First dairy farmer VFF president

13 Jul, 2014 04:00 AM
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Alex pictured on the front page of Stock & Land in 1989.
I guess my makeup is really to fight for my fellow farmer - and for the region.
Alex pictured on the front page of Stock & Land in 1989.

STOCK & Land has featured plenty of agri-political faces over the years, including the first dairy farmer president of the Victorian Farmers Federation, Alex Arbuthnot.

The night before Mr Arbuthnot was elected as president of the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF), he admitted he tore his speech up into pieces.

"I still remember the night before the election," he said.

"I've never hesitated to stand up for what I believe is right and take the consequences if you lose.

"I decided to rip up my speech and give a speech from the heart."

As vice president in 1989, he was persuaded to stand and won, taking over from the first female VFF president at the time, the late Heather Mitchell - a woman he still describes as a great leader.

The decision to stand not only won him the election, but marked the beginning of a long agri-political career.

Twenty-five years later, Mr Arbuthnot still plays a big role at the group.

While many of his fellow colleagues - who have stepped into the hot seat at the VFF - have successfully made the transition to politics, Mr Arbuthnot said his interest was always with farming.

Former VFF presidents include the current Victorian Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh, Federal Member for Mallee Andrew Broad and the Victorian Member for Rodney, Paul Weller - to name just a few.

Mr Arbuthnot says he is often asked why he didn't tread the same path.

"I guess my makeup is really to fight for my fellow farmer - and for the region," he said.

"That's what has always driven me.

"But I have never aspired to politics. I am strong policy person and would like to think VFF policies are strong enough to stand up on their own merit in parliament."

Breaking the mould for the traditional VFF president, Mr Arbuthnot is remembered as the first dairy farmer president for the lobbying group (pictured above on the front page of the Stock & Land).

"I guess the pastoral group was really the backbone of the VFF at the time," he said.

"The dairy industry was seen as the 'Cinderella' industry."

But he said past United Dairy Farmer of Victoria (UDV) president Bill Pyle had really helped to shape the industry, and also pave the way for a dairy farmer VFF president.

Recounting his time at the organisation, Mr Arbuthnot summed it up as very "hands-on".

"If there was an issue in rural Victoria, I always went out there and saw it," he said.

Many protests were held by the VFF in the 80s and early 90s.

"I don't know if it was a more turbulent time, but we certainly led the protests," he said.

He said protests were also a good way to capture the attention of the Government, and bring about media publicity.

Newspapers, such as Stock & Land, were also important in spreading the word of the VFF.

Mr Arbuthnot said he developed solid relationships with many journalists of the time.

Penning a 'VFF president's report' on a weekly basis for the Stock & Land, he considered it as an important task.

"It was a primary focus," he said.

"We really used the media and used our farmer organisation's strength to shine the light on rural issues."

One of his greatest achievements at the VFF was being able to highlight social issues that rural communities faced.

"We did a tour once of the VFF branches to encourage people to send a letter to Prime Minister," Mr Arbuthnot said.

But after touring nearly every town in Victoria, Mr Arbuthnot noticed people did not mention the price of beef, sheep or wheat.

"Instead people were concerned about social and community issues, such as health," he said.

"So I set up the first social issues committee and chaired it myself.

"And I can tell you, you could get a frontline press release into media if you were talking about social issues."

He said he was disappointed when the committed decided not to continue with the committee later on.

Another big issue of the time was mineral sands mining.

"There was really a mini 'gold boom' in mineral sands, which was identified on old lake beds and in earlier inland seas," he said.

"Rich strips of minerals were recognised right through the Mallee."

Farmers became extremely concerned about the impact on properties and health.

"There was talk of radioactivity, and I can remember getting 600 people gathering in the Horsham hall at a protest meeting."

However, Mr Arbuthnot said the VFF worked hard to develop a policy that enabled farmers to be compensated for any loss of production, while the land had to be restored back to its agricultural use.

"If you go up into the Mallee now, you cannot tell where those farms have been mined," he said. "And I think that is a compliment to both industries - mining and farming."

With hindsight, he is now able to say that any new mining venture stirs up community concern.

Even today, Mr Arbuthnot has been outspoken on the issue of mining, such as the recent push for Coal Seam Gas exploration in Victoria.

"The movement against CSG has really grown out of a lack of information," he said.

"There is no doubt in my mind that the most threatening issue to a farmer is someone mining on their land."

Mr Arbuthnot was also extremely vocal about the importance of natural resources management - and was an early adopter of the Landcare movement.

"I really felt farmers could understand land management issues and it's why I've been a strong supporter," he said.

"Managing natural resources is fundamental economics."

He is also a big believer in the Young Agribusiness Professionals (YAPs), which is a branch of the VFF.

"The future of farming lies in those people," he said.

"I really think we should move from the word farmer to the word agribusiness professional."

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Sorry did i get it wrong..? Rankins Springs is still open..?!
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No doubt a few frosted Freddies out there who will wish they had taken a closer look at the AGC
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Matthew, I was wondering if you had followed up this story with the farmer after the whole