Who’s looking out for farmers?

National Farmers’ Federation president, Fiona Simson says Australian politicians must do “whatever they can” to rebuild the China relationship

25 May 2020 | Marcus Reubenstein (Image: Robert Bye)

Australian farmers are worried they are about to have the rug pulled out from under their feet, not by the Chinese government but by their own. Last week China stuck an 80% tariff on Australian barley exports, effectively shutting that market off to Australian growers for the next five years.

A major COVID-19 diplomatic spat between Australia and China is now threatening to cause serious splits between Australia’s politicians and the businesses, miners and farmers who’ve spent years cultivating relationships with Chinese partners that now deliver $120 billion into Australia’s economy every year.

Last week one farmer, standing in the middle of his paddock in rural Victoria, appeared on national television through a video call from his phone. He had a blunt message for Canberra saying he wished, “some politicians would close their mouths.”

With farmers being dragged into the world of diplomacy, their diplomat in chief may well be Fiona Simson. The first woman president of Australia’s National Farmers Federation (NFF), after four years in the job she’s been a highly effective advocate for the sector’s peak body.

“I think it’s critical that relationships are built in the good times because that’s what you go back to in the bad times,” she says, of Australia’s agricultural trade with China.

“What farmers are telling me is they totally understand that government needs to stand up for Australians, but they also really believe that this [China] relationship is a relationship worth investing in.”

Australian farming is about exports

Seven out of every ten dollars generated through Australian agriculture comes from overseas. Over the past decade China has become an increasingly important destination market, now accounting for around one quarter of Australia’s $42 billion in rural exports.

In 2020, Australia’s rural sector is a far cry from what some call the old days of simply planting crops and raising livestock, then expecting overseas buyers to pick up whatever’s been dropped at the farm gate.

NFF President Fiona Simson, says China trade a relationship “worth investing in” (Image supplied)

“Australian farmers have matured and become a lot more customer and consumer focussed,” says Simson. “Perhaps we’re helped along by China as a market which is intrinsically like that. Buyers are interested in the technical aspects of produce and consumers are more concerned about quality.”

Those concerns are shared by farmers who want to deliver the best quality product and get the best price for that product. That comes from dialogue boosted very much by Australia’s rural culture of trust.

Relationship focused farmers

People in rural and farming districts are reliant on their communities for social and economic support, farmers personally know everybody they do business with.

While those kinds of relationships rarely exist in Australian cities they very much do in China, where personal relationships are the bedrock of business.

It goes some way, according to Simson, towards explaining why many Australian farmers have excellent relationships with their Chinese customers. “One of my neighbours,” she says, “is a citrus grower who exports to China and he’s very, very relationship focussed.

“He’s willing to spend the time and energy talking to his Chinese customers about his fruit, about the colour, the size, the thickness of the skin. He’s willing to invest all that time and energy into that relationship because he knows it’s worth it.”

The fear in rural communities is that many Australians simply don’t appreciate how much those relationships are worth.

Don’t take relationships for granted

As a leading voice for farmers, Simson knows how valuable and how vulnerable those relationships can be.

“It is incredibly important to realise Australia can’t take anything for granted. Whilst Chinese consumers are very fond of Australian produce, most of the things we produce they can get from elsewhere.”

“Some of those exports will just not be regarded as important if the relationship is not good.

“This is critical, the relationship needs to be deep, it’s just not enough to have one person who has a good relationship with China, it actually needs to be multi-tiered and multi-pronged. And it needs to be strong enough to withstand the geopolitical shocks,” she says.

Mainstream media rhetoric doesn’t help farmers

The Australian media, she argues, has been no help and that she’s often had to explain to Chinese business partners that most Australians don’t trust what they read in the newspapers.

Nonetheless sections of the media have polarised the China-Australia debate to the point where they’re almost demanding people choose between one nation or the other. A seemingly unhealthy demand in a nation where 1.2 million people are of Chinese heritage.

Simson says there must be an understanding that there are two sides to this debate. “Our government,” she says, “most certainly needs to put forward things that are important to the Australian people. But likewise, the Chinese government has the right to do the same thing.”

Are other trade deals looking out for Aussie farmers?

Traditionally farmers have been regarded the natural constituency of Australia’s rural-based National Party, the junior partner in Australia’s governing coalition government. Simson has always made it clear the conservative side of politics cannot take farmers’ support for granted.

Earlier this year, she was one of the few voices in Australia to point out the Trump-China trade deal had the potential to significantly damage Australian farmers.

That agreement, which remains in place, could see US farm exports to China double in just two years – that would make US agricultural exporters around 20% more reliant on China than Australian farmers.  

In February Simson warned, “the US-China trade deal is going to make international agricultural markets more uncertain and difficult for Australian exporters to navigate at least over the next two years.”

That same month, she led a farmers’ delegation to Canberra, telling policymakers the European Union is holding Australian farmers to ransom, as Australia is trying to lock down a free trade agreement with the EU.

Farmers more savvy than given credit for

Through prolonged drought, bushfires and now trade tensions, rural Australia has endured a great deal over recent years. But none of those challenges was created by people on the land. 

Roughly 19 million of Australia’s 25.7 million people live in cities and many of them look upon farmers as victims of circumstance.

“We hate that image”, says Simson, “Farmers don’t have to be farmers, they do it because they want to be farmers and they like the land.”

Four generations of Simsons have been on the land at Liverpool Plains in north-western New South Wales where she and her husband Ed run a mixed farm, growing crops and raising Hereford cattle.

As NFF President, she’s a relentless advocate for the future, encapsulated by her championing of an ambitious plan, the 2030 Roadmap, to raise the total value of Australia’s farm production from A$60 billion to A$100 billion.

That plan will grow Australia’s agriculture sector at almost twice the rate of GDP, a strategy founded on innovation, sustainability, productivity and exports.

“Farmers are very astute businesspeople,” says Simson. “They are very open-minded and accepting of a wide range of people in their communities, because their communities are diverse, they are very aware of building relationships and the importance of trade.” Those trade plans, she says, are now at risk:

“COVID-19 has made what was perhaps a little bit of a strained relationship become even more strained and Australia wants to be really cautious about that.”

Fiona Simson, NFF President

“It’s disappointing now that the political relationship has become more difficult. I was in Beijing last year and overwhelmingly I feel the Chinese people and the Australian people have a great relationship,” she says.

Good relations outlive arguments

Having spent time in China she has a good appreciation of the complexities of Australia’s relationship, pointing out, “We have different political systems and different cultures and traditions but at the end of the day we’ve had a very fulfilling trade relationship and that’s built on shared needs and shared outcomes.

“Our trade is beneficial to both countries, it’s a win-win relationship. I think sometimes politics gets in the way of our shared outcomes, but it’s worth it for both countries to keep working together.”