Date of publication: 11 April 2019
In Australia today, around one third of commercial farmers are members of their state farming organisations. Benchmarked against public sector unions recording a 38% membership, and private sector unions which record only around 10%, this is not bad. But even today with our strong and loyal members, WAFarmers is down to just 1250 members and six staff which means the critical mass to shape ever more complex policy issues and advocate for industry is fading fast.
But we are not alone. In an Essential Report from 2017 by Creating Communities, members of the public were asked about their past and present membership of organisations, to get a read on the decline of participation. Across the board there is a constant theme of down, down, down – from private sector union membership down from 31% to 10%, industry associations down from 9% to 6%, political parties down from 6% to 2%, local community groups from 10% to 5%, churches 17% to 12%, and voluntary help groups 21% to 14%. Everywhere you look membership organisations are in decline, and even environmental groups are down from 7% to 4%.
When asked why participants were not more involved in their community, the number one reason was apathy. People lack both the interest and the time to join voluntary associations and they are even less interested in joining political organisations.
Whether it’s due to globalism, technology, information overload, or our time-poor lives, we are increasingly less likely to give up our leisure hours to go to meetings or community events. But at the same time, we expect others to engage politically to drive governments to fix our problems and make things happen.
In fact, we get the impression when we turn on our phones and look at the tweets, social media updates and emails, that someone else is in fact, flat out engaging on all things political, lobbying hard to keep live exports alive, fuel rebates flowing and the Main Roads Heavy Vehicle Compliance unit busy at their desks.
From a rural perspective, who needs to give up time to go to a farm organisation zone meeting in town, when we can simply tap out 280 characters of advice without having to wait endlessly and respectfully for the old guard to tell us at great length about the good old days. A simple tweet can put our views directly to the relevant Minister.
The facts are that social networks now provide easy and convenient ways for farmers to not only share their views but access a proliferation of content, insights and information that in days gone by were only available by driving into town and sitting through a meeting.
As a result of declining membership across industry there is now a considerable amount of debate about the future of farmer representative organisations and levy funded industry bodies. All state farming bodies are under pressure because of farm aggregation and the declining number of farm businesses, compounded by the digital age which is rapidly changing methods of communication.
Gone are the days of highly motivating single issues such as the deregulation of the single desk/wheat quotas, that brought farmers to renew memberships. The result is that farm organisations are perceived to be less relevant as they no longer have the same influence over farmgate returns.
Added to this, modern telecommunications and transport has meant that these organisations are now no longer the only means by which policy makers and media can be accessed, and therefore farmers are more able to address grievances or obtain information independently.
In responding to declining membership and funding, farm organisations have had little choice but centralise operations and remove regionally-based support staff. They have also increased their reliance on electronic communications with members. The result is typically that local branch structures have disintegrated, and direct member engagement has greatly diminished.
Research by the Australian Farm Institute in 2014 – Opportunities to Improve the Performance of Australian Farmer Advocacy Groups – examined the operations of farmer representative groups in Australia and internationally, and noted that those that were achieving consistent growth, such as the Young Farmers of New Zealand and the American Farm Bureau, had structures where the majority of members were actively engaged at the local level in production-related issues such as agronomy workshops and field days.
These findings were also confirmed by the results of a farmer survey by the Australian Farm Institute. That survey found that the two main reasons farmers gave for not joining was ‘lack of value for money’ and ‘lack of engagement”. Both these reasons point to a lack of relevancy and engagement in activities perceived to be of value to the potential member.
Based on these findings, it is clear that farmer representative organisations seeking to revitalise their membership, should in theory focus on activities that are relevant to improving farm production and management, and which involve strong local level engagement by members.
The problem is that the horse has already bolted. Grower groups have successfully filled this space, offering farmers support for issues related to the successful running of their farm. The ‘political stuff’ is left to the small proportion of farmers who are interested in politics.
Even the mega-big US and NZ farm organisations have reported that more than 95% of their members are not involved in the ‘political’ processes of those organisations. Farmers going to a grower group meeting don’t want to sit around and debate vexed issues such as climate change, water reform, drought policy, carbon taxes, environmental regulations, tax, industrial relations, road regulation and trade. These are often complex and highly political policy issues that cross state and commonwealth boundaries with no simple short-term solutions – grower groups claim they have better things to investigate.
We know that the majority of farmers will not join up to an organisation simply on the basis of its claimed political activities. And that it is too easy for non-members to lean on those motivated souls who maintain their farm association membership. So as membership declines, the ability of these organisations to develop policy and advocate also declines. So what is the solution to the funding problem?
In the past, organisations have offered in-house legal and industrial relations advice but the availability of online services and information has negated much of this. As their businesses have grown, farmers have become used to buying in professional services on an as-need basis.
Sponsorship is another way of obtaining funding, but sponsors require access to farmers so that they can sell them products. Farmers don’t sign up to have their contact details given to a marketing data base or go to meetings to be mugged by sponsor sales pitches. Also, sponsors tend to question an organisation’s relevance: if there is no big membership – there is no big sponsorship.
The big corporate sponsors have now recognised the grower groups and prefer to directly fund field days when they want to raise brand awareness. Other challenges lie with younger corporate brand managers who have strong views about aligning the corporate identity with an association that backs GM, glyphosate or live exports.
None of this is easy. My job is to review the changes impacting WAfarmers and our industry, and benchmark what’s happening national and internationally. If we are to build a long-term farm representative model that will take us to 2030 and beyond, we need one that works with the next generation who are time poor and generally not interested in agri-politics. If we don’t capture the men and women that make up today’s farm decision makers, we will end up like the Silent Generation of people born between 1925 and 1945, quietly fading away into the sunset.
Every generation hangs on a bit long, we see that in farm succession all the time; the current model does not work and maybe we have something to learn from other sectors that have gone down the opt-out membership model that makes funding easy and captures most of the free riders before they return to check their text messages.