Meet Derek Baker: agrifood supply chains & regional development expert

On completing a Bachelor of Agricultural Science (Hons) from New Zealand’s Massey University, Derek Baker was keen to pursue the business side of farming, and ran the family farming operations for three years. Keen to engage at the international level, he travelled to the United States of America, to Penn State University, to undertake a PhD in Agricultural Economics, on a Fulbright Scholarship.

“After my studies I joined the University of London’s Wye College, but quickly moved on from academia to food-industry consultancy in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union as communism unravelled and inward investment was being sought,” Dr Baker says.

Here, he worked primarily on the supply-chain side of the agrifood business – research that entailed empirical measurement of food industry and supply-chain performance.

Using research to empower farmers globally

A string of research and project management roles followed, with Dr Baker spending the best part of the next 25 years working in the private and public sectors of food, farm and primary industry in more than 40 countries.

“I worked in private consultancy in Denmark for nine years, continuing my food systems work in economies in transition and extending beyond the former Soviet bloc and into China, India and South-East Asia,” he says. “I managed a series of food industry projects for the Danish Ministry of Innovation, particularly looking at consequences for farms and rural communities of developments in the supply chain.”

Drawing on his livestock expertise, Dr Baker then spent six years at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) based in Nairobi and Addis Ababa in East Africa. “This work was primarily in promoting smallholder access to livestock markets, overcoming commercialisation constraints as well as promoting food safety, animal health, breeding and feeding solutions,” he says. In 2014, Dr Baker’s ‘Innovative Beef Value Chain Development Schemes in Southern Africa’ project was shortlisted by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) for a Best Project Award in the ‘Impact on poverty reduction’ category.

Digitally transforming agricultural supply chains

In 2013, Dr Baker took up the position of Professor of Agribusiness and Value Chains at the University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales. “This was to allow a focus on supply-chain elements of farmer and agricultural industry success, and to develop teaching programs on related subjects,” he says. Three years later, he formed UNE’s Centre for Agribusiness and has been active in agribusiness-related student development and careers.

Following on from UNE’s work on meat quality and the development of the MSA grading system, Prof. Baker has worked extensively on supply-chain information systems, and particularly their linkage to digital transformation in agriculture. In turn, this has led to work on Australian supply-chain resilience with the Food Agility CRC; strategy for agricultural digital transformation in developing countries with the World Bank; Greenhouse Gas emissions measurement in Ethiopia with the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), and a range of other projects on information systems.

In September 2021, he was a keynote speaker at the 4th Online Symposium on Agri-Tech Economics for Sustainable Futures, based at Harper Adams University in the UK, for which a recording is available.

Dr Baker’s research management experience has also been called upon in some project work, particularly with the Australian Meat Processors’ Corporation on innovation management; with AgriFutures Australia, supporting digital transformation in the chicken-meat industry; and with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Bank and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on the improvement of livestock data collection and analytic systems.

Dr Baker is currently completing a Masters’ degree at the University of Melbourne, writing a thesis on the role of universities in agricultural digital transformation. He gave a keynote presentation at the 2019 22nd Congress of the International Farm Management Association in Launceston on innovation systems, for which a recording is available.

Improving Australia’s regions

Dr Baker has lent his expertise in agribusiness and regional development to several projects related to rural infrastructure investment.

“Having grown up in a remote area and lived and worked in many rural locales around the world, agriculture’s regional development role has always been high on my agenda,” he says.

Since coming to UNE, he has worked on Australian rural transport infrastructure investment policy as part of an AgriFutures project, with the Armidale Business Chamber on a skills and training needs audit. He has helped Armidale Regional Council with its road infrastructure policy; and NSW Local Land Services with training.

He’s been involved with the development and activities of UNE’s SMART Region Incubator. He also conducted a pioneering study of the food marketing implications of ALDI’s opening a store in Armidale.

Championing circular-economy initiatives

Prof. Baker brought the global problem of food waste along the supply chain home to Armidale in February 2019, when he held ‘What a Waste’ – a global Town Hall meeting on food waste with UNE’s SMART Region Incubator, Armidale Regional Council, Sustainable Living Armidale and the NSW Environmental Protection Authority.

He’s also a part of circular-economy advocacy organisation NSW Circular’s Taskforce.

Helping NSW’s farmers make more from less

In August, Dr Baker was appointed the research lead on a CRC project with NSW Farmers that aims to help the state’s primary producers surmount obstacles to greater profitability.

In the ‘Putting farmers at the centre’ project, Prof. Baker and his team are consulting with farmers across NSW. Their aim? To identify factors hindering their progress towards achieving the industry’s 30×30 goal of growing farmers’ contribution to NSW’s coffers – and their own back pockets – by 30 per cent before the end of 2030.

They’ll then work with farmers to identify as-yet-unrealised gains through actions such as improving efficiency, upcycling waste and adding value to primary produce.

A global network

Prof. Baker is a member of, and has held leadership roles in a number of professional agribusiness and research management bodies, nationally and internationally.

In 2019, he netted a UNE teaching award for developing an educational initiative that took agribusiness students on overseas study tours as an immersive means of instructing them in case-study methodologies. With UNE’s Dr Stuart Mounter and Ms Sally Strelitz, he’s a co-trainer and manager of UNE teams for the IFAMA Student International Case Study Competition.

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Lead image: Professor Derek Baker, Director of UNE’s Centre for Agribusiness. Credit: University of New England (UNE)