GROWING up on his family's mixed farming property near Hillston, New South Wales, Dave McKeon always knew he was going to carve out a career in the agricultural industry. Mr McKeon's previous experiences of working on farms and then in agricultural policy development within the Federal government provided him with just the right set of skills to advocate for a sector which he knows and loves, first with the National Farmers' Federation and now as GrainGrowers Ltd chief executive. In this role, Mr McKeon continues to keep the Federal government abreast of challenges facing the sector and also hold it to account, so that one of our most important industries that contributes significantly to Australia's economy is well supported. Farm Weekly journalist BREE SWIFT spoke to Mr McKeon about some of his professional and personal experiences and what he has learnt so far. QUESTION: What did your parents work as and where did you grow up? Answer: I grew up on our family property near Hillston in western New South Wales, where my parents are still graziers today. We had a mixed farming operation with sheep, cattle, cereal cropping and mustering rangeland goats among other enterprises. Like most kids in the bush growing up on a farm, life was busy and I enjoyed spending my time on motorbikes mustering stock, training working dogs and long days in the tractor. Q: From 2001-2004 you completed Applied Science (agriculture) and Agribusiness degrees at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga, NSW. What was it that first attracted you to carve out your career in the agricultural industry? A: I've always enjoyed the practical side of farming and the diverse opportunities in the industry. I think I always knew I would end up somewhere in agriculture and my studies provided a natural progression to further my knowledge and skills, while enjoying a great social life and playing plenty of rugby. Following my studies, I spent a few years working on various farms, including our family farm, and it is this practical underpinning that I have tried to take with me in every role since. The diversity and innovative nature of the industry is something that has continued to keep me passionate and motivated as I've progressed through various roles. READ ALSO: Q: COVID-19 has highlighted the sector's reliance on international workers and its vulnerability to worker shortages. Do you think enough is being done to promote Australia's agricultural industry as an attractive career path to younger generations, nationally and internationally? A: We have certainly felt the impacts of losing access to international workers over the past few years, particularly with the bumper crops in Western Australia which required all hands on deck. I don't think there is one silver bullet solution, but further work promoting Australian agriculture as a modern, progressive industry with many varied career paths will be an important part of helping build our future workforce. We also have to work at all levels from education (at school levels) to attraction (of jobs and careers) to retention (motivating, rewarding and inspiring those working in the sector). Start the day with all the big news in agriculture! Click here to sign up to our daily Farmonline newsletter. There are a wide range of creative solutions that we must continue to pursue at all these levels. I was fortunate to be able to assist with delivering a program with leading Australian agribusinesses last harvest to connect farm familiar agribusiness workers with farmers requiring harvest assistance. I believe through collaborative efforts we can continue to harness the collective expertise across the sector and address some of these complex challenges. I like to approach the labour challenge like sport in Australia, where all kids are provided the opportunity to enjoy and learn a sport (or agriculture), then as they grow up they may be attracted towards a particular sport or code such as Aussie Rules (or the grains industry), then they seek out and join destination clubs (attractive farm and agribusinesses). Q: How do you think Australia's agricultural visa programs and processes can be improved so that international workers can assist Australia's farmers sooner? A: The development of an agricultural visa provided some hope that we could improve access to a wider range of international workers, however this visa program has failed to deliver so far and in addition to accelerating its implementation there are a range of practical improvements that must occur. To be practical for the grains sector it is critical that the visa is opened for workers who have the experience of working on similar machinery, such as farm workers in Europe and North America who are seeking an adventure of a harvest on a much larger scale than their home country. Government effort must shift focus to include development of partnerships with these nations. We also need other simple changes, such as ensuring the visa allows workers the ability to move between employers rather than tied to a single workplace. Q: You worked in the Fedeal Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry in a range of roles on sustainable agriculture, the national food plan, drought policy and R&amp;D governance. Since then, how have you found it working outside of government, trying to influence policy development in your role as GrainGrowers chief executive? A: I'm a big believer that it's easier to influence something if you've taken the time to understand it. Working inside the machinery of government provided me with insights into government processes across a broad range of policy matters and I certainly would not be as effective in my current role without this experience. Working within a Federal government department also highlighted to me the gap between what is happening on the ground in regional Australia and some of the decisions made in Canberra. That experience really cemented in my mind the need for industry to play a strong role in influencing government policy. While I learnt a lot working in the department, I have certainly enjoyed my roles more since, working closely with farmers to influence change. Q: You were the National Farmers' Federation (NFF) rural affairs manager for three years - what did you learn in this role and how has this experience helped you in your roles since - as GrainGrowers Policy and Innovation general manager and now chief executive? A: My time at the NFF was a great opportunity to experience the power of agricultural advocacy in Canberra. Being able to work with leaders in the industry and connect the practical needs of the agricultural sector