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Time to talk about reforming culture in the dairy industry

We need to talk about culture.

In fact, far too often I find myself discussing with friends and colleagues the negative culture in the dairy industry and what must change to improve respect and unity between us.

Just the other day, a farming leader told me he wouldn’t have my job for quids. His precise words were: “I don’t know how you put up with it.”

The industry’s culture problem is so prominent that unity is one of the three pillars of the Australian Dairy Plan, released earlier this week.

The second Dairy Plan Commitment – to attract and support new people and investment – depends on an improved industry culture.

How can we possibly hope to attract new and eager talent if the infighting continues?

I can attest from personal experience just how damaging it is to manage the current culture within the dairy industry.

How would we describe an industry culture that leads success?

Do we seek to build consensus and focus on the future, or continue to debate the past?

Do we prefer to collaborate, or is confrontation more acceptable?

Do we stop and listen or just go on the attack?

Do we think that the politics of personality is better than the politics of substance?

Do we challenge ideas or people?

Do we provide encouragement or just say nothing works?

And do we see ourselves as victims or as problem solvers?

Attacking peak bodies might be sport for some, but it comes with very real consequences for those who give their time to represent farmers and achieve real outcomes for the industry.

All the farmers who care enough about the well-being of our dairy industry to sit on the Australian Dairy Farmers (ADF) national council, or our policy advisory groups, or any committees of the state dairy farmer organisations when they all have their own businesses to manage.

In the past year alone, ADF has worked with the Federal Government on a plethora of projects, including implementing a new mandatory industry code of conduct, developing a standard form contract that complies with the code, and facilitating a new blockchain and traceability system customised for the dairy industry. In the next 12 months an industry standard and trial of the blockchain and a milk trading platform will also be delivered.

We have campaigned to reclaim the label “milk” from plant-based dairy alternatives. Just last year, we requested a review of labelling and marketing of non-dairy alternatives, and development of additional regulations to prevent plant-based products from trading on the labelling, qualities and values of dairy.

We have investigated the feasibility of different market intervention mechanisms and recommended to the government that the current dairy code be extended to cover the whole supply chain, including supermarket retailers.

We have made submissions in collaboration with Dairy Australia to several inquiries, including to the Victorian Government’s $50 million Agriculture Workforce Plan and the Federal Government’s National Agriculture Workforce Strategy. The latter addressed all of dairy’s long-standing workforce issues relating to recruitment, skills and training, while the former resulted in a provision of $715,000 for Dairy Australia to deliver the Dairy Farm Induction Program.

This is a substantial work program by any measure, and one that has yielded some outstanding achievements. But if we are to continue fighting on behalf of farmers, we need farmers to stand with us, not against us.

In June, we presented to the Senate inquiry into the performance of the dairy industry since deregulation. I was proud to speak up on behalf of farmers and outline the critical issues that continue to confront many of our colleagues and has led to a disheartening number of dairy farmers making the difficult decision to leave the industry in recent years.

But I was saddened by the conduct, and personal attacks, I witnessed during the last Senate hearings a couple of weeks ago.

We want an industry culture that makes people proud to belong to the dairy industry. Because that’s how you attract new people into representative positions.

Not through continual criticism and personal attacks. Everyone who works in this industry is human, and the culture of negativity has a deep and lasting impact on all of us.

I want new people – people of any age and background – to join us in representing dairy farmers. But why would they want to if all they can look forward to is being targeted on social media?

Before we can champion these new dairy advocates, we first need to lead by example. We must be able to disagree and debate with respect and provide constructive feedback rather than harsh putdowns.

There is a destructive culture eating away at our industry. And it needs to stop, if not for us, then for the next generation.

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