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Keeping up for the next generation

4 July 2014

Keeping up for the next generation

Final speech delivered by Conor English, Federated Farmers Chief Executive, to Federated Farmers 2014 National Conference, Palmerston North

It is a pleasure to be at my final AGM for Federated Farmers. Having spent almost four years in my twenties and six years in my forties, I will not be spending one day at Federated Farmers in my fifties! I technically finish on the 23 July, six years to the day that I started, and then the following day I am lucky enough to turn 50.

There are many things one could talk about on such an occasion, the progress that has been made, the importance of farming families and the rural sector to NZ, but I just want to touch on a few issues and express perhaps a more personal view and take some license.

I was talking to a regional government politician recently, and I asked him if he could look an 11 year old in the eye and say that he was looking after her future with the decisions being made in his region. Reality is he couldn’t. I am of course referring to the Ruataniwha dam. I would qualify this by saying I have not read the final report of the board of enquiry, but my personal view is that this is an unfortunate situation. Hawkes Bay is one of New Zealand’s fantastic regions that has now far less of a future. In simplistic terms the board of enquiry has said you can build the dam but you can’t use the water. In my view unfortunately politics appears to have triumphed over the environment.

We all need to be able to look our 11 year old child in the eye and say that we are looking after their future. The 11 year old girls and boys of Hawkes Bay will now be looking for a future elsewhere. Bad decisions matter.

I am a big believer in trying to make informed decisions. I think it is critical that decisions are made with as many facts as possible. While emotion has its place, decisions need to be made on more than that. Science is very important too, and we need to have objective measures to assist as well. Trade-offs are often required so it’s important we take the time and make the effort to get as informed as possible, so we don’t have unintended consequences. In my view we may not have made fully informed decisions with TAF. So are we making informed decisions on water?

As the father of six children I believe I have as big a stake in the future as everyone else does. I absolutely want a future that sees our environment looked after. Sustainability is a word that is used a lot; indeed Federated Farmers mission is to influence decision makers for more profitable and sustainable farming. I was fortunate enough to represent New Zealand at the Rio +20 Conference on Sustainability a couple of years ago. There were 50,000 people at this conference. I asked as many people as I could what their definition of sustainability was. I got as many answers as the people I asked. In my view it is about being able to do things for generations. That is we need to be able to harvest the environment but not harvest the capital of the environment. Farmers in New Zealand do this every day. If there are some that don’t, they do need to buck up there ideas.

Should we go back to prehistoric levels of biodiversity or other environment indicators? The environment has been changed by human kind and it will continue to do so, but it must be done in a way that does think about future generations. Every New Zealander needs to take some responsibility.

When I look at the issue of water quality, it is puzzling for me because New Zealanders have not had an open and honest discussion about it. There has been far too much emphasis on one element, which is nitrogen, and far too much generalisation about farming, Where has been the examination of the impact of the other things that impact on water quality? A singular focus on only nitrates will mean we end up solving the wrong problem.

There is a river going through the Milton township, and the Otago Regional Council put out a notice that said ‘Please do not swim below the bridge because the e-coli levels are unsafe for swimming’. This was not because of the 28 dairy farms on the catchment but because Milton pumps partially treated sewage into the river. This council however, then chose to put out a further newsletter about a year later calling for public meetings to talk about the impact of dairy effluent storage on water quality. If you had no farms, you still won’t be able to swim because of the sewage situation. We are here in Palmerston North, who apparently has the worst river in the world, really? Is this council investing in its sewage scheme? No I don’t believe it is. Is it talking about dairying being the big polluter? Yes I think it is. Is it solving its own problems? No its not.

My challenge to every New Zealander is that we need to be more up front and honest about these things. My view is until every New Zealander takes responsibility for the impact that they are having on their water quality, and until we have more transparency around the nature of that water quality problem and solutions, we will not make the progress that we need to make.

With issues such as climate change, again it is important that we make informed decisions. It is not good for the global environment to have less farming happening in New Zealand. It is not clear to me how farmers paying someone some money will change the weather. What is clear to me though is that more effort into improving productivity, more effort into innovation, into a collective global effort to look at broader solutions would be practical and useful, as well as more effort into water storage. If you think it is going to get hotter water storage is a useful thing to do. This is why I have been very puzzled by the green opposition to water storage projects. My challenge to them is please explain to New Zealanders how drought is good for the fish, the environment, the economy and society?

