John Ralph Essay Competition 2017: Structural changes in the Australian agriculture sector over the past two decades have thwarted the objectives of competition reforms

The Australian Farm Institute established the annual John Ralph Essay Competition in 2010 to honour John Ralph, who was the inaugural Chairman of the Australian Farm Institute. John made a major contribution to the Australian Farm Institute during his six years of chairmanship, and always insisted that comprehensive and objective research should be the basis for policy decisions, particularly for a sector such as agriculture, which has a wide diversity of different commodity groups and business arrangements. (More information about the history and previous winners of the competition is available here.)

The topic for the 2017 John Ralph Essay Competition is:

Structural changes in the Australian agriculture sector over the past two decades have thwarted the objectives of competition reforms.

The implementation of the Hilmer competition reforms over the period from 1994 to 2004 resulted in fundamental reform for many Australian agricultural commodity markets. Prior to the reform program, many agricultural commodity markets in Australia were regulated by either Australian or State Government legislation, overseen by statutory marketing bodies. All of these statutory marketing arrangements have now been dismantled, with the exception of rice marketing in NSW.

The objective of the reforms implemented over this period was to increase the level of competition in these sectors, in order to foster innovation, farm productivity growth, processor efficiency and ultimately community wellbeing.

Coincidental with these reforms, there have been significant structural changes in agricultural markets. In virtually every sector, there has been market consolidation, and a reduction in the number of companies competing to purchase farm products or to supply farm inputs. These changes have occurred in the grains, red meat, dairy, horticulture and intensive livestock markets, and Australia’s retail food sector has also experienced significant consolidation. On the farm input side, farm machinery suppliers, agrichemical companies and farm service agencies have undergone consolidation, and many of these sectors are now dominated by a relatively small number of large-scale organisations.

For many farmers, it appears that the benefits of competition reforms have been captured by non-farm participants in commodity supply chains, leaving farm businesses more exposed to risk, operating on ever-decreasing margins, and subject to the whims of major multinational corporations, over which they have little influence.

Participants in the 2017 John Ralph Essay Competition are required to prepare an essay on the above subject. Essays must be no more than 4000 words in length, and can argue for or against the above proposition. In either case, the essay must contain factual information in support of the argument being advanced, and must be properly referenced. Where appropriate, the essays should also discuss proposed policy changes that the authors believe should be implemented to address the issues raised.

Please fill out the following form and attach your essay to the form by 5pm on Monday, 4 September 2017.

There are two categories for this competition:

  • The Open category is open to anyone, including students, farmers, agribusiness participants, policy-makers, consultants, researchers, etc.
  • The Novice category is open to persons 25 years of age or under, on Saturday 31st of December 2017.

The two winning entries will be selected by a panel of judges and these will be published (along with a number of other papers on the same topic) in the Summer 2017 edition of the Farm Policy Journal, to be released in December, 2017.

Entries must be between 1500 and 4000 words in length, and material beyond the 4000 limit (excluding reference list) will not be considered by judges. The essays should be in 12 point Times New Roman font and no greater than 250 MB.

The essay is expected to present the author's point of view based on sound and well-argued reasoning.

A scientific style (method, quotes, references and reference list) is not compulsory, but important references should be cited. The essay should be written in a style suitable for an audience that has some familiarity with the topic, but does not have a great depth of technical knowledge about the issue.

Entries should be submitted in electronic format (.doc or .docx for Windows) with the entry form by 5pm on Monday, 4 September 2017.

The winner of the Open category of the John Ralph Essay Competition will receive a cash prize of $5000 and the winner of the Novice category will receive a cash prize of $1000.

Both winners will also receive a one year's membership of the Australian Farm Institute (valued at $330) and complimentary attendance at the Australian Agriculture Roundtable Conference.

Professors and lecturers are encouraged to participate by encouraging their students to enter this competition.

The Australian Farm Institute has established this essay competition to create discussion and debate on current agriculture sector topics, and to encourage students and the wider community to engage in issues of strategic importance to the future of the sector.

Any professors or lecturers interested in having their students participate are invited to include the competition topic in their students' assessment tasks, and to enter some or all of the resulting essays in the competition.

Professors and lecturers who have two or more students enter the competition will be offered:

  • One year’s free subscription to the Farm Policy Journal
  • One hardcopy of an Institute research report of their choice.

Please note that any professors or lecturers who wish to set this topic as a class project need to contact the Institute to register on 02 9690 1388 or

Entries will be judged using the following criteria:

  • Completeness: entries must address all the issues raised in the competition topic.
  • Originality: entries should go beyond just repeating 'common' beliefs, and carefully and objectively examine the question posed by the topic.
  • Comprehensiveness: entries should canvass the full extent of the issue, and carefully consider the positives and negatives arising from any proposed 'solution'.
  • Practicality: any proposals will need to find the right balance between being bold and practical – there should be a reasonable chance proposals could be adopted.
  • Clarity: entries should be written in clear, jargon-free language so that it is easily read and understood.

Images: APAL, Murray Goulburn