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The ARLP Impact: Unlocking Authenticity and Fuelling Advocacy

8 August 2019

It may have been the lure of large machinery that drew John Durham from his sheep-farming roots into the cotton industry, but it’s a passion for the fibre, the progressive and innovative industry, and its people that has kept him there. Now, set to graduate from Course 25 of the Australian Rural Leadership Program (ARLP), John reflects on the lessons learned throughout the immersive program, and the more authentic leader he has become along the way.

As the manager of the Riverina-based Southern Cotton farming operation, and president of the Southern Valleys Cotton Growers Association, John is no stranger to the strategic organisation, decision-making and communication that comes with industry leadership. Over the last 15 months however, as he has taken part in the ARLP, the scope of just what a leader’s responsibilities are have shifted and expanded for him.

“For the big-picture as producers we do rely on advocacy from our industry bodies, but at an individual level, supported by the power of social media, everyone has a voice and the ability to share their personal story” he says.

“Prior to the ARLP, I would typically prefer to avoid confronting conversations and be reluctant to engage with those with a negative perspective of the cotton industry. Over the past few years, it has been extremely challenging, predominantly due to the current drought conditions and lack of inflows into the Murray Darling Basin, which has provoked politically motivated attacks and misinformed media coverage.

“On a personal level, I now have the confidence to share my story and to be proud of growing and supplying the best quality cotton fibre to the world. We need our industry to tell the true stories of our progressive and innovative industry and its contribution to regional communities. Every time we invest energy in communicating the facts, more of the general public are well informed and negative perceptions are challenged.” John says.

From his roots growing up on a wool property in western Victoria, it’s been quite a journey for the young cotton leader.

“From early on, I always had an interest in heavy machinery and equipment which has been the core passion that drew me to the cropping sector. Following boarding school, I worked on a large sheep station in Western Australia for 12 months and then ventured north to Goondiwindi in southern Queensland where I was exposed to the cotton industry.”

John then studied at Marcus Oldham College, before returning to southern Queensland where he managed a farming operation for close to six years.

In late 2014, John and his family made the move to southern NSW where he now lives with his wife, Meg, and two young children. He says the cotton industry has seen significant growth in the southern region over the past five years, and it now plays a critical role in the industry. 

“It has been challenging at times,” John reflects, on growing cotton in a different environment.

“There were some traditional farming practices used in the southern region, and I was fortunate to be working with a young, progressive agronomist who was supportive of adopting and implementing  different farming practices. I’d worked with one of the most established cotton growing families in the MacIntyre Valley in Queensland, so I was extremely fortunate to have absorbed some of their 40 years of cotton growing knowledge, and to apply some of those fundamental practices in this business,” he says.

John currently works with Southern Cotton, a business established in 2012. It is a success story of growers collaborating to build a cotton gin to process locally produced cotton. In late 2017 they diversified into a farming business and are now tenants on a property formerly owned by Australian superannuation funds. 

“The company directors are extremely innovative and forward-thinking,” John explains.

“We have a diverse team with strong experience in manufacturing, finance and logistics. Together the team built the first cotton gin in the Murrumbidgee valley, and it’s a really successful and ever-evolving business story.”

Having experienced the ARLP at the same time as his industry has borne its own challenges, is something John has appreciated.

“Firstly, the cotton industry is extremely inclusive and encouraging, which is how I came to apply for the Program. ARLP Course 2 graduate, Adam Kay, (CEO of Cotton Australia) suggested I consider it. 

“I had the support of my industry, my employers and family behind me, and I knew I had to step-up and give it a go.” John says.

As one of the youngest members of his ARLP cohort at age 34, the leader says he was never made to feel like he had less to offer.

“The power of being genuine and authentic is one of the biggest things I have learned from the whole experience,” he says.

From the “grounding” nature of the Kimberley session, unplugged from distractions, to the cultural barriers broken down throughout the session in Indonesia, the ARLP has added to John’s sense that ‘EQ’ is a potent power to leverage as a leader.

“Generally, what sets a profitable farming business apart from a less profitable one is relatively simple: operational timeliness and productivity. But often what is overlooked is that people are an integral part of productivity. I certainly acknowledge that I have been focused so much on process and productivity that I have overlooked the people.

“Another thing that I have taken from the ARLP is the power of listening. It is critical to listen to people and understand what their needs are.”

Looking ahead, John says wherever his efforts are concentrated, he will continue to draw on authenticity and candour to communicate effectively.

“Times are continually changing in the agriculture sector. There’s a necessary drive for innovation across all the industries, which has a big flow-on to regional economies,” he says.

“That’s why it’s critical to develop passionate people in our industry who are confident enough to tell their stories. We need positive voices, and we need to foster the passionate younger generation to get involved in the industry.”

And if that process includes an opportunity for development like the ARLP, John urges those in agriculture to grab it with both hands.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If you’ve got the backing of your industry and family, I encourage anyone to participate in the program. You’ll have the opportunity to meet and engage with some of the most inspirational and informed people, and you’ll be equipped to reach your goals. It’s a unique opportunity for personal reflection and growth.”