Outgoing President Katie Milne’s speech to the National AGM

 June 26, 2020

Three years after you gave me the privilege of representing Federated Farmers as President, what can I say but – what a ride!!   The role comes with highs and lows not to mention a shed-load of calls from journalists at all hours of the day, often right when you’re knee-deep in a critical farm task…. but overall it has been immensely satisfying.

One of the goals I set myself when I started out was to grab whatever opportunities I could to help bridge the perceived lack of understanding – even loss of trust – between urban and rural New Zealanders compared to just a decade or two ago.  I wanted to highlight for all Kiwis the challenges and triumphs of our farmers and growers.  As I mention in my annual report, that mission has taken me on so many trips up and down the length of New Zealand, and to overseas forums too, that the Subaru pretty much knows its own way from the West Coast to Christchurch airport. 

I think we’ve made excellent progress bringing town and country to a better understanding of each other.  We’ve used that phrase “we’re all in this together” so well, and so often, as we’ve debated everything from global warming and water quality to biodiversity and job security that people have recognised the truth of it. 

Even town folk who no longer have any direct family connection to a farm have a better appreciation of what farmers are up against to make a living when they’re hammered by weather events, pest and disease incursions, and roller-coaster returns from an increasingly protectionist international marketplace. 

Hopefully the message that we are producing some of the world’s best and safest food, to the best of our ability while looking after the environment, given the current tools, knowledge and resources we have available, is finally getting through.  Our hard-working sectors like ours who are providing employment and national income through real and new export dollars that aren’t printed or borrowed money.  

We will be able to do even better when we get properly digitally connected in all parts of rural NZ.  Our farming colleagues in the most impoverished countries in many cases have better access to tech through smart phones than our rolling country does, or even parts of the flat Canterbury plains.  It is ridiculous that many of my on-farm audits still require me to print out or hand write on paper forms for viewing, the data that my dairy company, vet or fertiliser rep stores in the cloud.  

Other innovation and uptake of efficient tech is hampered and we are holding back our farmers by an unknown quantum in a time when we need productivity to be sprinting ahead vs still arriving by pedal car to the stadium for the race.  We need to unleash out rural talent and encourage more into the jobs Ag has to offer.  Being able to be cutting edge without good connectivity is hard and not conducive to enticing great new talent out into opportunities in what is perceived as the wop-wops.  

There are other new technologies that need to be explored as we go forward and the need to feed rising populations will drive that.  We still have not had the debate around GM technology in such a way that people understand what it is and what it isn’t.  Discussing the opportunities around Gene Editing vs Transgenics, with explanations of what they actually mean, would be a good start.  If we can get grasses out the door of the lab and into the ground that grow well with less fertiliser inputs then we won’t be faced with regulation that will potentially destroy the ability to farm efficiently and productively in many parts of the country, such as we see with the 190Kg N rule in the EFW package.  

While everyone agrees we should continue to improve water quality where there is a problem, it can’t be at the total expense of individual farming families.  If we get this fundamental stuff wrong we will see unintended consequences that even the green NGO’s won’t be happy with in the long term.  Letting farmers truly be part of the solution search is the best way forward vs having policy formed behind closed doors that comes out and divides communities.  One such issue is being reviewed after much angst and that is around trees taking over large areas due to policy settings.  Again, getting that sorted with farmers in the room is key to getting a sensible outcome.  We need to be careful what we wish for here as if we end up with strict rules around what can be planted where, we open the door for that to be pushed through to where pastoral farming can and can’t happen.  That’s a very slippery slope we need to avoid.

Halfway through my term it looked like Mycoplasma bovis was going to be the issue that would provide the biggest headache and heartache for our farmers.  We’re still on that bold and world-leading eradication effort, and there’s no doubt M. bovis is continuing to take a toll on many farming families.  But who knew that this year we’d all face an even more destructive disease – one that has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world.

While farmers – like all New Zealanders – now have the unnerving prospect of waiting out how much destruction the pandemic will ultimately wreak on global financial and trade systems, never mind paying back the billions of dollars we’ve had to borrow, COVID-19 perversely delivered a silver lining for agriculture in helping raise the awareness as to just how valuable our farming families are to the Nz economy.

