sustainability POWER ProblemAs our benchmarking lead Bryn Edwards departs vegetablesWA after nearly seven years, we ask him for his insights. He gives us a frank assessment on what he sees as core issues for the vegetables industry. GROWERS need to acknowledge that they are on the wrong end of an asymmetrical power problem. And that is causing them a huge amount of strife. Once that is acknowledged, the industry can start to look at how to go forward. And that’s going to require data. That was always my vision. Benchmarking is standard practise. It’s considered essential for most industries to have benchmarking data. It’s collated so that you know if the industry has the capacity to make some money. When setting up the Building Horticulture Building Capacity (BHBC) Program and benchmarking project (I joined vegetablesWA in October 2016) I looked for the best examples of agricultural benchmarking in Australia. It turned out the best was here in Western Australia. It is administrated by Planfarm and covers more than 40 years of continuous data for the broadacre industry, which is now an extraordinarily strong industry. It has no handouts, no support, no nothing… grain growers do it by themselves, for themselves. I approached Planfarm and asked if they would be interested in getting into the horticulture space. The rest is history.How would I describe the vegetable industry? My response would be that probably 90 per cent of it is feeling helpless and lacking in hope. The other 10 per cent of growers have somehow managed to retain some control. That 90 per cent sees themselves at the whim of those around them. The control now sits with the market agent; growers just drop off produce at the markets. In what other industry would you drop off your hardearned product without even knowing what price you’re going to get? You’re supposed to run a business like that? It’s gambling. It can’t be dressed up like it’s not. At least with the old auction system growers could get together and say collectively or individually ‘we’re not going for less than this’. From what I have heard, there was a sense of unity amongst the growers. OK, so that’s monopolising. But what’s the alternative? Today growers are getting a raw deal. They are selling produce for less than the cost of production. And the rise of the supermarkets has dramatically increased bringing with it other issues. Supermarkets are like ‘dealers’. They are dealing convenience. They move into an area and annihilate all other local shops because they play on consumers’ inherent laziness by creating a retail space where everything is available. Now they’ve got a whole stack of ‘addicts’ who want to come back for their convenience, then they train them up: you can have asparagus all year round; you can have avocados all year round. Suddenly seasonal food is available all year round. Consumers are hooked. Now they open us up to new things. People are no longer buying a whole celery, it needs to be cleaned, cut up and packaged in plastic. But now consumers want to be eco-friendly, so supermarkets are telling growers they need to make plastics reusable or remove the plastics. No-one looks at the presence, the role, the influence and the actions of the supermarket. Who created the entire situation? They did. Yes they have created this new type of vegetable consumption. Is it good for some of the growers who go direct to them? Maybe, but they are in an asymmetrical power dynamic. They’ve let go of control. It’s become asymmetric because the supermarket monoliths have turned up and it’s become asymmetric because the import suppliers have become more of a global supply chain. Their skill, capacity, tech and data acquisition have increased. Those growers not moving with them are at a disadvantage. So that is why they are feeling the impact of the asymmetrical power dynamic.“ In what other industry would you drop off your hard-earned product without even knowing what price you’re going to get? You’re supposed to run a business like that? It’s gambling. It can’t be dressed up like it’s not I see on the horizon a stack of people going out of business. Someone will start going under, the banks will circle, then foreign investment will snap up large amounts of the industry. That corporate-owned company will have the money to invest in the next wave of tech. That will smash the cost of production down and make it profitable. Meanwhile the majority of our grower industry will become more fragmented. With no touch points in the supply chain, growers will be isolated further. Things can be better.My aspiration, my vision, was always that benchmarking would be one slither of data the growers could contribute to and access and benefit from. That would then encourage them to want to look at other data. What’s the price of production? How much are we generally producing? What are the average prices at the markets? If that was kept in a closed shop for just members to access, they could see how much was being produced on a quarterly and yearly basis.That’s reasonable quality data for benchmarking. You can see how much has been produced, the prices and how that translates into profitability to build a business. All this information then gives everybody everything that they need to make some quality decisions – both individually and collectively. Just doing this would really add some symmetry in the power dynamic.