Twenty years ago this week the first edition of New Zealand Farmers Weekly landed in the mailbox of every farmer in the country.
Since that first edition the primary sector has experienced transformation in almost every respect, from the technology we use to the way we farm and the organisations that connect Kiwi farmers with the world.
Veteran agricultural journalist Hugh Stringleman MNZM, who reported on not only the past 20 years in agribusiness but the 20 before that as well, said it has been a tale of gradual improvement.
“There have been the ups and downs of farmers’ incomes, especially with the major downturns, the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 and then the dairy price collapse in 2013/14.
“But in between that farmgate prices have gradually increased and profit margins have improved, and the industry has consolidated.
“We also have some excellent agricultural science inputs into farming and horticulture. So it’s been a gradual improvement in the whole sector from my perspective.”
Stringleman said an important feature of the past 20 years has been the rise of co-operatives like Fonterra, which were being formed around the same time Farmers Weekly began.
“NZ is unusual in that we have all these primary sector co-ops that are not quite as much a feature in Australia or the US or the UK.
“Farmers are both shareholders and users of those services, so they like to have independent reporting on what those co-ops are doing and how well they are doing it.
“And I think we have a very good track record in the Farmers Weekly of doing just that.” Stringleman has been a contributor to the paper since the beginning, when Dean Williamson and Tony Leggett, co-owners of what was then Country-Wide Publications, launched it in September 2003.
Nigel Stirling was working as a journalist on another publication when he was appointed to lead the editorial team on the new weekly.
“Dean and Tony saw a gap where farmers were getting their news, which in some cases was two weeks old, and when you’re competing with online media you just can’t really sustain that,” Stirling said.
“Then I felt, too, that there was a bit more of a role for a business-focused paper, and I was quite strong on that. Because when you think about it, agribusinesses – these are some of the biggest businesses in New Zealand.
“And they weren’t perhaps being scrutinised as well as they should have been with a business reporter’s eyes.”
The agribusiness-focused paper took shape immediately when two top-level business reporters, Alan Williams and Andrea Fox, were brought on board alongside experienced writers such as Hugh Stringleman and Richard Rennie.
“It was just about finding our own niche, and that was our focus early on. Being a weekly paper you’re going to get a lot more scrutiny of the current issues, as you can keep the heat on a bit better than the fortnightlies which were going around at the time,” Stirling said.
“So we all built it together, and it became a very good offering that we had.”
NZX bought Farmers Weekly in 2009, and in 2018 original co-founder Dean Williamson and his wife Cushla bought it back from the stock exchange.
The Williamsons also purchased the AgriHQ market insights business from the stock exchange, and it has become a crucial component of the weekly paper, providing in-depth analysis and key data from its team of analysts and data collectors.
Over the past two decades the paper has grown to become an industry mainstay, but Dean Williamson said it wasn’t smooth sailing in that first year of operations.
“There were many weeks where we lost $15k-$20k in a week over the first few months,” he said. “We borrowed, and borrowed some more, against our farm, and then from my father.
However, by “March 2004 it started to turn a profit. The rest is history.”
Williamson said he is proud of the effort that goes into every edition, and, given the current dissension in the sector, hopes the paper can play a part in connecting the farming community rather than dividing it.
“My hope is that Farmers Weekly can play a big part in creating a framework where our community is connected, informed and engaged in the decisions that matter to their farming businesses,” he said.
“Right now our sector is divided and sometimes looks and feels dysfunctional. We’re struggling to have the conversations together we need to be having, and our leadership is struggling to future-proof us.
“Every conference I’ve been to for the last 20 years has talked about us needing to collaborate more and tell our story better. Well, we can, but only with good communication.”