Sponsored by APAL and Hort Innovation, Fiona is researching innovation in the apple industry to identify ways to close the gap between producer and retailer profits. To develop her knowledge she recently spent six weeks with other Australian and international Nuffield Scholars travelling to Singapore, India, Qatar, Turkey, France and the United States of America.
The Global Focus Program is a journey covering six continents and includes an intensive program over 47 days, with 38 scheduled meetings and 30 farm visits. Fiona said it’s “totally exhausting and absolutely exhilarating. I have learnt and experienced so much more in the past six weeks than in the past 10 years. I’m very grateful to participate in this program and it’s a credit to Nuffield to deliver such an intense and worthy agenda.”
In addition to the program Fiona visited Washington State for a week to develop an understanding of the apple and cherry industries. She now has another eight weeks of private study to be completed next year.
The group visited both developed and developing countries with access to different resources. Fiona noticed that the standards in each country varied greatly but the issues in agriculture were very common and included:
- Food safety and security
- Labour availability and ethics
- The need for succession planning
- Large costs associated with entering agriculture
- Hesitation to adopt genetically modified organisms (GMO) and bio-technology
- Subsidised farmers and crop insurance
- Large corporation farming vs small family farms
- Scale and consolidation
- Water security
- Intellectual property (IP).
“Each country had a different focus and some issues took higher priority than others,” she explains.
“We embraced the food, culture, religion, customs and the people of each of the countries we visited. It became apparent very quickly that we were getting invites into areas of industry and government that are rarely, if ever, given to international visitors. This is a credit to the reputation of Nuffield Scholars before us in the level of respect shown to each country visited.
“The farmers and businesses also appreciated the opportunity to understand the issues and challenges that we experience in Australia in our own industries. Many sought knowledge and ideas from the travelling scholars that they may be able to implement in their own enterprises.”
Inspired by leaders
Jet-setting to Singapore
The scholars were divided into three groups and travelled to Singapore where Fiona greatly benefitted from a presentation by John Barker, First Agriculture Holdings – an investment consulting company for food and agribusiness in Singapore, Australia, China and India.
“It seems the biggest constraint when looking to develop land is water, but the issue is that farmers are becoming more scarce than water. They’re underselling and underestimating the value of their IP, but know-how and experience are the most valuable assets on a farm.
Investment companies are increasingly purchasing land and I feel the farmers of the future should be asking themselves ‘do I need to own my land?’ – it’s just another expense. I envisage farmers in the future involved in agricultural production and not ownership, they will be managing farms for investors such as Westchester Agriculture Asset Management or AMC,” Fiona says.
From Singapore to India
In the Punjab area of India the group saw child labour used in businesses certified by the Global Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) standard, and they learnt about the excessive use of pesticides polluting the water table.
“We witnessed pesticides being sold in India that were banned in Australia years ago,” says Fiona.
“The logistics are basic, care for food provenance is nil and traceability and food quality assurance programs are non-existent. Approximately 30 per cent of the population is living below the poverty line so quantity and not quality of food is the priority.”
The biggest challenge in India is the route to market, with road infrastructure making it almost impossible for farmers and traders. Not to mention lack of cold storage facilities, which greatly reduces the life and quality of their produce.
“Many Indian farmers are subsistent, creating no desire for young people to work on the farm. The majority of farms are 1.5 ha and can’t grow to be over 15 ha. India has huge potential but it will take massive investment, training and resources to enable the country to be recognised as a safe agricultural exporter.”
Next stop Qatar – the richest country in the world
The group learned that food security is a major concern and large investments are being made in agriculture to secure the future of the country. Similar to Singapore, 98 per cent of their food is imported. In contrast to India, which has the resources but not the capital, Qatar has the capital with very limited resources, no green pastures or steady rainfall.
“The Qatar government is investing heavily to develop their limited resources – particularly their ability to supply large quantities of clean sea water using reverse osmosis. A two-spread economy exists there with an imported workforce living in communes, land is cheap and farmers can easily apply for cheap loans to develop farms,” Fiona explains.
