Innovative Forum creating national impact for Australian rural industries

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Michelle Ford MLA

Australia’s rural industries operate in a complex and dynamic environment, often facing a common set of evolving challenges and opportunities. That’s why AgriFutures has developed the National Rural Issues Program, which hosts an annual Emerging National Rural Issues (ENRI) Forum.

This yearly Forum brings Research Development Corporations (RDCs) together so research managers can collectively identify cross-sectoral opportunities and risks and develop solutions to enhance the productivity of Australian agriculture, fisheries and forestry.

AgriFutures Australia Manager, National Rural Issues, Jane Knight says the inherent value of the ENRI Forum lies in its ability to promote collaboration.

“Tackling these big challenges with multiple perspectives in the room allows us to be more innovative in our approach to problem solving,” she says. “Collaboration also means we’re avoiding duplication of work, which saves industry resources, in terms of both money and time.”

Michelle Ford: playing her part for the greater good

Michelle Ford is a regular contributor to these thought-provoking and horizon-scanning Forums, as an ENRI Steering Group member and in her role as Manager, Operations and Supply Chain Sustainability at Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA). A self-described problem solver, Michelle is passionate about the role that the ENRI Forum plays in informing research and policy development.

She says there have been many examples of valuable projects that have originated from the Forums, citing the Community Trust in Rural Industries program as a prime example of work that has benefitted many industry groups.

“This research has helped us to better understand the overarching perceptions of agriculture,” she says. “Other projects that have evolved from ENRI discussions include the transitioning away from diesel project, cross-sectoral work on waste, and research into additive manufacturing to show how it could be used across the agricultural industries.

Maximising the value of the Forum

The ENRI Steering Group ensures that the RDCs get the best value possible from the ENRI Forum, and supports the work of key stakeholders including the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, National Farmers’ Federation and Agricultural Innovation Australia

“The Steering Group is involved in continuous improvement of the process and making sure the Forum is fit for purpose,” Michelle explains. “Since the Forum began in 2017, the agricultural landscape has changed significantly, so we make sure we don’t lose focus of the purpose of ENRI, which is ‘cross-sectoral research and research that informs policy’.”

It was this commitment to continuous improvement that resulted in the 2022 ENRI Forum being based on four overarching themes, including biosecurity; sustainability and climate; supply chains / cost of inputs / local manufacturing; and workforce and community.

“The most recent Forum was entirely different structurally to previous years because we didn’t want the forum to be a ‘show and tell’ of projects; we need the Forum to deliver more than that,” Michelle explains. “We need to be applying what we know about whole-of-industry challenges and building on that so we can deliver relatively quick, relatively small investments that will bring value and impact.”

An unorthodox career path

Michelle’s work with ENRI aligns neatly with her role at MLA, where she works across agriculture to scope and develop opportunities for RDCs to work together. As a qualified engineer, her background is in manufacturing with a focus on process improvement and optimisation of resource use, problem solving, analysis and decision making, but it’s a skill-set that has proven extremely valuable in her work in agriculture.

“I’m very much focused on designing projects, collaboration, communication, and making sure we all know what we’re doing,” she says.

“For example, I’m currently working with Dairy Australia on a national product stewardship program on plastic silage wrap. This project aligns with the National Waste Roadmap which AgriFutures are working on, so it’s another good example of where there is complementary work being done across the sector.”

Boosting innovation across the sector

In 2021, Michelle was seconded from MLA to Agricultural Innovation Australia as interim CEO as the organisation got off the ground. She says this experience – which required her to set up all operations and processes to get the startup running – further emphasised the importance of constructive conversations with fellow industry stakeholders.

“The AIA Agri-Climate Outlooks and the Know and Show Your Carbon Footprint work are two projects that are now well developed and involve multiple RDCs,” says Michelle. “They’re large, impactful projects that will make a big difference to the sector.”

Learn more about cross RDC collaborations that are creating national impact thanks to the ENRI Forum:

Community Trust in Rural Industries

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