I don’t subscribe to the notion that unless you have green in your name you are not green. If that were true, perhaps we should change the name to Federated Green Farmers or FGF. Farmers by the nature of their workplace and what they do are actually the green jobs. Farmers are the ones making decisions at the coalface so to speak, and by and large they do a very good job. As an organisation, Federated Farmers was an instigator in setting up Landcare Research, QEII Trust, tied up with the Balance Awards and more recently has taken over the management of the AgRecovery Trust.

We have done this because the environment matters to farming. People who call themselves “green” could learn a lot from farmers. My challenge to these people is to make the effort. Work with farmers to look for win win practical, fair, economic sensible solutions that actually make a difference in the real world. Please do not just look for some emotional sound bite that’s just about creating fear and raising money for your organisations. Celebrity doesn’t solve environmental problems.

If you do look in the eyes of an 11 year old, one of the things you know with certainty is that the world they will grow up in, in terms of technology, is different to the world when I was 11. This is why I have been extremely passionate about the rural broadband initiative. It is absolutely critical if we want our regions to prosper and to enhance the environment that we have the railway tracks of broadband and cellphone coverage. The world is going mobile.

This government is to be congratulated, that when they didn’t quite have it right they listened to Federated Farmers and changed policy to enable the rural broadband initiative to be far more substantial than what it was going to be. My challenge to this government and future government’s is that there must be far more investment in provincial New Zealand in terms of cell coverage and broadband infrastructure.

Our population is growing but a lot of that growth is in Auckland, which is creating challenges for that city. People will simply not live in the regions unless they can be connected. If the government is going to be involved in these things it needs to prioritise provincial New Zealand. When the RBI initiative runs out, I think its next year at a minimum, then it needs to be continued for another six years.

Also with technology comes new ways of learning and is incumbent on our schools, universities and research institutions to adapt to what I know is a big challenge. I have been on a couple of boards of trustees and I know the teachers in those schools are very good and their hearts are in the right place, but again when we look at the rest of the world we need to ensure that our children can be up with the latest and the greatest in learning techniques if we are to remain competitive with the rest of the world.

As an aside, I would also comment that some of our curriculum needs to be adapted. I asked one of my children what they were covering in their history subjects and it was essentially the same as what I did a decade or two ago. History doesn’t change of course so maybe that’s not so surprising, but the present context in which we study does. In my view, every school in New Zealand should now be looking more east when it studies how other people live and some of the historical events over time. Since I was 11, our trading patterns have shifted dramatically but our curricular hasn’t much. That’s simply not good enough.

I have to say I am very proud of my wife Jo Coughlan who along with Labour MP Raymond Hau is the Co -Chair of New Zealand China language week, amongst other things. This initiative is looking to provide some leadership to not only encourage people to learn another language, but also more about the culture and history of China.

We are part of Asia and we are part of the West. This is a fantastic position to be in.
We are also seeing some other big shifts, as well as the shift from west to east. Demographically on the demand side we are seeing more, older, wealthier people, who can afford to pay more for protein. This is great for New Zealand. The challenge is how do we capture as much of this opportunity for the benefit of New Zealand? However, on the supply side in New Zealand we have a bit of a challenge as the farms are getting bigger and the families are getting smaller.

Succession is an issue. The family farm needs to be exempted from any capital gains tax, just as the family home is proposed to be. We need more human capability, and governments who want to double exports should be prioritising more resources into agricultural and food education.

Speed is increasing and by definition things are happening quicker. In the geo political space the changes taking place in countries such as Ukraine and Iraq seemed to happen extremely quickly. We have seen changes take place right through North Africa, where 40 year old regimes were toppled quickly.

It’s the same in the supply chain, commodity and financial markets. This increase in speed increases volatility and heightens the requirement for us to manage risk. Farmers have incredible risks as they operate in a biological farming system, with weather, exchange rate and international market volatility. There are a lot of variables changing on a daily basis. Farmers need to manage risk more. Federated Farmers plays its part by helping to manage regulatory risk.

My challenge to all farmers is to front up with that crunchie bar a day and financially support your organisation.

Probably one of the most fundamental changes there has been in the last couple of thousand years has been what I have termed a change from people being “readers” to “writers”. For most of my early childhood I read and listened to what my parents or the government told me, or what people trying to sell me things told me. Now however, with capability of the internet and social media, we can write about that. When I book a hotel now I don’t read what the hotel says about themselves, I read what other people have written about it.

This has fundamentally changed some of the relationships in our society and in a way has democratised countries that may not have the traditional traits of democracy. It means that things are more visible, it means that agriculture is more visible. Farmers are on a stage and they need to understand that what they do and how they behave can go global in a very short space of time. This is an opportunity as well as a challenge. Unfortunately we may be defined by our weakest link so all farmers need to get it right.

