One of four television commercials developed by AgForce in Queensland for its "Every Family Needs a Farmer" Campaign that ran over four years from 2006 to 2009.
Wherever livestock producers gather these days, there is a certain inevitability that discussions will turn to the issue of public perceptions, and how the industry can do a better job of selling itself to the broader community.
The 2011 live export crisis provided a powerful lesson on what can happen when political leaders are influenced by sudden perceived changes in public attitudes towards an industry.
A large portion of debate at last week’s Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Association annual conference in Darwin focused on what can be done to better communicate the many positive stories agriculture has to tell.
The key question was not so much whether a greater marketing effort is needed, but rather, whether the industry can afford to pay for it.
The mining industry’s use of advertisements to continually promote itself (ironically often using scenery that trades on agriculture’s own image) was held up as an example for agriculture to follow.
However, in contrast to Australia’s highly profitable mining sector, funding remains a constant stumbling block in agriculture.
National Farmers Federation president Jock Laurie explained that a few years ago, the peak farming body put together a television advertisement to promote agriculture. However the campaign wilted on the vine because no money was available to pay for advertising time.
AgForce in Queensland has been highly proactive on the industry marketing front, speaking to more than 26,000 school children each year and developing its own “Every Family Needs a Farmer” television campaign.
Agforce developed four advertisements that ran at selected times on Queensland television screens over a four year period. However the campaign was a “hungry beast”, AgForce president Brent Finlay told last week’s NTCA forum, and was not currently running due to the costs involved.
Mr Laurie pointed out that when the mining industry had a problem, its members simply reached deeper into their pockets to fund larger campaigns. In agriculture, the same approach tended to fail, particularly in the middle of droughts when cash flow was all but non-existent.
Agriculture clearly had a positive image to sell, because corporate brands like McDonalds and Woolworths and the mining sector often used agricultural images to underpin their own marketing efforts.
Until now the industry has taken a largely uncoordinated approach to promoting its own image, but Mr Laurie said the time had come for all sectors of agriculture to unite and to develop a well-funded, well-researched agricultural promotion campaign.
He said the NFF was working with other farm organisations, research development corporations and agribusinesses to try to ensure that happened.
“We’ve got to work as one, and we’ve got to start breaking the barriers down, but until we get everyone to agree on this, we’re going to keep getting all these ad hoc programs,” he said.
The lack of funds for industry representation, which also went towards the resources required to promote a positive face for agriculture, was also discussed.
Large-scale Queensland cattleman Peter Hughes, Georgina Pastoral Company, raised the prospect of cattle producers paying higher levies to ensure the Cattle Council of Australia had adequate funding.
CCA currently survives on an annual budget of $1.3m, and is represented on more than 60 committees. Mr Hughes said $10-$15m was likely to be a more appropriate level of funding required for Australia’s peak cattle representative body to do an effective job.
“We may just have to pay a bigger levy, that is what will happen, if we are going look after our cattle industry,” Mr Hughes said.
“There has been a time in my time when we were paying $13 to $14 a bullock that went through a meatworks when we problems in the past, and we are having problems again now.”
NTCA executive director Luke Bowen said the “elephant in the room” for industry representation and marketing was available funding.
“At the end of the day how are we going to pay for the representation that we need, and the resources to get the positive message across, so that the industry feels it has got some influence over its future,” he said.
“That is the elephant in the room, where is the money going to come from to empower our representative organisations, because we have a crisis at the moment.”
Research shows no drop in public confidence
Interestingly, if Australia’s livestock industry is suffering from a public image crisis, the market research isn’t showing it.
Results from Meat and Livestock Australia’s regular surveys of public opinions during and after last year’s export crisis tell a somewhat surprising story.
While it would seem safe to assume that public confidence in the livestock industry would have dipped during the tsunami of negative media coverage that engulfed the industry last June, the industry’s own public surveys suggest the opposite was true.
“We see the horror headlines and the horror stories, but the surveys we do in metropolitan areas tell us that consumer confidence in the ethics and trustworthiness of producers has not moved a single iota downwards in the last two years,” MLA managing director Scott Hansen told the forum.
“In fact the highest score we have seen for trust in the Australian cattle industry came in the quarter immediately after the Four Corners program.”
A key part of the turnaround could be attributed to the work performed by the NTCA when people like Emily Brett from Waterloo Station and executive director Luke Bowen put a human face to the industry, Mr Hansen said, which helped to focus media coverage on the significant impacts of the ban.
He said MLA was constantly looking at how to best direct its marketing budget and if the industry directed it to spend more funding towards domestic marketing activities it would do so. However he said that the company’s own research suggested that public confidence in the industry continued to hold at high levels.
In a similar vein, Sydney-based rural banker Rod Fraser, NAB, told the audience that it was possible that people in cities did not view last year’s issues with as much concern as people from agriculture may have thought.
“I mix with a large group of people, I’m based in Sydney, I work in the bush, and I can tell you that if I am going to hear feedback about last year, I would have heard it,” he said.
“It has not raised a mention probably in the last nine months.”
What determined beef consumption in the average city household was more likely to be what their local butcher recommended or what was appearing on cooking shows, he said.