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Tony Burke: farmers are my advisers

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November 26, 2009

ON-FARM advice has been a key to making the right decisions for agriculture, says TONY BURKE

Sometimes the first decisions you make are the most important.

Two years after becoming Federal Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, it's been clear that everything which has followed was characterised by a decision I made on day one: to spend as much time as possible with people who work the land, on their land.

Every election promise and subsequent policy decision has been affected by the advice I've received on farm.

The peak bodies have played a critical role.

My department is an essential source of information.

But nothing matches the information provided when I visit the farm.

The most obvious example where the views of farmers led to clear changes in policy was Landcare.

Time and again I was told that people understood what we were trying to do but we had undervalued the role of local co-ordinators and small groups.

So we re-introduced Landcare co-ordinators and a small grants program so local groups could find some direct funding.

Much of the work in the initial months of our term dealt with the end of the monopoly for AWB on the export of wheat.

A young farmer put the argument to me most effectively as to why we needed to deliver on the election promise when he said: "Why can't I sell to whoever I want, after all, it's my wheat?"

But the need for an extra level of safeguards became clear when I met a wheat grower who'd driven some distance to meet with me at a friend's farm near Broken Hill.

He warned me there was a risk we'd simply replace the AWB monopoly with three regional monopolies at the ports through ABB, Graincorp and CBH unless we were very careful.

That conversation resulted in a clause in the legislation which demanded the bulk handlers at the ports engage in access undertakings with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in order to be able to export in their own name.

Plenty of early warnings came to me on farm, well before I had to deal directly with particular decisions.

In my very first farm visit as minister - which was to a cattle property in Roma with the Prime Minister - Peter Kenny from AgForce spoke to me about the way farmers could help with the carbon issues being discussed by improving the levels of soil carbon.

These same issues were raised with me by wheat growers a week later and by those in horticulture in Mildura the following month.

And now, of course, these ideas are part of the national, and international discussion on climate change.

No issue has been more striking on farm than the conversations I've had about drought policy.

Right from the beginning, farmers were taking me aside and saying, "nobody will tell you this Tony, but EC isn't working as well as people say".

Getting drought policy right remains unfinished business.

But the conversations with farmers remain absolutely front of mind as we try to find a better way forward. I believe each year we'll be better prepared for the future than we've ever been.

This story appeared in Weekly Times Now


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