THREE grain farmers from different States with contrasting personalities have been drawn together to fight a common cause.
Over the past three years, Grain Producers Australia’s three grower directors - Peter Mailler, Andrew Weidemann and Barry Large - have formed an intimate bond since a round table meeting in October 2009 set them together on the path towards grains unity.
They have each invested a substantial portion of their own time and money travelling the country to lobby for grower issues, but they’re not seeking sympathy from their peers; only better understanding and support.
They spoke to Fairfax Agricultural Media, albeit reluctantly, about the many challenges they’ve faced.
It had been rumoured they each contributed $10,000 to start up GPA after replacing the former peak body Grains Council of Australia (GCA), through a Deed of Company arrangement, but Mr Mailler says that’s not exactly true.
The three directors collectively signed off on a $30,000 bond, in transferring the GCA’s powers and responsibilities over to GPA.
“We didn’t write an actual cheque but we took on the financial liability of GPA,” he said.
The three talk on the phone almost every day, which helps keep them on track and organised, with only modest secretarial support compared to their professional rivals.
But that constant contact has also forged their strong working bond along with other GPA directors, including former Grains Research and Development Corporation chairman and WA farmer, Terry Enright, South Australian farmer Michael Schaefer and independent directors Peter Bridgman and Jane Walton.
Unlike the CEOs and managing directors who attend most of the same meetings, GPA directors don’t get paid an allowance or receive financial compensation for time off their farms.
Mr Mailler said they’ve been accused by some critics of “riding the gravy train”, but that’s “just garbage”.
In the first two-and-a-half years alone, GPA business saw Mr Mailler absent from his core farm duties for more than 200 days.
When pushed for a bottom line figure, Mr Mailler said the cost of being away on GPA business had cost his farm at least $200,000 - and that’s without adding phone bills that often exceed $200 per month.
Mr Large has also contributed similar time and money but said he was happy to make those sacrifices for a good cause.
However, he gets frustrated when others misunderstand his work and make false accusations, overlooking sacrifices he’s made to benefit other growers.
While the three farmers share a close working bond, on a personal level they couldn’t be more different.
From a modest farming operation near Goondiwindi in northern NSW, Mr Mailler is a quiet achiever with a sharp business mind and acute understanding of agri-politics. He lost a leg at age 15 due to cancer - but you’d be mad to suggest he carried any form of disability.
Mr Weidemann comes from Rupanyup in the Wimmera region in Victoria and stands tallest out of the three. He commands an attentive audience through his physical stature alone - but his jovial nature masks a more serious side to his character. He has an incredible passion for grains research and development (R&D).
Mr Large operates a large grain growing business at Miling in Western Australia, and possesses a touch of Hollywood. He’s the director most likely to be seen wearing a three-piece suit and sunglasses while indulging in a glass of fine wine. He drives a Jaguar off-farm and also owns a couple of racehorses - but deeply resents any superficial accusation he’s only involved in GPA for personal gain.
Mr Large has applied clever business acumen in building up his farm business over the past 20 years - skill and flair now boosting GPA’s cause.
The fight to establish a single peak national representative body for the nation’s 27,000 growers has seen GPA pitted against professional lobbyists and the $100 million financial grunt of GrainGrowers.
GPA defends criticism of having only about 300 members compared to GrainGrower’s estimated 17,000 members by highlighting that the legislated responsibility of the Representative Organisation is to all grain producing entities, regardless of their membership status to any organisation.
Mr Mailler said GPA achieves this representative capacity through consultations with State Farming Organisations in Queensland, Victoria, South Australia, WA, NSW and Tasmania and other stakeholders to develop evidence-based positions on key issues.
He said GPA hasn’t canvassed for new members for more than a year, while the “turmoil” around the representative role is resolved, but it remains “strongly focused on objectively serving the needs of the entire production sector”.
GPA’s legislative functions representing growers includes oversight on areas like plant health and biosecurity and the GRDC’s operations, in spending about $140 million per year on R&D.
Asked why he’d take on the $100 million clout of GrainGrowers at a personal cost of more than $200,000, Mr Mailler says GPA’s work has a direct impact on the bottom line of his business - and all growers throughout the nation.
“Whilst my business probably can’t justify the amount of effort we put into GPA every day, the reality is the job needs to be done.
“The future of my business relies on having the most effective and efficient supply chain we can make.”
Mr Large said he was initially involved in GPA by default, being the Pastoralist and Graziers Association’s representative at the initial round table meetings.
But an acrimonious split from the PGA in recent months has seen him cut that association due to an impasse of opinions on wheat export marketing and national grower representation.
Despite that split, he’s continued fighting for the GPA’s future - but that still means long hours away from his home and farm.
“Along the way I’ve learnt about the value of GPA to myself and to other growers,” he said.
“Anyone who knows Barry Large knows you’re either in or you’re out.
“I believe this is a good investment and I’m passionate about my industry, so that’s why I’m in it.
“But I will say it’s very challenging and it makes things a lot harder when people don’t seem to value organisations like this one, which is working hard for them.”
Mr Weidemann says he’s equally committed to GPA but there’s a subtle difference between him and his two mates.
As president of the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) grains committee, he keeps track of days spent away from his farm on GPA business and receives some recompense, now that the VFF has formally aligned with GPA.
But he also committed his own money and resources when GPA first launched.
“The amount of time and effort put in to GPA is really hard to gauge,” he said.
“We’ve spent nearly every day, every hour at times, just doing work on behalf of the industry - whether it be at State or national level.
“Initially our role was to stabilise industry leadership for growers, but as time’s gone on we’ve all brought our own special abilities to the table to ensure there’s a pathway for the future.
“Now that we’ve got it this far, we’re looking for broader support to take GPA to the next level.
“I think we’ve played well above our weight so far and don’t think you can put a dollar figure on the real sacrifices we’ve made.
“But we believe agriculture has a bright future and want to see the best result for growers in that future, with strong representation.”
Mr Mailler said the three directors initially signed up for six months, but he’s still committed to the cause because of the quality of the GPA team.
“There’s a core belief that this work must be done, and if I walk away now I’ve let down my mates to an extent,” he said.
“We’ve all put the industry above ourselves… The three of us and the other directors, supporters and key stakeholders have also made that commitment.”
Mr Weidemann said GPA had improved the relevance of growers in the representative debate, by engaging with government departments better and carrying forward a strong message, “from the paddock to Canberra, consistently”.
But he said those views are also being relayed from Canberra back to growers, to help progress debate around important issues.
“We’ve been hung up on wheat marketing for so long but there are many other issues that also need attention that we’ve not engaged in, like transport and infrastructure, biosecurity, chemical reforms and R&D,” he said.
“The challenges are immense but we’re not here for the short-term.”
Mr Mailler said GPA was not competing to be the peak national grains body.
“The fact is there’s another organisation out there with a big bucket of money saying they want to do the job,” he said.
“But the best way they could do that is by demonstrating support for what we do and then asking how we rationalise this space.”