Gary Northover is the Executive Director of the Tractor & Machinery Association of Australia (TMA). He spoke to William Poole.

AMT: Tell us about the TMA and its history.

Gary Northover: The TMA is the industry association that represents importers, local manufacturers, dealers and distributors of agricultural tractors and machinery in Australia. We are the only national body that does this and we’ve been doing so for over 70 years now.

The Association’s foundations have essentially been the large importers – the brand names you’d be familiar with – John Deere, Case New Holland and the like. As time’s gone on we’ve expanded to include some of the newer brands on the market, and people like Kubota that have entered into agricultural products in a fairly large way; they’re now a key member. We also represent local manufacturers and the dealers of all of that product who are spread right across the country.


AMT: What’s the make-up of your member base?

GN: The member base is essentially comprised of the large OEMs or importers, and all of their dealers. So right now there’s a number in the hundreds in terms of dealer representation. And then we have a number of local manufacturers that are members, along with a range of affiliate members who are suppliers to the industry.


AMT: Is it an industry that’s largely dominated by imports?

GN:  We estimate that annual sales of agricultural equipment in Australia are around $3bn per year. Of this amount we estimate around 5%-10% is manufactured locally.

If you think about the tractors and the prime movers, they’re all those large foreign-imported products. The local manufacturing scene is more to do with the trailers and tools and implements that go with those tractors such as tillage equipment, sprayers, work tools and such.


AMT: What sort of activities does the TMA engage in?

GN: The TMA has recently completed a review of its strategic plan and we have identified three key pillars that define what it is we do. The first of those is under the heading of “Safety and Regulatory”. We’re the go-to body for matters that might impact WHS issues surrounding our product and the use of our product in the market. We recently engaged with VicRoads and the Victorian Farmers Federation on the establishment of a new set of road rules governing the transport of agricultural equipment that we hope will lead to an improved National Standard. We are beginning to embrace technologies such as driverless tractors and have been at the forefront of assisting Government in understanding how the rules need to be developed to cope with these.

On the training front, we’re a member of the industry reference committee for trade-based training. So we speak on behalf of the industry at the national level for all those things on the safety and regulatory front.

Another key pillar is in the area of market statistics. We collect sales statistics and report those to the industry and to the market. We’re looking to further develop this as a tool to help all our members better understand what’s happening in the market and in their business.

And the third pillar is under the heading of ‘Promotion’. We have a role in promoting the industry on the national stage particularly in areas such as employment and investment. We also assist with guidance and promotion of field days, they’ve been a big part of regional Australia for many years.


AMT: And you also have a conference coming up?

GN: Yes, this is an annual event the TMA runs to bring forward the issues the industry wants to talk about. It’s also a great networking opportunity as you can imagine. We’ve been running it in Melbourne for the last six years and this year we’ve decided to take it to Sydney in order to give greater access to our northern members.

The theme of this year’s conference is ‘Thriving in the Face of Disruption’. We’re looking to build on the conversation around some of those disruptive elements out there – things like trade wars and how they’re going to impact our people, technology obviously, the issues that might affect employment and retaining staff and so on. So we think disruption is a pretty good theme for the conference this year.


AMT: With regards to disruption, how is technology changing the sector?

GN: Agriculture is a bit of a fertile ground – pardon the pun – for technology development. We’ve seen a lot being invested in everything from driverless tractors to productivity improvements in the farming process – be it through seeding, weeding, crop navigation and the like. There’s lots of investment, lots of work being done both locally and abroad. Today’s tractors are equipped with precision farming tools that are greatly enhancing the farming process and all manufacturers are in on the race in some form or other which is driving to strong growth in tractor sales across the board.


AMT: How significant a role does Australian manufacturing play within the agricultural machinery sector and agriculture generally?

GN: As I said earlier, local manufacturers comprise a small but important part of the sector and this is a key contributor to the implements and work tools supply. Foreign imports continue to put these manufacturers under pressure and there is no doubt they find the same challenge as all manufacturers do everywhere in the country. The price of labour, steel … their input costs are pretty significant, which makes it tough to manufacture successfully.

You could almost describe local manufacturing as a bit “niche” in some regards. There are certain product lines such as large grain storage facilities and bins that might be difficult to import, tillage equipment that requires in-depth local knowledge -these lend themselves to be manufactured locally. So there’s still quite a thriving industry locally supported by numerous bespoke providers.


AMT: Of your manufacturing members, are many of them exporting, or are they primarily serving the domestic market?

GN: I’d say most of them are servicing the local market. There’s a small quantity that do a bit of export, but they’re battling against imports as much as anything in their local space so it’s hard to flip that around.


AMT: For a manufacturing company hoping to find opportunities with the agribusiness sphere, what opportunities would you point to?

GN:  We’ve seen solid growth in tractor sales in the past couple of years driven largely by technology and efficiency improvements so anyone thinking of participating tin the market ought to focus on areas that support the technology uptake and seek out areas not presently being supported by imports. The under 40-horsepower tractor range has really been growing significantly, so we’ve seen a lot of new entrants in that market, and they typically utilise work tools and attachments to assist in their activities – mowers, rakes and the like.

In the larger end of the market, we’re starting to see a lot more of a fleet management approach to tractor usage. In the past farmers might buy a tractor and run it without any real plan and one day decide to change it over. These days we’re seeing more product being purchased on term leases, with machines running for their “useful economic life” before being turning them over.

This approach would seem to be a driver for the implements and tools that are used as well.


AMT: What sort of measures would you like to see from Government to support the sector?

GN: First it has to be said that Australian farmers are a pretty productive and efficient bunch. We’re probably the least subsidised agricultural industry in the world. I don’t think there’s too many that do it with less subsidy than we do. We don’t need Government to step in and save us.

But the things that you’ve heard about: internet connectivity is a key one. There’s not much point in having all the latest technology available in agricultural products if you get it out of the back of a farm in Toowoomba and there’s no internet service to help it operate. Equally, infrastructure that supports agricultural product: roads, ports, rail systems. There’s work being done in that space, but we need to see Government continue to invest in that.

And lastly, just in the skills side of things, our industry is struggling to keep skilled people. I know there’s a blueprint for regional Australian development, but we would like to see that continue to be advanced because people are leaving the bush, and that’s hurting our industry and our ability to function out there in those regional areas.

AMT: Tell us about your professional background and how you ended up with the TMA.

GN: Well I’m still quite new to the TMA, and new to the agricultural industry. I come from a background of civil construction. I had a period of 15 years with a Caterpillar dealer, managing their rental business up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Prior to that I was working for Brambles, similarly in an equipment rental space,so I’ve had a lot of exposure to equipment and construction and whilst that has taken me into the agricultural markets, I’m learning quickly about the intricacies of tractors and sprayers and all the technology associated with agriculture.

And as I said, as an industry body, we’re attempting to work at creating a bit more value for our membership. I think we probably have been through some tough times as an industry body, and we’re looking to create a bit more relevance to our members and trying to be a bit more of an open house to the whole industry and not just be a representative of the major OEMs.


AMT: And what is the most satisfying aspect of the job?

GN: Well look, agriculture has a buzz about it – there’s no doubt about. It’s seen as a key contributor to the Australian economy. It plays on the world stage. The technology is exciting, the challenges are being well met. We’d all like it to rain more and we’d all like commodity prices to be better, but still it’s an attractive, energised place to be.


The Tractor & Machinery Association of Australia’s 2018 Conference, ‘Thriving in the Face of Disruption’, will be held on 17 July at the Novotel Sydney Brighton Beach in Brighton-Le-Sands NSW.