National Farmers' Federation president Fiona Simson with ABC breakfast host Craig Zonca at the Rural Press Club meeting in Brisbane.
National Farmers' Federation president Fiona Simson with ABC breakfast host Craig Zonca at the Rural Press Club meeting in Brisbane. Andrea Davy

Urge for farmers to become 'ag-vocates'

WHAT it felt like to have Jacqui Lambie "go off” at her outside Parliament House, how the National Farmers' Federation hopes to unite the vast amount of agricultural bodies and what the industry can learn from groups like Get Up and PETA.

Those were some of topics National Farmers' Federation president Fiona Simson discussed with radio host Craig Zonca at the latest Rural Press Club meeting in Brisbane.

After years of advocacy work, Ms Simson was elected the first female president in the NFF's 37-year-long history last November.

Before getting into the nitty gritty of her main focuses as NFF's leader, Mr Zonca asked Ms Simson to recap what it felt like to have Tasmania Senator Jacqui Lambie hurl a tirade of criticism toward her after she was freshly elected.

Ms Lambie accused the NFF as "having a lack of backbone” and told Ms Simson "to get out to the farmers with her gumboots on” while TV cameras circled the scene - the heated exchange made national news headlines that night.

"So that was my first hour in the role,” Ms Simson said.

"My team said 'come and do a press conference at Parliament House, it will be great'.

"To be quite honest, as soon as she laid into me, that's not very technical term, is it? Laid into me. Well, as soon as she went off, the cameras started circling and all I could think of was 'whatever you say now Fiona, it will be broadcast, potentially, on the national news'.”

Channelling Michelle Obama, who coined the term "when they go low, we go high”, Ms Simson said she tried to appear interested, empathetic and patient while calmly reiterating NFF's stance on the backpacker tax.

As a "glass-half-full girl”, Ms Simson identified a silver lining from the parliament clash.

"Never would the appointment of the new president of the NFF have got on the national news if it wasn't for Jacqui,” she said.

A hot issue at the press club meeting was around unification. There are some 97 different agriculture representative bodies in Australia, and it's Fiona's goal to see them become more collaborative.

"Since starting my role with NFF I have had been given a lot of history lessons,” she said.

"And, sometimes the history is really good to reflect on. And the history that I reflect on is that, 37 years ago, nine very strong organisations, people who must have really been thinking about the good of agriculture, got together and decided their organisations, as strong as they were on their own, would have been better represented with a national voice.

"They then formed the NFF. I think that sentiment is most definitely what is needed today.”

Ms Simson agreed with Mr Zonca when he noted the challenge in unifying advocacy groups that spend most of their time trying to become stronger individually and "building their own empire”.

But with "communication, communication and communication”, Ms Simson said she felt it was possible.

A unified voice would allow NFF to make the walls of Parliament House shake again, she said.

"We all have the power. Agriculture has the power if we all work together,” she said.

She encouraged all farmers to become "ag-vocates” and to be "loud and proud” about their industry.

Ms Simson also touched on the disconnect between urban and agricultural communities.

"There has been some interesting research on kids in schools about where their food comes from, and to interview a child in Year 10 who thinks yoghurt grows on trees, and cotton comes from a small fluffy animal that runs around on the ground, that's extremely concerning.”

Ms Simson believes agriculture could learn from well unified groups like Get Up and PETA about how to engage with a mass audience.

"Something we have certainly looked at is the work of Get Up and the work of PETA, and how they engage with people,” she said.

"Agriculture has been lacking in this general consumer facing tool.”