Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Muller is up for the challenge

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The Institute of Primary Industry Management’s new president Carla Muller says there’s often a disconnect between what policy and research are trying to achieve and what is happening on-farm. It’s an issue Muller is determined to solve. She spoke to Luke Chivers.
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FEW 27-year-olds can claim they have more than half a decade of governance experience.

But Carla Muller, of Hamilton, can. 

The former Bay of Plenty lifestyler turned rural sector advocate never planned to end up in the primary industries but she’s now leading the peak industry body for rural professionals, the New Zealand Institute of Primary Industry Management.

“I just fell in love with the sector,” she said. 

Muller grew up in Pahoia, 20km north of Tauranga, in the 1990s.

In 2010 she began a business degree at Massey University in Palmerston North.

But a year in, after realising job prospects were drab, Muller changed course and now has Master of Environmental Management and a Bachelor of Applied Economics degrees.

“You can’t really escape agriculture when you’re at Massey University,” she said. 

“So, I was quickly fully immersed in the culture.

“I haven’t really left the ag sector ever since.”

Muller began her career at DairyNZ in Waikato in late 2016, working as a graduate economist specialising in the environment.

In her three-and-a-half years at DairyNZ she took over the management of its environmental economics work. 

Ranging from Northland to Southland, her projects included looking into water quality policies and working on feed projects, greenhouse gases, the DairyNZ economic survey and a nationwide data collection project for environmental information.

Muller moved onto research institute NIWA in 2017 to gain experience beyond dairy. 

“I’ve remained heavily involved in freshwater-related science and became involved in everything from irrigation and biosecurity to pollution and policy and economics and climate change.”

It also gave Muller the chance to interact with different stakeholders.

“In the science world you learn a lot – you learn from people who are experts in their field.”

Now Muller is a dubbed an environmental economist. It’s a rather unusual title but one she defends.

“Economics is all about the scarcity of resources. A lot of people think it’s just about money.

“If we’ve got a scarce resource then we need to decide as a community and as a society how we use that resource and, obviously, the environment underpins all of that. 

“We can’t live without it and we can’t mess it up.”

The big picture is an area Muller has long been passionate about.

“So, naturally, I fell into governance,” she said.

Muller began her governance career in 2012, age 18, with the Massey University College of Business board and the university’s Young Farmers club. 

“I have always believed in giving back to my community and hadn’t worked out that the local trusts and committee roles I had held were, at their heart, governance.”

In 2017 she was rewarded for her efforts and named a finalist in the Westpac Women of Influence Awards in the rural and young leader categories and a winner in Hamilton’s 30 Under 30 awards.

Muller is also a former recipient of an AGMARDT leadership scholarship, an initiative that helps individuals improve their leadership and governance skills and she is a past participant in the Agri-Woman’s Development Trust Escalator, a leadership and governance programme for women involved in primary industries.

In 2018, she won the Institute of Directors’ Waikato branch Emerging Director Award.

“I love being an economist and the technical detail of what I do but I was always frustrated by not being able to influence and contribute the bigger picture.”

So, in the past year, Muller became an associate director of Wintec and a director of Primary ITO before becoming institute president. She has been a board member for three years.

The institute aims to build capability of rural professionals.

It has more than 1300 members from a range of occupations, including farm management advisers, rural bankers, farm accountants, fertiliser consultants, rural valuers, representatives from industry organisations, universities and agribusiness service providers.

Muller said her focus is on building greater alignment between regulation, research and market demands and the capability of people working with farmers. 

“I was seeing a disconnect between what policy and regulation was trying to achieve and what was actually happening on-farm.

“The people in the middle who have to help the farmers get to where we need them to go is the rural professional and this role is growing in importance and complexity.”

Muller  wants the institute, in her three-year term, to provide a platform for its members to really engage in policy and strategic conversation to help ensure what it gets from places like Wellington reflects the voices of those on farms as well as those who work with farmers.

“At that policy level, often the implementation voice is missing.”

She pointed out water reforms, consumer preferences and the Zero Carbon Bill as matters front of mind for her stepping into her new role.

“We’re having a lot of really good science and research go on and a lot of policy come out but that adoption and implementation pathway isn’t as strong or considered as much as it could be.

“So, we’re often getting solutions but then struggling to implement them.”

For instance, farm plans are a good idea but getting the resource to implement them by a certain date isn’t something that can just be created overnight  or at least the amount and quality needed to have good outcomes.

“A big part of the solution is thinking one step ahead so the primary sector has the right resources and personnel in place.

“It’s a challenge I’m up for,” she said.

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