President Katie Milne's address to National Council, 2017

November 22, Wellington

Earlier this month a senior journalist for an agriculture magazine wanted a few written comments from me about the political influence of Federated Farmers – both with the previous government and the new one.

It got me thinking about all the issues we wade into on behalf of our members and by the time I’d listed them all – just as bullet points – I was already way, way over the word count the journalist wanted.

Our key role is to make sure legislation affecting the business of farming is properly thought through and developed, and based on solid evidence, sound analysis and ‘running a rural lens’ over it.

 A couple of our biggest successes over the past year were around issues that never even made it into the public sphere, because they were being discussed with us long before the politicians or the government agencies took them further to the public.  That’s part of what being a lobbying organisation means. 

 Farmers just like any other business operators – need certainty from government, not surprise announcements and policy made on the hoof.  We have all heard it - fast policy can be bad policy.  Without that certainty, they’re reluctant to make long-term investments. That’s why the government’s recent announcement there would be no mining on DoC land caused rumbles of concern. It doesn’t particularly matter whether you agree or not with mining in the conservation estate – it was the surprise factor that was resented.  There had been no signal during the election campaign such a policy was coming. 

 Federated Farmers has pledged to work with the new coalition in good faith, but we’ll take a dim view of radical policy sprung on the sector without warning and robust discussion.

 We’ve worked extensively in the last year with central government Ministers, officials and agencies on the development of regulations around animal welfare, gun ownership, water and irrigation management, Resource Management Act reform, stock exclusion and tax calculation.  Thinking on animal sentience and what it means has also just begun.

 

In long-running discussions with WorkSafe we finally were able to achieve a sensible outcome for the carriage of passengers on quad bikes when they’re being used on farm.

 We helped gain cross-party support for an amendment to telecommunications legislation that enabled installation of fibre optic cable along overhead powerlines crossing farmland, with a connection discount for the affected landowner. 

 That was a practical solution that will not only help extend broadband connectivity further into rural areas but will save farmers money.

 Another success in the public arena has been the launch of our Federated Farmers Dairy Apprentice programme, working in conjunction with the Primary ITO. 

 The good news is that by the end of October we’d already had 44 employer registration enquiries, and about the same number of expressions of interest from young trainees.  

 It’s another area we have identified a gap that needs filling and addressed it.

 Federated Farmers also played a big part in the response and recovery effort in rural areas following the Kaikoura-Hurunui Earthquakes, ranging from getting food in and cows out, to sourcing workers for land remediation. 

 Our connections with, and lobbying of, government agencies and Ministers secured funding for these initiatives.  

 During the first week we used our networks to check and make sure everyone was okay. It became clear there were areas no one had heard from.

 We organised a chopper to go in and check on those stations and drop off a small care package for kids that Beef & Lamb had put together. Our intel. was passed on to Welfare and Civil Defence to follow up with medications and supplies where needed.  

 The system had not identified these black holes - but we did.  

 Among the many stand out achievements of the event there was one in particular that has not really been covered by the press and it should have been because it speaks to our ability to succeed where others cannot.  

 I had the pleasure of working with a young sharemilker from Southland who had organised 34 pallets of food and supplies to come up on trucks from Southland.  

 She had struck a brick wall at the final stage of getting it into the farmers of Kaikoura.  It was important to get this flown out onto a farm, not into town, so the farmers down those long dusty and broken roads would actually receive the goods.

 Every other avenue had put it in the too hard basket so she contacted Feds as a last ditched attempt to get all the kind donations through.

 It took a lot of work but we managed to get helicopters and the people to load and unload them after many, many phone calls to the bunker in Wellington, to Civil Defence and MPI and the right Ministers to make it happen.

 This story of calling on the Feds out of desperation and us being able to solve the problem speaks volumes.  I have yet to meet the sharemilker in person but she is an unsung farming heroine in my book.

 We were also instrumental in helping get stock out of Kaikoura when road restrictions were in place.  I strongly believe that was because of relationships we have forged over the years with various officials and the simple fact that the Federated Farmers brand is trusted and respected.

 My biggest regret about all the positive work we did in the wake of that emergency and disruption is that few people got to hear about it.  

 While we do not want to add to stress when adverse events happen we do need to be recognised when we play a major role so we can continue to get appropriate funding to be able to have a robust network in place for future events.

We have a habit of under-selling our value, letting others take the credit.  The Kiwi way is to be humble and steer clear of the limelight but there are times when we have to move past that and welcome more light being shone on the vital role the Feds play in Team Ag during such events.  

Think back to the Farmy army, snow racking sheep, motorists rescued by a farmer with a digger during floods and you get the picture.  This all helps with farmers’ image with the wider public.

In any discussion about political influence, the usefulness of our profile in the media shouldn’t be under-estimated.   Hardly a day goes by that I don’t get a phone call from a journalist wanting Federated Farmers’ take on the latest hot topic, or I’m on a radio show or TV programme putting our farming point of view.  Andrew, the two Chris’s, Guy and Miles are also regularly in the media pressing our causes.

It means we’re highly visible and vocal in wider public debates on such matters as the water tax, the ETS, genetically modified organisms, immigration, and so on. 

Like manure is for mushrooms, the media is what feeds politicians – they thrive on attention monitor what is grabbing the headlines.  It also helps shape their policy formulation and Federated Farmers is regarded as important to listen to. 

It is good that Prime Minister Ardern’s office has already asked us what dates we are holding our National Conference next year so they can put it in her diary so she can address us.