Those few who used to call us ‘environment vandals’ have been drowned out by the consistent messages from polls, and politicians and media pundits who now hail us as economic heroes.  We were deemed an essential service during the lockdown, able to offer security in a world turned upside as we continued producing top quality food to put on the tables of Kiwi families self-isolating in their household bubbles, and continued to earn export revenue.

For farmers feeling misunderstood and under-appreciated, it’s been a real confidence booster.  And going forward, those improved relationships we forged with MPI and other agencies as we worked on pandemic solutions can be built upon.

My three years has also taught me the value of responding positively to journalists and broadcasters.   The way that every single one of the members of your board, and every provincial president, has shown willing to front up on current issues, answer tough questions and in turn ask tough questions of our politicians and bureaucrats, has earned us a lot of kudos.  One agricultural publication has twice named us as the most open, helpful and effective of the sector organisations.   There are far fewer specialist agricultural journalists out there, but there are still some good ones.  If we can continue our positive attitude towards mainstream media who are willing to seek out our view, and represent us in a fair and even-handed way, I think it will pay dividends to our cause and to our members.

I’ve known the worth of Federated Farmers from way back but being President has really brought home to me the power of our brand.  More than ever, we’re sought out by Ministries, Ministers and media as the organisation that can speak for all farmers, not just one industry group.  And we’re listened to – by policy makers, by Councils and by governments.  And when they don’t hear us, we let them know loud and clear where they’ve gone wrong and what we think they should do differently in as constructive a way as possible.  

While our strength lies in the fact we’re a grass-roots, membership up, strong provinces type of organisation which unites on common issues, the force of our arguments and the solutions we offer rest to a large extent on the quality and hard work of our policy experts and wider staff.  If members could see for themselves the workload this organisation takes on they’d be astounded.  Take a look at the June 2020 Policy and Advocacy Report – 85 pages just listing the range of consultation documents, discussion papers and proposed law changes we’re engaging in, and detailing our strategies and policy positions.  The value of a membership is exemplified there and when we step up at select committees and point out short comings in legislation and provide solutions that may deliver a similar outcome required.  Dealing with potential unintended consequences by heading them off at the pass is still like the insurance policy you just can’t buy that being a member provides.

From day one, I was never really that comfortable with the focus that the media took that I was the first female President in the organisation’s history.  I went with it, because it was an angle that won us air time and newspaper column centimetres but I – and I know it’s the same with you all – have always believed that in Federated Farmers leadership, the right question is ‘what can you offer the organisation?’, not ‘what’s your gender?’.  Nevertheless, I like to think I’ve brought my own stamp and personality to the role – just a tiny example, and no offence Andrew, but I can’t see you on the pages of British Vogue modelling the latest in wool fashion garments - although you would rock wool-lined overalls!  Upon wider reflection lately I have realised that being a woman in the role has helped other women think about stepping into leadership roles as it has proven that no matter where in NZ you live isn’t a barrier and nor is gender.

I think having women among our leadership team, at national and provincial level, is a good reminder to the rest of New Zealand that our agriculture has long been underpinned by couples working together, each bringing their own perspectives and strengths and neither being more important than the other.  It’s useful to remind the rest of the country by having men and women – all working farmers - speaking for the organisation that those old newsreels of men out on the land on machinery and women confined to baking scones for the shearers is pre-war history, and even then it was a stereotype rather than the truth. 

I have had a lot of help, support and input from others throughout my tenure and I must thank you all.  From the general public who do get it that we are doing our best in doing our job of growing food in our beautiful and unique Aotearoa.  The farmers who have picked up the phone to discuss an issue and those who have told me I’m right or wrong.  The media who treated me kindly and gave me plenty of airtime to try and get key points about issues across. The past boards and colleagues I’ve worked with across a range of areas, and of course the incredible staff we have who work tirelessly on our behalf.  It has never ceased to amaze me how much passion there is for looking after our farmers - there is a larger team out there who have our backs than we probably realise.  

I also of course my own family who have grown accustomed to me not being around when they need me - thanks for putting up with that and doing all the jobs I wasn’t there to do.  Now you will have to get used to me being home full time again....

I wish the new board and Andrew all the best going forward in these uncertain times.  Good luck and I’ll sign off with my signature line