Competing ideas and effective policy needed at the VFF

Guest Author, February 23, 2024

Victorian sheep and wool producer Peter Small

At the VFF’s annual general meeting this week, proposed controversial constitutional amendments were not considered, motions of no confidence in the board were denied and beleaguered president Emma Germano, who has endured recent leadership challenges, said the body had lost 400 members in the past year.





To the editor,

Dear Sir,

Fifty-six years ago on the 12th of July 1968 at the Windsor Hotel, Melbourne, the official signing ceremony took place to merge the Australian Primary Producers Union (APPU) and the Victorian Wheat and Wool Growers Association (AWWGA).

The document signed by A.B Wood (APPU) and P.B Leach (VWWGA) was witnessed by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Trade and Commerce John McEwen and Malcolm Fraser, Minister for the Army, representing the Prime Minister John Gorton.

The first Annual State Conference of the new amalgamated organisation, the Victorian Farmers Union (VFU) was held in March 1969. With a combined initial membership of 27,000 farmers the atmosphere was euphoric. The United Dairy Farmers joined soon afterwards and in 1979 the Victorian Graziers Association (VGA) joined to create the VFF.

For some years, the concept of having one unified farmers’ organisation had become the driving force behind amalgamation negotiations. For farmers, the overriding dogma of that time had become ‘Unity’.

In the spring of 1966, I arrived home from a P&O Young Farmer study tour of British agriculture. I quickly threw my youthful enthusiasms into the new organisation, and was elected to represent the Charlton District of the VFU on the Pastoral Division Council.

The achievements of the National Farmers Union (NFU) in the United Kingdom was fresh in my mind. It was certainly an impressive model for Victoria to follow, but then that was only 20 years after the end of the Second World War, a war that nearly starved a nation. United Kingdom farmers had the ear of government and subsidies flowed like a river of gold to the farmer’s gate.

Both in the UK and in Australia little thought has gone into the implications and the unintended consequences of this clamour for unity, a matter to which I will return.

The problems of the VFF today go well beyond the current board – Emma Germano, Andrew Weidemann or anyone else; they just happen to be the ones in 2024 ’left holding the baby’.

With the VFF collapsing before our very eyes Victorian Farmers are facing a precarious situation, and at a time of heightened tensions both at home and abroad. Just when Victorian farmers need a strong organisation to represent them, the VFF is at risk of imploding and unless something is done the organisation will fail and our principal asset, Farrer House will be at risk.

The problems that confront the VFF have been brewing for decades:

  1. One of the initial amalgamation conditions of the VWWGA in 1967 was “That the only way to bring about lasting and effective grower unity in Victoria is a guarantee of complete autonomy of Industry Divisions within the VFU”. This underpinning principle now seems to have been abandoned.
  2. Whilst unity can bring strength, it has also negative implications that can be terminal. Having only one organisation can prevent the discussion of competing ideas. Compared with the ‘battle of ideas’ of the 1960s, the VFF today appears brain dead. It is very dangerous for any organisation to allow competing ideas to be locked out and for a small elite to take control.
  3. A large active membership is an essential prerequisite for a successful forward-looking organisation. This has not been an objective of the VFF for a very long time, and does not fit comfortably with an elite who want to run their own show without scrutiny.
  4. Members will join and pay substantial membership fees, but only if they can participate in policy development that effects their interests, and they see results for their investment.

These are failures of successive VFF leadership teams. And now, I fear, we are reaping the results.

Peter Small, Coleraine, Victoria.


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  1. Andrew Speirs, February 25, 2024

    Peter what a good article. I hope the VFF can develop a team approach we as farmers and industry need a single constructive voice.

    • Peter Small, February 26, 2024

      Thanks Andrew, there is much to be done to turn this dilemma around. Farrer House is an essential asset base for the future of any farmer organization in this state. The risk is that blind egos are going to see this valuable investment of the Victorian wheat and wool growers of August 1949 frittered away. Farrer House was originally purchased for $34,101 from subscriptions from VWWGA, branches from the Wimmera and Mallee. If I was one of those branch members (listed page 127 “Growers in Action, Mitchell, Hawthorn Press 1969) I would be hopping mad with rage with what is transpiring today.

  2. Don Mudford, February 25, 2024

    It suits organisations to have a small base. This limits ideas contrary to “official policy”. This has been in place in agriculture organisations since the 80s, maybe earlier. Now, policy is pushed down through public and social media, like mob-style hysteria. One has to just get our own advice on research, more efficient production and marketing. One problem is we still pay fees to research and marketing that have very few on the ground to answer to. Ok, we need to do research and marketing. We growers should be allowed to select where our research and marketing $s go to.

    • Peter Small, February 26, 2024

      Good points Don Mudford. I must stress, my concern is not about a single organisation as such, but rather the membership must be continually alert to the risks of only one organisation. Sadly, we have all been naive to these risks and our leaders, as you suggest probably since the 1980’s, have exploited our naivety. An alert, engaged and informed membership is the only way to safe- guard the integrity of any organisation.
      Policy development must be a partnership between the grassroot membership, the organisation’s research staff and the leadership team. In my experience the Victorian Graziers’ Association (VGA) had the most sophisticated policy development process. Such a process Don would provide for important matters, such as your concern about how our research levies are spent, to be addressed.

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