New Feds boss has his work cut out

Can new president Bruce Wills convince Fed Farmers it is only part of the solution to bridging the rural urban divide and not the whole answer?

Federated Farmers has elected Hawke’s Bay sheep and beef farmer Bruce Wills as its new president.

The farmer lobby’s much-hyped four-way contest for the top job gained a lot of media attention. However, the newly-elected Wills will have more to worry about than nursing the bruised egos of the unsuccessful candidates – such as how to make the organisation much more relevant to wider New Zealand and how it fits into the big picture of representing and speaking for the rural sector.

This follows on from accountancy firm KPMG’s recent calls for urban dwellers to gain a better understanding of the rural sector. KPMG’s business advisory arm makes this recommendation – among a raft of other suggestions – in its recently released report on New Zealand’s primary industry Agribusiness Agenda 2011.

As pointed out in an earlier post, one only has to do a quick Google search of farming or agriculture news articles and you will quickly find that negative headlines and stories dominate. While many people

organisations within New Zealand ‘Inc’ realise and understand the importance of the agribusiness and rural sector to the economic well being of our country, many others – especially urban dwellers – do not.

Feds’ new president would do well to study KPMG’s report. It is based on interviews with more than 80 agribusiness leaders and says the rural/urban gap is a risk to the future development of the country.

The interviewees’ had numerous explanations for this disconnect including: an ethnically mixed urban population with little or no family link to farming; mainstream media focussing on negative issues about the agriculture sector such as animal welfare issues and water quality standards in dairy regions.

However, the report also points out that the agricultural sector must foot some of the blame for this divide. It says a lack of openness from the industry has led to urban dwellers to believe they are not getting the full story. This is a fair point; as is its suggestion that the onus must go on the rural sector itself to take on the job of educating and informing the rest of the population as to how the industry operates and the economic benefits it generates for the country.

Wills and his new Federated Farmers board won’t like the underlying assertion of Agribusiness Agenda 2011 – although not overtly spelled out in the report – that it’s time for a new, pan-sector rural lobby group.

New Zealand’s agribusiness sector currently has a wide and diverse group of organisations and lobby groups – including Federated Farmers. Yet despite the sector’s size, resources and undoubted importance to the country’s economic well-being, it is unable to speak as one, unified sector voice on matters.

This is because all the different, specific interests of the various bodies that make up NZ agribusiness and a lack of a recognised sector organisation that can speak on all of its behalf. Thus making it almost impossible for a clear, united and unambiguous agribusiness sector view and making it much easier for critics and opponents to pick on different areas.

Feds and its newly elected president might not like it, but there is considerable upside in having an independent, unified sector advocate organisation. It is time for the agribusiness sector to seriously look at forming such a body.

Bruce Wills will have his work cut out making Federated Farmers understand that the farmer lobby has a part – but only a part – in helping represent the agribusiness sector making it relevant to the wider population.