RECENT research has found Australia’s rural industries are generally trusted by communities, but AgriFutures Australia managing director John Harvey believes there are still opportunities to grow this trust.
The Community Trust in Rural Industries initiative identified ‘environmental responsibility’ as the number one driver of community trust in Australia’s rural industries, followed by industry responsiveness and the value of the products produced.
“Clearly, we and our rural industries are already taking this kind of action and doing the work required to be responsible environmental stewards,” Mr Harvey said.
“Being on the frontline, we understand better than most the importance of looking after our land and water resources.
“We are already focused on conserving water, improving soils, maximising biodiversity, ensuring sustainability – to name just a few ways we protect our natural resources – and we are working hard to do even more,” he said.
“The question that now needs to be unpacked, is whether the community also wants to be a part of the solution.
“I suspect we will find that the community does indeed see itself as sharing the responsibility, which means Australia’s rural industries won’t be working alone. The question is how? Mr Harvey asked.
“Only through rural industries working together to build stronger and closer relationships with the community, can we genuinely respond to the values they’ve identified as important, and engage meaningfully to find solutions that work for everyone, then we have a huge opportunity to grow their trust in and acceptance of what we do.”
Many people don’t know anyone in a rural industry
However, Mr Harvey said just over 42 percent of the 6461 city-based participants in the first stage of the research indicated that they didn’t know anyone who worked in a rural industry. This prompted Sheep Central to ask former organiser of the popular Farm Day initiative, Deb Bain, what she thought should happen.
The Victorian sheep producer said the rural sector “absolutely” needed to actively seek to engage its city cousins rather than sit back and passively seek understanding and license as their food producers.
She said there is still a need for ongoing Farm Day-types events, but it would need a new legal and insurance environment, due to the advent of farm activists.
“The other issue around restarting something like Farm Day in its format – where city-based people were matched with farmers – is cultural.
“There is now a well-known faction among city people who have nefarious ways of intruding upon a farm and telling a story that didn’t really exist,” she said.
“There are a lot of them and they are seeking to bring about the downfall of agriculture.
“I think there would be a lot of farmers who wouldn’t risk it (invite people onto their farm).”
Deb said Farm Day matched “good people with good people”, but it would difficult to duplicate that now.
“As AgriFutures shows, the majority of people in the city are very pro-farming, but they are just disengaged from it because of distance and time.”
Deb’s husband David said anti-farm activism is a recent example of extremism and polarisation within Australian society. He cited a recent example of Facebook banning the sale of lamb products on its platform as an example of this.
“It’s not the majority, it is a very vocal minority that ruins it for everybody.
“The truth of it is that to take that very good will of a farming family to engage with a city family for the purpose of fun, friendship and understanding was much easier when Farm Day was running,” she said.
Farm Day finished in 2012 after running for seven years, organising the hosting of hundreds of city folk on rural farms.
Rural-city engagement is now piecemeal via social media
Deb said there is a piecemeal rural-city engagement approach being taken now involving good social media interactions and farmers markets.
“But what we are missing out on is helping people understand the positives of intensive industrial agriculture.
“As in why did it evolve, why do we do it, what are the benefits to our own society and the greater society? she asked.
“The technology that allows us to grow food for ourselves and for countries that are less fortunate than us is extraordinary.
“To disparagingly call it industrial agriculture and sneer when you say it is taking away one of Western society’s greatest achievements really.”
Deb said agriculture needs to engage more with the community because social license is becoming a serious issue as was the peri-urban/country interface.
“If Facebook now feels that selling meat is anathema to its sensitivities, well, there is a serious lack of understanding there, isn’t there?
Deb said the honest and open social media posts from people on farms has a small and particular audience in cities.
“I think that’s good, it’s kind of like Farm Day online, but it’s not enough.”
Deb said the relationships the Community Trust in Rural Industries research has investigated need to be built on.
“Farm Day was all about telling stories and that was the context in which it succeeded; having stories that people could tell each other and through those stories it reached a bigger audience through media outlets.
“So those stories got told far and wide, but they were feel-good stories, and there was education in the stories, but really there needs to be a real understanding of how ‘vital’ industrial agriculture is to the well-being of all those in the cities,” she said.
“No matter how many vegie gardens, no matter how many rooftop gardens or ‘green’ structures they build, they still need broadacre farming.”
However, she said agriculture should prepare for, rather than react to, social license issues.
Citing the halting of live cattle exports to Indonesia in 2011, Deb believed Meat & Livestock Australia did not have a contingency plan for “something going horribly wrong” with the trade.
“I think it is incumbent upon our own industries to be prepared for catastrophes, but more than that, have had conversations — well before any catastrophe or negative press comes out — that develops understanding and relationships to help people weighing up a particularly upsetting piece of information.
“All farmers pay quite a lot of money to MLA and Australian Wool Innovation and it is incumbent on those organisations to stand up and speak for farmers in a positive way.”
She said different farmers were poor at uniting, rather than recognising they were “all in the game of agriculture, whether you are biodynamic, organic and plant by the light of the moon, or have a 260 horsepower fleet of engines that plant your crop”.
“We are all in the same game and until we can unite ourselves, I don’t how we expect to unite ourselves in terms of engagement.”
What about the community?
Mr Harvey said the Community Trust in Rural Industries initiative aimed to engage the community and uncover the underlying values driving their attitudes and trust.
The initiative is a three-year partnership involving 11 Rural Research Development Corporations, the National Farmers’ Federation and the NSW Department of Primary Industries, and aims to drive collective capability to build, maintain and rebuild trust in line with the community’s evolving perceptions and values.
Mr Harvey said the results from the first stage of the research were released in July this year and indicated that, overall, Australia’s rural industries are trusted by the community.
The recent results from a collaborative research project carried out by the Voconiq (powered by CSIRO) identified that the community sees rural industries as stewards of the land and sea, using natural resources responsibly and sustainably.
“So, what about the community?
“Surely environmental stewardship is a shared responsibility? He asked.
“If so, how does the community play its part?
Mr Harvey said the research showed that 87 percent of participants indicated moderate or stronger levels of trust in our rural industries.
“Consequently, acceptance of rural industries in general was also shown to be strong and positive, indicating a solid platform on which we in the agriculture sector can build a deeper relationship with the Australian community.”