Close this search box.

Dynamic training strengthens industry leader embarking on phase of growth

Australian Organic Limited (AOL) Chief Executive Officer, Niki Ford, has been named among the Australian Rural Leadership Program (ARLP) 2021 cohort.

Ms Ford has been at the helm of AOL for almost three years and said she was honoured to be part of the coveted 15-month program, which will see her travel to the Kimberley in Western Australia and participate in a series of experiential learning courses.

“I have heard the program described as ‘life changing’, so I am eager to see how the course pushes me outside of my comfort zone and helps me evolve as a person and increase my leadership capability,” Ms Ford said.

Ms Ford’s acceptance into the ARLP, which is in its 28th year of strengthening the leadership capabilities of rural and regional Australians, comes off the back of her graduation from the National Farmers’ Federation Diversity in Agriculture Leadership Program in 2020.

This year, she returns to that program as a mentor, and although she has never seen gender as a barrier in her own career progression, she fully supports the course’s ethos of empowering women to step up into agriculture leadership roles.

Ms Ford quietly made history when she became AOL’s youngest leader and she said her skills in ‘listening’ and ‘empathy’ had served her best in bringing unity to the sector.   

Already, she has led the organisation through a demerge away from its certifying arm, positioning the group to focus purely on its work as a single lobbying voice for the industry.  

“Having a purpose-built peak body to provide a consistent voice to government has moved the needle more in the last three years than we have in the last 30,” Ms Ford said.

“AOL is here to support the whole industry, which is a challenge, given the broader remits our sector encompasses, from beauty items all the way through to food. We also service both domestic and international markets.

“However, we have the support of the majority of our industry and I am determined to see Australian organic producers, who I believe are the best in the world, make the most of every new opportunity.”

The Australian Organic Market Report 2021, released in June, highlighted the organic industry was predicted to reach an estimated farming revenue of AUD $3.9 billion during the next five years, and Ms Ford is eager to utilise her training from the ARLP and NFF during this rapid phase of growth. 

Organic journey

Ms Ford discovered the value of organic when she faced a health battle in her early 20s as she was delivered a life-altering diagnosis of fibromyalgia, which has symptoms of widespread muscle pain.

Growing up on the outskirts of Toowoomba she always had a keen interest in agriculture and food, and, as the kind of girl who “dives in headfirst”, was quick to follow her passion and started working as a chef. But, not long into her career, she was struck by the illness, forcing her out of the workforce for nine months.

It was during the grips of this personal health crisis, Niki began investigating the merits of organic production and after much research, she began swapping products into her lifestyle.

She looks back on the challenging period in her early life as fundamental, as it developed a strong sense of resilience and evoked her passion for organic, which she still carries with her to this day.

Today, if you look around her home, which she shares with her fiancé and five-year-old daughter Odelia, 95% of household products are organic, from food inside the fridge to beauty products in her makeup bag.

Recent research from the Australian Organic Market Report 2021 proved Ms Ford’s trajectory to organic wasn’t unusual, with 62% of shoppers citing personal health as the motivator behind their initial organic purchase.

“When taking on the position as AOL CEO, I knew something I was bringing to the table was that I am the classic demographic of the main organic consumer,” she said.

Career progression

Once the personal health crisis was conquered, Ms Ford held firm to her passion and forged a corporate career across the food and beverage industries, holding numerous senior leadership positions.

Eventually, she merged her biggest interests, and started working in the organic sector, leading her to a consultancy role with AOL, where her talents and leadership potential were quickly noticed, and she was offered the position as CEO.

Since taking on that role, the industry has faced some of its most challenging times, including ongoing drought, proceeded by bushfires, floods and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite this, Ms Ford is focused on making important legislative change for industry, as at the moment there is no mandatory standard for use of the word “organic” in marketing.

“Australia is one of the only developed nations without a mandatory standard, and without it, wrongdoers can make misleading claims about their products,” she said.

“This was a clear problem, which in my opinion, has a common-sense solution.

“Having this regulatory framework in place will be the king domino, and from there I am sure new market access opportunities will come to fruition, because as an industry, we really have so much to offer international markets,” she said.

Image credit: AOL CEO Niki Ford during a recent visit to Bonza Organics. By Louise Wright Photography