I was at Alibaba HQ recently and on just one of their platforms, by 1pm in the afternoon, they had transacted over 10 million transactions. That means change.

I could talk all day about change and a few other views I might have but this is my last speech at a Feds AGM, so I actually want to say thank you to a few people.

You cannot be in the role I have been in without having a lot of support from a lot of people. Federated Farmers is a big team effort, and I have always believed that our model of elected farmers working alongside paid professionals is a very powerful and effective one. I hope it continues.

I do want to thank the magnificent staff at Federated Farmers. They are a very dedicated and passionate bunch of people. It has been my privilege to be your boss. I am a huge believer that life is about being happy and successful. I would like to think that the staff feel that way about the contribution they each have made over the past six years. In particular I would like to mention the senior management team and my PA’s that have had to put up with me. They have done a great job of keeping me on the straight and narrow. So thank you.

Farmer engagement is critical to organisations like Federated Farmers, but more importantly it is critical to the running of the country. If New Zealand’s biggest sector does not engage through Federated Farmers and our voice is not heard, then the outcomes for the country would be less than they might be.

It has been hugely satisfying for me to see the caliber of elected people coming into Federated Farmers. As they say, success breeds success. I would like to thank all those office holders and in particular the two boards I have served under over the past six years. I have learnt a lot and I have enjoyed their friendship and stimulation of some, at times tense, discussions on various issues.

It has always been my view that it is unprofessional to expect people to read your mind. My hope going forward is that the farming community will continue to stand up and say what it thinks about issues. Our urban people do actually want to know, and they want to know from the horse’s mouth. I think it is unfair to expect others to know what we are thinking without articulating it. Some of these issues are difficult and are complicated but we need to get the views on the table. We need the contest of ideas. I like people to think. This is why I say some of the things I say from time to time.

My focus has very much been on articulating solutions rather than just problems. You cannot implement a problem. One thing I would say though is while often farmers can focus too much on problems and not enough on solutions, NGO’s can often focus too much on a solution, or a perceived solution without actually analysing the problem. Jumping to solutions isn’t always the smartest thing to do without fully understanding the practical, as well as political, problem. The “least worst outcome” syndrome is one I personally dislike enormously.

In my view, with water quality this is possibly the case. I am very nervous about solutions that would see diffuse nitrates allocated to individual farms and then a cap and trade regime introduced. Overseer as a regulatory tool is a mistake. There is a reason why no one else in the world has done this. I think there needs to be caution when the changes are going to impact the social fabric of rural New Zealand over the next couple of years and the agricultural fabric for the next couple of hundred years.

As well as the staff and elected people of Federated Farmers I do want to thank the membership of Federated Farmers, and all those in the rural community. It has actually been my privilege and pleasure to serve you in the capacity I was so fortunate to have been given six years ago.

Almost finally, I would like to thank the two presidents I have served under, Bruce Wills and Don Nicholson. The relationship between the Chief Executive and the Chairman of the Board is absolutely critical and I have been fortunate that most of the time that has been a very good relationship. Yes at times there have been differences, but that is a good thing. It is good to have a contest of ideas, so to Bruce and Don, thank you both for the support and the learnings I have had from each of you.

I would just like to thank my family and in particular my wife Jo. This role can be demanding of your time, especially the cocktail circuit, and Jo I would have to say, has been incredibly supportive and patient and I want to publicly acknowledge her for that. She is amazing and she deserves me, so I am happy for her on that score!

Having mentioned my wife, before I finish, I do want to acknowledge the role and contribution that the fairer sex make to agriculture. When my mother went to finance the purchase of a farm in 1972, Wrightson at the time didn’t finance it, not because the proposition didn’t make sense, but because it was a woman making the proposition. Thankfully we have moved on from that.

Women make a huge contribution to agriculture and New Zealand. Rural New Zealand understand this. Now when winners are announced at the dairy awards, mostly it is a couple who come to the stage to receive it. Everyone knows that makes sense. I think the gender partnership in the rural community is a real strength and I would encourage more women to become involved with Federated farmers just like our two current excellent woman board members.

I am very proud of what Federated Farmers and our rural community has achieved. There is a still lot to do. Collectively farmers are a fantastic group of kiwis who want the world to be a better place, who take risks and do the work to enable this to happen. I salute you.

Finally, what is next? Well it isn’t politics, its business again. I have set up an organisation called Agribusiness New Zealand. We will be focusing on exporting, investment and projects, both domestically and internationally. It’s a different way of making a difference. Well I am not 11 anymore, I turn 50 in 20 days and I can say I am very happy with my lot and very excited about where my life is going. Watch this space. Thank you.

ENDS

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