If you want some evidence of our influence during the election campaign,  we – and others - did a lot to highlight the pressures facing rural communities, influencing the National government to make funding commitments for things like extra funding for tourism infrastructure to address pressures caused by tourists, including freedom camping, and the need for additional resources for biosecurity.

The National government accepted our arguments it was illogical and unfair to put agricultural livestock emissions under the Emissions Trading Scheme when there were very limited mitigation measures farmers could take, and that our trading partners were not subject to the same imposition. 

We couldn’t dissuade Labour from this course but – with NZ First also pushing them – they have now wound back their initial 10 per cent ETS impost to five per cent.

We don’t expect our approach to change much at all under a Labour-led government.  We’ll engage with them in a constructive way to get the best positive outcome we can for farming families. 

We know there will be changes and we’ll work through those. 

The journalists who sparked all this thinking about our influence asked me if Federated Farmers expected to be heard with any sympathy by a coalition that includes Labour and the Greens. 

 

I replied that we don’t ever expect to be heard “sympathetically” regardless of the government, council or court we are speaking to.

All we do is make sure the impact of any regulation, law, policy, plan, rule, bylaw - or whatever else they might be called - is fully understood by the people making them, that they understand how they will affect the primary sector, and the $40 billion in value the industry is tipped to bring into the country next year.   

And we’ll give praise where it’s due.  Jacinda Ardern, Winston Peters and ‘Team New Zealand’ did well in Vietnam and the APEC talks, helping to move TPP – or rather CPTTP – forward.  Pretty much any moves to reduce trade barriers with the significant trading partners involved in those negotiations will be applauded by New Zealand’s primary producers.

Enough navel gazing over the election…. what about what’s coming up?   Where do farmers fit in the future vision the Coalition has for New Zealand Inc, or where synthetic food may take us when some in the younger generations don’t care if food is naturally produced as much as they care what animals were involved and what sort of life they led.  

Animal sentience is another thing that is looming that we will have to understand and respond to.

The innovative and artisan products one finds at Farmers’ Markets these days appeal to a lot of consumers.  

There’s a lot to be said for the idea that New Zealand can be a kind of Farmers’ Market to the world – one that supplies trusted, safe, natural, pasture-raised products to the world’s most affluent and choosey customers. 

It should be the same approach with our tourists- value not volume.  We should be a place known for delivering the best cuisine from land and sea, eaten in the most spectacular vistas.  Let’s turn ourselves into the south of France of the Pacific.

They’re scenarios we’ll have to back with sound environmental and animal welfare credentials.

Issues around water quality remain one of our biggest challenges. 

Urban New Zealanders – whose letterboxes don’t get swamped as ours do with the farming publications and stories of all the rural people stepping up on the sustainability front – are swayed by lobby group campaigns and a mainstream media that thrives on controversy.

There’s no argument – agriculture has had an impact on rivers.  But we also know you can’t live anywhere on the planet and not have an effect.  What’s important now is the get the word out on farmers’ determination not to produce less, but to maintain those export earnings vital to the nation while at the same time shrinking farms’ environmental footprint.

The Feds strives to get legislators and regulators to see our thinking is the best way forward – science-informed, practical and catchment-based programmes harnessing all the new technology coming our way.

Profitability means farmers have the resources to do more to reach out and to strive for that place they always want to go - to leave things better than they found them for the next generation.

 We are always optimistic that eventually Kiwis will begin to realise farmers have been working to improve waterways and water management for more than a decade, and this work will continue on into the future. 

This will show up in improving water quality outcomes, so it’s not just about changing urban people’s perceptions but also the reality.

So, we are hopeful that water quality might be less of an emotive issue in the future than it has been in the past – enabling both rural and urban communities to work on real not imagined water quality challenges in a constructive way.

At least the Feds and the new government are singing from the same song sheet on one topic – the importance of biosecurity.   The Coalition has pledged extra money for protecting our borders and dealing with incursions.  However, whether this – and other gains – requires the carve-up of MPI remains to be seen. 

We’re still awaiting information on the pros and cons of that, and the reasons why the inevitable disruption and cost of dismantling that Ministry is necessary.

But biosecurity is also a matter of vigilance at farm level.  The arrival of Mycoplasma bovis in south Canterbury has heightened awareness of that truism ‘Keep your farm a Fortress’.

Good practices that we have taken for granted or not implemented at all should now become normal practice.  Disinfecting boots and equipment, double fencing boundaries and quarantining stock that come onto farm from elsewhere – these are things we need to seriously consider making common practice to help biosecurity on farm.  

Also those selfies with buffalo and exotic animals when on holiday may require an 8 day stand down when you’re home before going near your own stock.  What about migrant staff having a visit home to Foot and Mouth endemic countries?  

Climate change and where farming fits going forward as disruptions such as plant protein come over the horizon deserve careful discussion but I’m confident there are as many opportunities ahead of us as threats.

We need to keep treating our animals well, soils well, our waterways well, our families, communities, and each other well.  Keep learning, keep implementing tested best practice, and keep looking for new technology to help do these things better. That is what we have done in the past and we need to continue to do it.

Let science inform us both of what has worked and what has failed so we can adjust direction and strive forward again.

The voice of the grass roots farmer is vital. Our stories – when we get them out there - are real and honest and appreciated.  

We can’t afford to be shy when we put in that QEII covenant, fence off that bush or stream, or work with the wider community on a catchment improvement project.

Showing the rest of New Zealand we’re doing these things is important for another reason too.  We’re getting older.  I’m just looking at some of you in this room!  

 We need young people to understand they can have a great career and lifestyle in farming, and that rural New Zealand is not just surviving but thriving.