“We visited Hassad foods, a company established six years ago to tackle food security concerns. In the past three years they have expanded into commercial production and own land in Pakistan, India and Australia where they produce predominantly beef and wheat.
“Hassad will go wherever they can grow food but are finding it politically challenging to invest in some counties. They’re looking for a 4-6 per cent return on investment and have a strong interest in high value horticulture crops in Australia.
“They have a shallow port and Saudi Arabia is their only land-based neighbour. So it’s not a great position to be in when you’re looking to grow your population from 2.5 million to 4 million in five years with Expo 2020 and the 2022 FIFA World Cup ahead.”
Turkey – a country with many natural resources
Almost 83 per cent of the land in Turkey offers arable, excellent soils and plentiful water sources.
Turkey is challenged by its proximity to countries affected by war and political instability, but is in a good geographical location for trade with many developing countries and the Middle East. The cost of land is expensive so the government owns the land and leases it to farm owners. Agricultural ‘centres of excellence’ are being setup for technical development and adoption of technology is high.
“The main issues in Turkey are shrinking farm sizes and lack of expertise in the country. This was expressed quite strongly at the Australian High Commission in Istanbul regarding the demand for foreign farming consultants in Eastern European countries,” Fiona says.
Next stop, France
Farmers in France rely heavily on the European Common Agricultural Policy and the country is extremely diversified in their production.
“The French public are very influential on agricultural practices and have been since the ‘pig war’ 20 years ago – which closed the Brittany Provence industry. Now GMO adoption is the hot topic and they are strongly opposed to it,” says Fiona.
In France there are many wealthy farmers but land is expensive to buy. The co-operative system seems to work for marketing purposes and energy is a limited and expensive resource.
“Given our group members included a Brazilian studying global GMO adoption, a New Zealand conservation farmer and Australian certified organic farmer, the dinner table conversations in France created some hot debates. It opened up a whole new array of country and industry perspectives as we visited farms and had discussions with those we met,” says Fiona.
“Our group was identified as one of the more diverse groups in the Nuffield program, engaging regularly in challenging discussions as we travelled. I learnt so much about the challenges of each country we visited and gained a deeper understanding of the industries my peers had come from – identifying future opportunities in other sectors I hadn’t thought about earlier.”
Last stop, the United States of America (USA)
The group travelled to Washington DC where they met with the American Farm Bureau – an organisation with 6 million members; the United States Department of Agriculture; and the Washington State Delaware Secretary of Agriculture.
“We were briefed on their Constitution and the policy making process – and how just about everything circles back to it; the Farm Bill and numerous issues currently on the policy makers table; water allocation issues in the western States; crop insurance underwritten by the government; the challenges in controlling wildlife and protecting farmers; dealing with non-governmental organisations; the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the urgency for Obama to have this completed before the 2016 election year; and the 9 million illegal immigrants providing the labour required for horticulture,” says Fiona.
“It was interesting to understand the different decisions that are State and Federal based and how that relates to agricultural policy decisions. In Australia we are governed more on a Federal level. The power the states have and the difference that makes across the country is very interesting.”
Where to from here?
The Global Focus Program finished in Wyoming where Fiona took the opportunity to visit Washington State growers Starr Ranch, McDougall & sons and the Washington Apple Commission to gain an understanding of their industry.
“The time I spent in Washington gave me a snapshot of the industry and ideas of how to move forward with my Nuffield project. I would like to pursue Gold Diggers as a case study looking at a grower co-operative perspective. They are larger than any Australian fruit business – but not too large, by American standards.
“I also intend to look at a corporation in New Zealand and an Italian co-operative in South Tyrol.
“While our alumni year is an 18 month commitment, Nuffield itself is a lifetime. Innovation in our own operation rarely comes from ideas in your own industry or your own country, so in the first instance I would suggest to anyone looking to grow or simply do what they do better, to leave their own backyard.”
About the Nuffield Scholarship program
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