with specific changes to legislation or government program design was a great learning opportunity and very rewarding. Prior to joining the NFF, I had spent a few years building my understanding of government and positioning my career to be able to have influence and create positive change for the sector and my role at the NFF allowed me to start delivering tangible outcomes for the sector. One of the key observations I picked up from being able to work with farmer representative organisations right across Australia was the importance of getting the basics of sound research and grower ground-truthing right, without getting lost in industry politics, and focussing on the key points of influence to create change. It was unfortunate to see many occasions where key opportunities were missed due to focus on internal industry politics, rather than focussed advocacy campaigns. It's been an important element of our focus and approach at GrainGrowers to concentrate on the outcomes and not get distracted by the industry politics. Q: With the Federal election coming up, is there a party which you think will better serve the interests of Australian farmers and if so, why? A: In my role it's important to work across all parties in government, opposition and the crossbench, to ensure positive outcomes can be driven for farmers, rather than the risk of getting lost in partisan politics. We'll all be watching closely over the coming weeks as political parties start to release their election policy platforms. While we are often captured by specific funding announcements and new ideas, it will also be important to see a continued commitment to the many ongoing policy positions that provide a stable operating environment for Australian farmers, such as continued commitment to matching funding for our RD&amp;E system, no changes to the diesel fuel tax rebate for off-road users and continued modernisation and no compromising of our biosecurity systems. Q: Do you think the Federal Budget has served the interests of the agricultural sector well, and/ or are there significant resources the industry has missed out on in this Federal budget? A: The Federal budget did deliver a few positive outcomes for the ag sector, but there were plenty of missed opportunities. For example, the current cost of living pressures are being felt by all Australians, with the margin squeeze for farmers driven by input costs meaning farmers are feeling more than most, but it's not yet clear how the Federal government will be able to keep up with road maintenance across Australia, let alone any improvements, with a reduction in fuel taxes. Q: In 2011 GrainGrowers dissolved its shareholding in GrainCorp so that it could be independent of the grains supply chain and in 2018 it divested its commercial services to focus its efforts on policy, research and leadership. How else do you see the organisation evolving into the future to best serve the interests of Australia's grain farmers? A: GrainGrowers has a long history of continuing to innovate to meet the needs of Australian grain farmers. As an organisation, we've spent the past few years focussing on core activities of representing grains farmers interests at national level, and delivering a range of grower and industry development programs. I'm really proud of where the organisation is at: with strong grower connections, impactful relationships with key government and industry decision makers, and a sustainable operating model underpinned by a healthy financial position. Australian farmers are a modern and progressive group, always innovating and adapting their business to meet challenges and adapt for the future and as an industry organisation it's important that we move with the times just as our members are. While farmers will always need a strong influence in policy decision making, it's important to also recognise that many of the challenges and opportunities facing farmers in 2022 will not be largely influenced by government and an organisation, such as GrainGrowers, is well positioned to help embrace challenges and unlock opportunities for the grain farming community. I'm excited about the future of GrainGrowers. Watch this space, as GrainGrowers continues to innovate, aiming to deliver greater impact for Australian grain farmers and improving their profitability and sustainability. Q: What aspect of your role as GrainGrowers chief executive do you most enjoy? A: I enjoy the variety. For example, over the past few weeks my work has ranged from spending time with farmers on South Australia's Eyre Peninsula to hear the issues on the ground, to meeting with Federal ministers in Canberra to advocate on improved international market access and work through Federal election priorities, to spending time with the team in Sydney to work through some of our upcoming projects. I also thoroughly enjoy working with such a professional and dedicated team - being able to work with great growers and great team members is a really motivating factor. Ultimately, what drives me is the practical and tangible changes we get to deliver for farmers everyday, whether they be through delivering great programs or making changes to government policy to ensure an improved operating environment, seeing the positive change for the sector is very rewarding. Q: If you weren't working within the agricultural sector, what do you think you would be doing? A: I couldn't think of anywhere more enjoyable to be - and my wife Georgie has called me 'Mr Agriculture' more than once, so I think I'll be around for a while longer. Q: What is something you haven't been able to do yet that you've wanted to? A: While I continue to enjoy the variety in my role, I do spend plenty of time in meetings, and it would be great to be able to build in some time for a bit of farming back into the mix at some stage in the future. Q: Of what achievement are you most proud of professionally? A: I still like to think that I've got plenty of great years ahead of me and I'm really just getting started. But, in my career to date I've been able to connect the very practical side of farming with the very theoretical process of policy making to drive many tangible changes for the benefit of Australian farmers. Q: What are your hobbies outside of agriculture? A: With a young family and a busy job I probably don't dedicate as much time as I'd like to hobbies, but I do really enjoy most sports and these days that means plenty of kids sport on the weekend followed by catching up with friends and family around our home in the Adelaide Hills. Want weekly news highlights delivered to your inbox? Sign up to the Farm Weekly newsletter.