President’s Speech  
National Conference 2018

Katie Milne

This is Federated Farmers of New Zealand’s 119th year and all of you who have taken time out from your farms to travel to this national conference to be updated on latest thinking, and join in discussions, deserve kudos and thanks.

A big thanks especially to all my fellow elected representatives.  I hope you’ve found the various sessions to be useful and the company stimulating.

When we set the theme for our Conference – “Farming With Confidence” we were deliberately setting out to address the REALLY big issues.

We want to be positive, front up to the challenges and find a way forward.

That’s what farmers do.

I’m going to talk about a few of the issues I’ve been dealing with in my first year as president.

It’s been full on, and exciting.   But at times some tough decisions have had to be made – none more so than on Mycoplasma bovis.  It’s fair to say that farmers were pretty much split down the middle on whether we’d be better off pushing on for eradication, or going for controlled management.   The scientists and experts on the Technical Advisory Group were split 6 to 4 as well – but that majority gave us the better odds.

What swayed it in the end was what the Prime Minister identified at that packed press conference last month – we have this one shot to try and knock Mp. bovis on the head.  I for one – and I’m sure most in this room are the same – didn’t want to get two or three years down the track and look back and realise, “you know what, we might have been able to kill off this disease if we’d been bold about it”.

You don’t know unless you have a go at these things.

In my personal life – “Katie Milne’s year” has involved less farming activity, although I still pulled 20% of the calves that needed a bit of help arriving – not many do because they’re Jerseys, of course.   I also helped a family farming business change to a new system, tested my nursing skills on Ian after he had surgery on his farmer’s back, and welcomed my first grandchild into the world.

I always knew the President’s role involved a lot of travel and speaking engagements but I’ve been surprised at the level of it.  It’s not just farming groups who want me to speak, but everyone from accountants to hotel and hospitality organisations.  

I’ve been bothered a bit by a pain in my elbow of late and I couldn’t work out when I might have dinged it.  I’ve been lifting calf buckets for 20 years, with no problems.  I was on yet another plane the other day and I twigged what it was – it’s lifting my cabin bag stuffed with board papers and all the other paraphernalia into the overhead lockers.

The media stuff has been full on too – and not just with the farming publications but quite a few mainstream media too – including The Listener and Mind Food magazine next week.  Interviews with reporters aren’t my favourite thing but as an organisation we need to grab all the chances we get to put our messages across, especially when we can chip away at that urban-rural disconnect.    I consider it a privilege to represent farmers - who are foodies as well as food growers - to wider audiences and I know plenty of you provincial presidents take those opportunities as well.

We farmers know the issues and all the ‘good news stories’ because when we’re on social media we click the farming buttons, and we get all those farming publications through our letterbox – though they’re a dwindling stable of publications, more’s the pity.   Town folk don’t get that same media diet.

So when a reporter wants to talk to me, or someone else in Feds, we shouldn’t shy away from the chance to reach out and introduce some of the realities of farming into the consciousness of those 84 per cent of Kiwis who live in urban areas, some of them more than three generations from living on the land.

On that same theme, the value of Field Days springs to mind.  I was at Waimumu down south earlier this year, and at Mystery Creek for the 50th anniversary event.  What fantastic events these are.  Next year I want everyone here to tell their city dwelling cousins and friends that they really should get along to a Field Day at least once.

I invited a Christchurch City friend along this year and she was absolutely astounded by the level of technology and sophistication that was on show.

She admitted to me later that she had thought farming was just about throwing some sheep or cows into a field and letter them do their thing – in her words, “eat, sleep, shite and shag”.   As well all know – and as she learned at Field Days – it’s a little bit more complicated than that. And we don’t just roar about on tractors and quad bikes all day”.

So what about some of the challenges that are on our horizon.

You’d have to be living under a rock for all the talk about global warming and climate change to have bypassed you.

But while the world considers moving toward carbon net neutrality, and our own government considers how and whether to get agriculture biological emissions embedded in that process, let’s not forget there was another international agreement forged not long before the Paris Agreement.

Goal No 2 of 17 under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is ‘Zero Hunger’.  These 17 development goals were signed up to by 193 countries at the United Nations in New York in September 2015.  

More than seven billion people already walk this Earth.  It’s predicted that by 2050, 9.7 billion of us will inhabit the planet and to adequately feed everyone, food production will have to rise by 50 per cent – and from less water.   

So equally as important as climate change is ‘how will we produce enough nutritious food to support this population -  particularly as it is predicted sprawling cities will concrete over valuable soils, and climate volatility will change the growing profiles of the districts we farm.

New Zealand can’t feed the world but we can – and do – feed many more people than live on our shores.  

As well as the nearly five million Kiwis and tourists here at any one time, it’s estimated farmers here can produce enough food to feed another 35 million people.

Our climate has an impact on that ability.  It has been a challenge for all life since life on earth began.

Climate change does not care if you believe in it – it is not Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy.

It does not need your permission to exist.

