and Editor, and Kate Trotter as Events Officer - includes a few new faces in Research. Lucy Darragh left late in 2018 to join Grain Growers as a Policy Officer, and Anne Laurie has recently taken a graduate position with NAB. We wish Anne and Lucy all the best and thank them for their work on our recent projects, and welcome to the team Samuel Admassu and Teresa Fox. You can read more about Samuel in our profile feature in this edition, and on Teresa in our May edition.

Future

Australian agriculture is an exciting innovative industry with enormous further potential. Policy challenges and impediments should not be allowed to restrict that potential, and so the work of AFI continues to be important. In a world where truth decay is unfortunately prevalent, the Institute’s sole purpose is to provide unbiased, evidence-based, factual information to assist those advocating on behalf of the sector. We are excited about the changes we will be making this year which we believe will ensure that the AFI remains relevant, useful and valued.