Agribusiness Extension Officers / Food Hubs review

Forging a new model that extends agricultural extension to whole-of-community value

The ‘Democratising Food Systems’ workshop held in October 2015 identified agribusiness extension officers within local government as a crucial role to help producers and food business operators navigate complex planning and regulatory frameworks.

For the past four months, Sally Jane Flett, a Masters of Environment student from the University of Melbourne, has been conducting in-depth case study research to document the learnings from two Victorian municipalities with dedicated agribusiness extension officers (City of Whittlesea and Mornington Peninsula Shire). Sally has now completed her research report, and we are pleased to publish the executive summary below:

Key findings 

  • There is resurgent community interest in local food right across Victoria.
  • Dedicated roles in Mornington Peninsula Shire and City of Whittlesea have uncovered and exploited significant assets to deliver community-wide benefits. This includes a >$1b local food economy in Mornington Peninsula.
  • There is substantial economic opportunity yet to be realised through sustainable agricultural production on peri-urban land. The economic value of peri-urban agribusiness has been significantly under-estimated.
  • Agribusiness support delivered through local councils fills a capability gap that otherwise constrains the economic viability and sustainability of small to medium scale local farming. Agribusiness roles foster community connections and contribute to multiple council objectives (particularly economic development, municipal health and wellbeing, and sustainable green wedge management).
  • Agribusiness officer roles are particularly well suited to local government. These roles are potentially better placed here than in the previous state-based extension officer model, as this tier of government connects more directly with the community and is the level at which farmers hold many compliance requirements.

 What do agribusiness officers do?

  • These facilitative, connector roles work closely with established and first-generation farmers, colleagues across council and diverse community groups. Their work falls into three categories:
    • Direct farmer engagement to support innovation, compliance and business viability
    • Region-wide education & extension to share R&D, connect farmers in the region, build capability
    • Strategic development to attract business, identify best use of the landscape, secure additional resources, and support integrated policy and council decision-making.

Why do councils – particularly interface councils – need them?

  • Economic development – grow the local food economy and earning capacity of constituents
  • Land use tensions – especially in peri-urban and growth areas the asset of productive agricultural land can be undervalued and permanently lost; the interface is a unique planning area
  • Community-wide health and social outcomes – including access to local food, social connectedness
  • Engage the farming community – in council process, to improve council reputation, for farmer welfare

Recommendations:

  1. All councils conduct a comprehensive audit to assess the potential of their agricultural landscape assets.
  2. Agribusiness officers can best enable farmers and facilitate community-wide outcomes when located within the Economic Development unit, working extensively with others and with actions integrated into key strategic documents (i.e. the Economic Development Plan or Green Wedge Management Plan).
  3. State and/or Federal level funding to support agribusiness officers in local government would achieve valuable outcomes for the state and these roles are considered crucial in interface councils.
  4. City of Whittlesea and Mornington Peninsula Shire quantify the return on investment achieved by their agribusiness officer roles to quantify with greater specificity the sound economic case for these roles.

If you would like a copy of the full report, please email us at info@sustainaustralia.org.

Food Hubs literature review

Food hubs are a promising alternative for coordinating the production and distribution of food to support the local food economy and forge stronger connections between producers, eaters and key stakeholders in-between. Well established in North America, there is burgeoning interest in Australia, including among local councils.

Sally is also working with Sustain to review the current state of literature and practice around food hubs to assess feasibility and identify the greatest areas of potential for evolving the model within the Australian context. A report will be presented at Australia’s first Community Food Hubs Conference, to be held in Bendigo on 8 and 9 August 2016.

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