As you all know, Climate Change policy development has been a huge challenge for Federated Farmers, and it continues to be.

Feds is very well represented in this area by my vice president, Andrew Hoggard.

We are working as closely as we can with the government, legislators, fellow industry bodies and other agencies to make sure the discussions are robust and all encompassing.

You will hear us talking about treating gases separately, that methane emissions have increased by 4 percent since 1990.  In that same time, road transport emissions have increased by 78 percent.

In terms of reducing carbon dioxide, transport is a big ticket item that we all can work on.  

While a lot of promising work is being done on methane emissions there is still no “magic bullet” to solve mammals, especially ruminants, producing it.  The fact it does not add to warming if the number of animals does not go up needs to be part of the discussion, along with the efficiency from animal production here vs other less efficient production, and therefore efficient, secure food production.  

Let’s talk about another challenge …  the battle over freshwater management.

And yes, unfortunately, it does all too often become exactly that – a battle.

Farmers are going to need water to feed all those people I just mentioned –  the top 2 percent of the 1.5 billion that Brian Richards identified yesterday – the ones who can afford our high quality and niche products as we chase value over volume.  
To alleviate concerns about water use and quality, the Government has signaled tougher standards regarding nutrient leaching and in a number of regions in New Zealand, Farm Environment Plans are already compulsory.  My own catchment is one of them.  

Our marketers also want these plans, along with traceability and certification - to help give that point of difference in a very competitive and savvy consumer world.

Farmers -  an ever-adaptable breed as we know -  are taking that in their stride and one of the ways farmers can meet water challenges is using techniques such as precision agriculture and precision irrigation.  

Getting better at keeping the nutrients of life and growth in the root zone is a no brainer that is being refined constantly.

Without irrigation we would start to struggle to feed our customers overseas, it would also mean food from overseas would start coming here in volumes never seen before.

It would mean fewer jobs here.  

The mistake made about irrigation in some quarters is to consider it only in terms of what we use and need now for current farming types and systems.   What we should be doing is looking ahead and planning for what we’ll need to do in the future, and the water resources we’ll need to grow all sorts of foods – and that might include the alternative proteins available or now being developed.

In the irrigation, water use and other debates it’s becoming more and more apparent that WE are the farming experts.  Too many times the people putting together strategies and regulations aren’t seeking input from farmers, who have the knowledge.   The level of understanding of the practicalities of farming and food production in some quarters of central and local government is at such a low ebb it’s barely perceptible.

That was highlighted for me with Mp. bovis.   Everyone has lifted their game in response to this disease but in the early days the lack of knowledge from some authorities about farming systems, the tagging that we use to track animals and so on, was a real worry.

The discovery of Mp. bovis has been devastating to those faced with culling their herds.  My deepest condolences go to everyone impacted by the stock losses.  This is far reaching with massive impacts on graziers, service bull providers, calf rearers, sharemilkers and others who I’m sure to have missed who are caught somehow as collateral damage.

It will change how we farm from now on, and has given us reason to question how good our biosecurity response is for events that affect livestock, as it has for other sectors previously.  When we get a chance to review and take stock we will be able to make sure our systems going forward are more robust.

Looking at other biosecurity challenges – the Wairarapa looks as though it just might be able to have a mighty win over the Pea weevil.  If they can beat it, that will be a major successes story for our arable farmers – and for MPI.

Love them or hate them, that government agency has stuck it’s neck out for us this year, while also dealing with myrtle rust, Kauri Die-back and the fear of being disbanded by a new minister.

With Mp. bovis there has been an enormous amount of interest shown by the general public, which shows there is no rural/urban “divide” or “disconnect” when adversity strikes.  We have had 4.7 million people stop for a second and wonder about a cow disease.  Amazing.

On to other things …

It has also been our first year under a new Labour government after nine years of National.

They have stepped up to help us with Mp. bovis, they have been listening on Climate Change and separating gases and they are at least considering the efforts thousands of farmers have been making for several decades now, to improve fresh water management.  This is far removed from the pre-election hype we experienced.

There has been enough time now to get to know our new representatives and while we do not agree on everything -   everyone, for the most part, has been keen to meet and enter into very productive discussions to date.

The new Minister for Rural Communities has cemented his pledge to our people by pushing for all central government policy makers to have to consider the impacts of what they do on rural communities.  New Zealand is too small for there to be misunderstanding about how rural New Zealand works.

Just yesterday Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor acknowledged to us that our sector is the engine room of the economy.  And last night the Acting Prime Minister spoke of some of the poor treatment and lack of recognition farmers have received for the work they do, not only for themselves but for NZ Inc.  He even mentioned the ‘C’ word … compensation.

Agriculture has long carried New Zealand through financial dips and will do so into the future – so when agriculture needs a hand, it would be nice to think that other people would be willing to assist, and actually, they are.

We’re grappling with the disruption of M. bovis at the moment.   Who’s to say that tomorrow another big earner for New Zealand – tourism – won’t face some major fracture.    

