LEONGATHA South dairy farmer Benjamin Vagg says it’s time for farmers to speak out and show the world what they have to offer.
Benjamin, who has recently taken on a senior role with the United Dairyfarmers of Victoria (UDV), says the views of farmers are too often ignored but they will become more important as the world meets the challenge of feeding a growing population.
He says his involvement as a Gardiner Dairy Foundation sponsored participant in the Gippsland Community Leadership program in 2017 helped to inspire his community focus.
The third-generation farmer is now assistant manager on the family farm, milking 420 cows, an increase of 32 on last year.
“We have a strategy to keep growing; the milk price and a good season have helped that,” he said.
Benjamin, 30, worked as an agronomist and studied at Latrobe University and Massey University in New Zealand, before returning to the farm in 2017 while finishing his Masters in Agri-Commerce.
This is his first full season on the farm and, motivated by the leadership program, he wants to make sure farmers are heard and respected.
“I’ve always been interested in representation, leadership and community involvement,” he said.
“Because farm businesses have got bigger and more involved, farmers have kind of vacated the representation space.
“Farmers’ ability to understand complex problems and break them down to simple solutions is still there, and the community is crying out for that.”
Benjamin said the leadership program helped to “knock off some edges” in his personality.
“I’ve probably still got a few edges but now I’m a lot more aware of them and how I present myself. I can be quite direct which can be confronting, even though it’s not meant to be.”
Benjamin says the program helped him to make links across the community and consider issues facing farmers in other areas, such as drought in East Gippsland, water in northern Victoria or power supply in Western Victoria.
“Those connections brought their plight to my attention and I hope to advocate on their behalf,” he said.
Benjamin is the district regional representative for the UDV and was recently appointed to the policy council to fill a casual vacancy.
“The broader community, not just Gippsland, needs to hear what farmers have to say,” he said.
“Farmers and rural communities are sometimes easy votes, so we’re constantly ignored.”
However, Benjamin says farmers can help to change that.
“I want to see the language change when farmers describe their successes.
“They do it tough here and there, but they are successful if they’re still doing it; they’re entrepreneurs; the grass roots of their communities.
“If they change how they describe themselves, that will improve how the community perceives them; we don’t just provide food; we’re the backbone of the community and we need to highlight the professionalism that’s involved in producing safe food.”
Benjamin says he’s still “too young and too green” to run an organisation or stand for council but he wants to continue developing leadership qualities while encouraging other farmers to do the same.
“I don’t want to be a fence-sitter. I’m confident of the industry’s future and programs like this give farmers confidence to network with other community members and it snowballs from there.
“The time is now for people of my generation to step up. You just have to look at the demographics of the world. The opportunity is here now to get into the agricultural space.
“Technology and adaptation have always allowed farmers to get ahead of the global supply chain, but something has to change.
“We can’t have continued suppression of global prices when you have two billion more people coming along and not enough land to grow the food.”
Benjamin recommends other farmers consider the Community Leadership program and he wants the broader community to consider farming as a career.
“You’re not just a farmer; you’re an integral member of the community. People want farmers’ opinions and ways to solve problems and if you develop skills and experience in agriculture, you will always be gainfully employed.”
For more information, please go to https://www.gardinerfoundation.com.au/people-community/#pc7 or email Richard Meredith on richard.meredith@gardinerfoundation.com.au