Country boy conquers the capital
A passion for agriculture and economics put Ben Fargher on a path to becoming Chief Executive Officer of Australia's peak farming organisation, the National Farmers' Federation.
"Even before I went to university, I always had a passion for agriculture, economics and policy," says 35-year-old Ben Fargher, now in his fifth year as Chief Executive Officer of the National Farmers' Federation (NFF).
As a teenager growing up on the family farm at Warren in NSW, Ben knew about the NFF and what it represented - a voice for farmers - and hoped to one day work for the organisation.
"I loved growing up on the farm and I probably would have gone back there, but I was never the best at the production side of things," he says. "My skills don't lie in those areas. I always had a leaning towards policy, and that's what I wanted to do."
Although his family is originally from South Australia's Flinders Ranges, Ben grew up in NSW and attended high school in Canberra. For his undergraduate studies he chose an agricultural science degree at the University of Adelaide, spending most of his four years (1992-1996) at the Waite Campus.
"I went to Adelaide uni for one simple reason: I was passionate about agriculture and I believed the Waite Campus was the best in the country."
Ben secured work as a tutor at Scotch College, which gave him meals and accommodation. Like many students - especially those from the country, interstate or overseas - he found first year to be a daunting experience, but eventually settled in.
"I loved my time at Adelaide uni. I liked learning, met some great people (who are still friends) and also played rugby for the University."
An important part of university life for many students is discovering and exploring other interests. Ben was no exception, deciding to take on subjects in economics as well as agricultural science.
"It was a bit frustrating juggling lectures, but I loved both areas of study and I didn't want to give up either of them."
The experience worked out well for Ben. When he left the University of Adelaide he had enough economics behind him to fast-track a Masters in Economics at the University of New England (UNE), at Armidale, NSW.
"The Masters was a three-year course, and they waived the equivalent of the graduate diploma because of the strength of the economics I had from Adelaide. That saved me 18 months. Not only was agricultural science at Adelaide highly rated, so was economics."
After finishing his Masters, Ben spent the next year travelling through rural Australia and working in agricultural-related industries as well as in tourism. In 1998, his career in agricultural policy began. He got his first job as a policy analyst at the Cattle Council of Australia, in Canberra - working in the same building that houses the NFF.
The following year he moved to the NFF, where he worked on rural policy for two years, followed by a year of financial work, and then spent two years on international trade policy negotiations. He became Chief Executive Officer of the NFF in 2005.
Although he believes his background in agricultural science, economics and farming has been beneficial to his role, Ben is the exception rather than the rule at the NFF.
"Some people get the impression that if you want to work in NFF, you've got to be from a farm and have done agricultural science. That's not the case, and it's not the way lobbying works. Most of our staff are professional lobbyists or analysts, technical people, lawyers and economists, which is great for agriculture because we need that expertise up on 'the Hill'," he says.
In the time that Ben has been the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the NFF, the organisation has become more strategic and centred on influencing policy decisions made in Canberra.
Although the NFF has many issues to contend with - the impact of drought, climate and water use, productivity, the impact of the global financial crisis, sustainability and access to markets - education and training are naturally high on Ben's list of priorities.
"When I took the job as CEO, one of the first things I did was put education and training back into our strategic plan, and I employed someone full-time to work in that area. Education is not always a 'sexy' issue for our industry. But our productivity rates in agriculture have been second only to IT in the economy, and how have we got that? Because we've had good R&D underpinned by a focus on good human capital and skill.
"Today's farmers are linked up to satellites, more and more don't steer their tractors, they've got soil probes in the ground, they're plugging laptops into the root base of trees, they've got irrigation technology, animal nutrition, genetics, and it's all based on sustainability, environmental management, water management, variable rate fertilisers and so on. This is the way of the future." ■
STORY DAVID ELLIS