New Zealand can’t afford to see any of its champions diminished and I have a lot of time for another of the themes that Brian Richards expressed yesterday – the need for greater co-operation and co-ordination as we tell the “New Zealand story” – particularly in overseas markets. If there isn’t a product clash, why do we act as if we’re competitors and re-invent the wheel each time.

When you stop and think about it, tourism as much as agriculture is pursuing that value, not volume, ethos.  I’ve said before that there’s a lot of mileage with the discerning consumers we’re chasing if we get clever about promoting our fabulous cuisine produced and available in a country with the best vistas of anywhere.

We do need an “umbrella” food story, and there’s plenty of room to work together.  Whether you’re selling milk or meat or fruit or fashion in the market, where’s the harm in handing over the details or a business card of another New Zealand product and letting the customer know of its potential, and that it comes from the same natural and stunning place as your own product.

No one is coming to rescue New Zealand if it falls – we have to be the heroes in our story and we should pull together.   We talk about a biosecurity ‘army’ of 4.7 million, why can’t it also be a “New Zealand story marketing army” of 4.7 million?
It’s consumer’s perceptions that matter.  Keith Woodford told the Dairy section yesterday about a brand new milk in Australia marketed as combining A1 and A2 – and the ‘story’ is being lapped up.

If consumers’ perceptions of your product are hijacked or skewed, it’s hard to recover. Look at the hit that nylon and polyester put on the wool industry as an example.

We’re fighting back hard on that front now, and there is a renaissance for wool going on.  With all the micro-plastics in the ocean, and pictures in the media of turtles, dolphins and other marine creatures being tangled by, or ingesting, plastic, it plays into our hands as we work hard to resurrect the prospects for wool, beyond merino.

And that’s not even touching on the benefits it has around insulation, retardant ability, medical applications and more.  Wool.  Simply natural.

On the first day of this conference, the Meat & Wool delegates voted to investigate the case for reinstating a wool levy, with some targeted and well-thought out strategies in terms of research and the marketplace.

With more than $40 billion of export earnings and growing, farming or agribusiness as a sector can keep money coming in at a rate local and national economies can count on.

Farming is the only industry the country has that can keep money coming in at a rate local and national economies can count on, while still adhering to Kiwi values.

There is no other industry which New Zealand has which:
  • keeps as many people employed in meaningful jobs with futures – well over 150,000 people
  • brings in as much capital to keep basic infrastructure in action,
  • or allows people, no matter their economic or social background, the chance to grow into who they were meant to be – people with confidence.
When we tell our stories well, they get heard all over the world, not just on our doorstep.

We need to bring everyone along so all New Zealanders understand what goes into creating our agriculture sector.

At Federated Farmers we are working to do this every day.  It’s not enough anymore for Feds to spend all its time thinking about how to make farming better for farmers.  

We have a responsibility to the farmers out there now, and the ones coming after us, to bridge the gaps in the ‘rural urban disconnect’ and keep our urban cousins interested in what we are doing, and even enthusiastic about helping us to keep doing it.

This year saw a very successful, ‘Invite a townie for dinner’, event run by Wairarapa Federated Farmers members Matt and Lynley Wyeth. They had an epic response from farmers and keen urbanites. The Wyeth’s were able to show their urban counterparts how modern agriculture looked after the environment.

We need more of this.

And then we have the education possibilities – like the ones being run in some schools.

Schools teaching kids about basics such as bee keeping, animal care and how to grow vegetables. We have done Pantry to Plate on our own farm, followed by a Dairy plant visit.

There are many other challenges we continue to face around accessing skilled staff, good health care and our wellbeing, better connectivity, local government costs, RMA issues and of course trade.  While they tick on as business as usual issues for us, they all have massive potential to add or subtract on our bottom line.

They all contribute to us being able to farm with confidence.

In my first year as president, as you all know, I was a bit of a novelty.

All that “first woman” stuff.  Not to be confused with ‘first lady”.

My focus through all of that attention was to keep farming at the centre of the conversation.

The media responded well to that, and so did the public.

My test on how we are doing, as always, is to see what sort of reaction I get when I show up in my local pub for a beer.  
My community, my locals, they tell me what they think.
And right now, they are being pretty positive.
So I take that as a hugely good sign, and I want to keep it that way.

The support from all of you, the staff at Feds and my family has been enormous and I thank you all.  I do have to mention that we lost our Feds ‘Mum’ – Jan -  early this year and she has been sorely missed.  We now have Lisa to try and fill her shoes and also incoming CEO Terry Copeland to get things running smoothly going forward.

Brian Richards told us yesterday to beware of falling into a time warp, to think that we have the organisations and the structures to take us forward, and to watch out we’re not living in the past.

Well, you know what they say to do if you find yourself in a time warp.   It’s just a jump to the left, and then a step to your right. Which is sort of what happened in September.

Let’s stay on our toes - and be up for whatever comes our way.

Thank you.