Departing Australian Dairy Farmers president Terry Richardson says the organisation needs to reinvent itself so it can be relevant to the next generation of farmers.
Given a 'clean sheet of paper', he said, the national body would have a very different relationship with farmers and state dairy organisations.
"I'd have an organisation that had a strong base of direct membership as part of its structure," Mr Richardson said.
The ADF had served the industry well for decades but it was designed by earlier generations who attended town hall meetings with guest speakers who answered questions fed to them through the state bodies. Things had changed.
"There's a mismatch between the structures we've got, the way that it operates and the way that the wider world is presented," Mr Richardson said.
"I'd try and make it so that it was relevant, not to my generation but to the next group of farmers who are not our members.
"What is it that they would seek from an organisation representing their interests?
"We haven't done enough of that work yet. We haven't sought to understand what a formal organisation looks like and how it should act to meet their needs."
Direct membership and better resourcing would allow ADF to improve communication with the grass roots using the latest digital technology, he said.
Frustration with the existing structure had led to the creation of rival groups like NSW's Dairy Connect but Mr Richardson said the solution required fundamental change to the advocacy system.
"You can't do it by taking one party out and replacing it with something that's similar, it has to be significant change that's going to have an impact," he said.
"If you look at Dairy Connect, how different is it to what we do already?"
Some of that frustration, however, was no doubt linked to ADF's policy development process, Mr Richardson said, which was constrained by its legal structure.
"You're governed by the the Corporations Act and so you've got legal obligations, and you've got the expectations of your members as well," he said. "You've got to ensure you get the right balance."
"Governance means that your first obligation is to the organisation, whereas I think that members rightfully say, 'Well, what about us? What about me? Where do I fit in all this?'."
Its conservative lobbying style also had its detractors and he said there were others who were more "strident and direct".
"Some of our members have said you should be more upfront, you should be there waving the banners and shouting on our behalf," he said.
"Also at the same time, you're trying to maintain the relationships and your standing with those who ultimately make the policy decisions."
The stagnation of the Australian Dairy Plan in regard to advocacy reform was not a wasted opportunity, Mr Richardson said, but a "work in progress" and there was still hope for significant change.
The most significant roadblock was the conflicting interests of the state dairy organisations.
"Put yourself in the position of a state organisation, you've got a lot invested in the culture, the history, the status you have within that particular region," he said.
"Why do you need to change, what is it that's going to be of benefit to you? For example, if you look at UDV, they are a significant organisation still, even though they're facing challenges.
"The challenge, I think, is not at the national level, it's at the more at the regional level. What incentive is there? Why do we need to change and come together at a national level?"
Mr Richardson said an alternative structure would have the state farmer organisations deal with cross-commodity issues. They might still have a dairy-specific area but not one that dealt with the full spectrum of dairy policy development and advocacy.
There was also overlap with the regional development programs, Dairy Australia's local extension arms, he said.
"ADF has a lack of resources, there's declining membership at the state organisation level, and then on the other side, you've got a well-resourced organisation with a strong regional presence, increasingly prominent profile and strong presence in government circles," Mr Richardson said.
"Who is the industry advocate, who's the industry spokesperson? I'd argue that when it comes to politics it should be the realm of ADF and state organizations, but dairy farmers say, 'Why should I join ADF or my state organisation when my local RDP seems to do all that I need?'."
Asked what the best and worst of the role had been, Mr Richardson talked about people.
"I was accused of thinking that all people are nice, but I expect the best of people," he said.
"Over my career in boardrooms, I've had some really tough conversations, whereas in advocacy I found and, I don't know whether it's everywhere, sometimes your own integrity is called into question and that's probably a little different than I expected. That was the worst of it.
"The best of it has always been the great people you work with.
"Even those who might be my fiercest critics, I can pick up the phone and still speak to almost all of them, which is a measure of the respect that I have for them because I know that they're all passionate.
They've all got the best interests of the industry at heart and they just want to do the right thing."
Australian Dairy Farmers will elect new board members today.
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The story Reshape ADF for relevance, departing president says first appeared on Farm Online.