No time to waste for young ag leader

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Sam Johnston was a 2014 AgriFutures Horizon Scholar and in 2020 was selected as an AgriFutures evokeAG. Future Young Leader. He lives on a farm near Forbes in NSW and is passionate about linking farmers with the people who consume their produce and wear their fibre. 

In typical farmer fashion, Sam Johnston agrees there’s not enough hours in the day to do all the things that he wants to. But to be honest, his agenda is pretty full for a farmer in his 20s. 

There’s the Bachelor of Property Valuation he’s currently studying via correspondence, to add to his Agricultural Economics degree from The University of Sydney; the development of a small farming block he bought next door to his family’s property at Jemalong, in central west New South Wales; selling rural property for the Johnston Rural Group; and pondering what to do next with his good friend Jim Honner about their innovative Instagram campaign, #ThankAFarmerForYourNextMeal. 

It’s been quite a journey for Sam, from a primary school with a total of 25 students to a Sydney boarding school where there were over 1000, but the wish he voiced as a 12-year-old on his MySpace page has come true: ‘When I grow up, I want to be a farmer’. 

On the way he’s kicked some serious goals. In Year 12 as part of his Design & Technology studies he developed the Johnston Multi-Hitch, a new three-point linkage device for tractors that won second place in the state-wide Farm Invention of the Year award. In 2014 he was selected as an AgriFutures Horizon Scholar, and in 2020 as an AgriFutures evokeAG. Future Young Leader. 

“The ongoing connections, advice and guidance I’ve had from so many impressive individuals I met through those two programs really developed my commercial and professional skills, but also helped me on a personal level as well,” Sam said. 

AgriFutures evokeAG. is great at bringing together a range of people from different backgrounds, all passionate about agriculture, and getting them to think collaboratively to solve complex challenges. As the saying goes, ‘A champion team will always beat a team of champions.’” 

Sam has been committed to showcasing Australian agriculture and narrowing the knowledge gap between city and country after experiencing the disconnect between the two. 

“When we were at boarding school, I used to bring some of my city-based mates’ home for holidays and I was always amazed at how little they knew about the bush, and how they thought it was so cool to be riding motorbikes, mustering sheep – all the things I took for granted and saw as just ‘part of the job’,” Sam remembers. 

“Then in Uni I had a fellow student tell me that she thought cotton grew on the back of a sheep. That was a real turning point, because rather than laugh at her about how silly that sounded, I made the effort to explain that cotton actually grows on a plant, and a sheep grows wool instead. 

“A few days later she came up to me to say she really appreciated having that explained. I realised that people aren’t actually uneducated, they just haven’t been exposed to what happens on farms producing food and fibre.” 

Sam had been an early adopter of social media and was going through school when Instagram was launched. His university mate Jim Honner suggested the pair start a page to positively promote the Australian agricultural industry, and in 2014 #ThankAFarmer was born. 

It was a pivotal time for the farm sector. Farmers were on the back foot, Sam says, and consumers weren’t getting a fair and balanced argument. 

“That’s where we thought we could make a difference. Jim is a very creative bloke and after some great feedback from friends and family, we put our heads together and ultimately used social media and our page as a tool to close the gap between urban areas and the bush,” he said. 

“Within a couple of weeks of asking people to share photos from their farms and rural businesses we had around 5000 followers across Australia and the world, and we’re now up to nearly 100,000 across Facebook and Instagram. 

“Jim recently told me that the average Aussie adult will spend 16 or 17 years of their lifetime on their phone and social media, which blew me away. And I think agriculture has a really good opportunity to market itself on socials.” 

The success of #ThankAFarmerForYourNextMeal led to spinoffs #EatWellEatAustralian and #PhoneAFarmer. Sam suggests another option to connect people with the source of their food is through using the QR codes that became ubiquitous in the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Early in 2020 as part of my Future Leaders program I actually did a speech at evokeAG. about QR codes. I talked about consumer 2.0, who in my mind is someone who wants more from the industry in terms of traceability – short, snappy stories about the people that produce their food, that they can get invested in,” said Sam. 

“QR codes have come a long way since then! But they’d be great to convey our information in bite-sized, easy to digest information that puts a bit more personality behind the produce that we grow.” 

For now it’s a case of Sam and Jim finding time to plan the next iteration of #ThankAFarmerForYourNextMeal, so stay tuned and watch this space! 

Applications for the 2023 AgriFutures Horizon Scholarship will open in November 2022.  

Find out more at agrifutures.com.au/horizon. 

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