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Fostering future leaders

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July 11, 2017

RIRDC Managing Director John Harvey with Rebecca Milliken from Wagga Wagga, NSW who has been selected to take part in the Australian Rural Leadership Program (ARLP) that is sponsored by the RIRDC.

The agriculture sector’s importance to Australia’s national economy has never been greater.

It currently contributes $63billion (2.3 per cent of GDP) to the country’s bottom line and, according to National Farmer’s Federation, has the potential to rival the mining sector and tip over $100billion by 2030.

It was with this big and bright future in mind that Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation set out to host seven Regional Innovation Conversation events, meeting with agriculture’s young leaders from every state and territory.

Having met 150 of these young leaders in recent months, it’s safe to say they’re up to the challenge.

In fact, I’ve been blown away by the enormous talent and enthusiasm of Australia’s next generation of agricultural leaders.

RIRDC’s reason for meeting with them was to discuss the issues and challenges they’re facing and discover what support they need to succeed; however, almost to a fault, we found these young people are just getting on with the job.

Whether they are part of a farming enterprise, researchers, entrepreneurs, business owners, working in the supply chain or providing services to agriculture these young people share a ‘can-do’ attitude and a steely determination to succeed.

We also discovered they are learning and networking differently. They aren’t joining traditional farmer organisations or reading traditional publications and media. They’re getting their information, networking with each other and sharing knowledge, via social media.

But they also realise that in order to flourish professionally they need to be better connected; not just online and not just to each other but to people from other industries and countries with useful skills and experience.

Technology doesn’t just influence their information consumption and the way they connect with others in their industry, it’s also creating an increasingly complex industry and workplace environment for these young people to become leaders — which is both an opportunity and a threat.

There was real excitement in the group about how on-farm decision making is being augmented by information from digital technology such as sensors, drones and robots.

The efficiency potential of autonomous vehicles, smart irrigation systems, 3D printing and more was an exciting prospect for this next generation of leaders.

New ‘smart’ irrigation systems are being trialled extensively in northern NSW and in Victoria, companies like Rubicon Water are leading the way.

More troubling was the consistent message we got from young leaders that they haven’t planned for the adoption of forthcoming transformative technologies and that their businesses haven’t built the necessary capital reserves to accommodate it.

There was also concern about how regulation struggled to keep pace with technology developments.

This shift to increasingly technology savvy farms also highlighted how agriculture is becoming more reliant on non-traditional skills.

Recruiting people with these necessary skills — in technology, engineering, finance, management and more — was considered one of the key challenges for the industry’s immediate future.

Freedom to fail was another idea we heard again and again.

In innovation and entrepreneurship, small failures are often considered a stepping stone to success, but in agriculture this approach doesn’t yet exist.

As you can see, these young industry leaders are dynamic, entrepreneurial, commercially savvy and well connected.

The question then turns, for RIRDC and the 14 other research and development corporations, to how can we best support these young leaders to ensure a thriving future for Australian agriculture?

It means we must think differently about how we get our research information and new products out to people.

We need a new approach to make sure we keep pace with the types of skills and opportunities these young people need to be confident as industry leaders.

We need to help them come together and we need to help build their capacity as decision makers.

In response to their needs, it’s now us that must be flexible.

—John Harvey, Managing Director

Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation

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