Saturday, December 2, 2023

Keep your collaboration. I want a restructure

Phil Weir Profile Picture
The work to support better farm practices or improved market access falls by the wayside as industry-good bodies fixate on government policy, says Waikato farmer Phil Weir.
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Farmers Weekly’s new column, Eating the Elephant, will be written each week by one of four millennial farmers and agri-professionals with progressive views on farming. Brought together via the Nuffield farming scholarship programme, they are parents of young children and come from a range of backgrounds, from the New Zealand Army to start-up life in San Francisco, agri-consultancy and urban communications. 

They describe themselves as having skin in the game in the form of their family farming businesses, and feel that pro-change, progressive perspectives are missing from the sector dialogue. They want to see positive changes happen further and faster, and are open to big ideas and experimentation to meet entrenched challenges.

Six years ago, I moved from the comfort of the job title “rural professional” to answering the census question “Occupation?” with “FARMER”. 

Getting back to agriculture was coming full circle. I’m from a family of forever dairy farmers, who brought the first Ayrshire cow to New Zealand in the 1800s (but with a father who said “Phil, you will make more money milking farmers than cows, don’t go farming”). 

Having exited a business management role in a Crown Research Institute prior to farming, I was familiar with working in a matrix. A matrix is a fancy business word for complication – multiple organisations delivering multiple things to multiple stakeholders – often without much in the way of talking to the actual user of the thing (in our case, farmers). 

It was an environment where the outcome of work was collaboration, rather than collaboration being a tool to get a job done better. 

Now in the farming matrix, I see much the same thing. I am still unsure who in our sector is accountable for what. It seems multiple organisations are milking farmers with taxes, levies or membership fees. In the industry-good matrix, the focus is on “having farmers’ backs” in the face of regulatory change. 

The work to support better farm practices or improved market access appears to have lost its gloss and focus. 

While working with other farmers on land-use diversification projects, I regularly saw frustration that research and learning information was siloed by production system. Like myself, these farmers were interested in experimentation and finding the best land use for their farm. 

They wanted to be part-foresters – incorporating trees for erosion control and carbon on marginal land. They wanted to be part-horticulturalists – diversifying their businesses with some kiwifruit. Others had interest in milking goats or sheep. Most also wanted to retain sheep, beef and/or dairy. 

But information to support the change was siloed. The system wasn’t set up to support these busy business owners to change. With such resistance, most slowed to a stop.  

Observing these challenges, I found it increasingly hard to swallow the same industry messages of “this stuff is difficult”, “we are getting better at collaboration” and “we need to tell our stories better”. Storytelling and collaboration were the consistent prescription for farming’s problems. 

I started to think we needed solutions beyond collaboration and storytelling. I had the belief that the 30-year-old leadership structures across the pastoral public-good sector (levy bodies and the Crown Research Institutes) needed to be subject to the same degree of change being asked of farmers behind the farm gate. 

In 2020, I gratefully received a Nuffield Scholarship and took on the topic of Restructuring Industry Good – looking at the function of Commodity Levies Act organisations. 

My main point is that if we are to do better by our land and businesses, we need change at the top too. 

International practice suggests separating political advocacy from research/knowledge transfer. Currently the likes of Federated Farmers, Beef + Lamb NZ and DairyNZ are all fixated on government policy, with knowledge transfer often lost in the weeds of political lobbying. 

In my report, I recommend a pastoral peak body “Ahuwhenua (Farming) NZ” – funded via compulsory levy to cover all things common across commodities (for example, bobby calves, young stock management, leadership development, knowledge exchange and agronomic research). 

This centralising of research, training and knowledge would do away with duplication, reduce the need for costly organisational collaboration and better support famers to continuously change their practices and experiment across systems. 

Operating like beefed-up catchment groups, this new approach would recognise that farmer identity, collective support and a shared voice are as much about place (for me the Waikato) as they are the commodity produced (beef, lamb, maize and ecosystem services for myself). 

Stripped-back sector groups, such as dairy or sheep & beef (still funded by levy or membership) would remain with a focus on commodity-specific positions around policy, trade and technology. Political advocacy, given its diversity of views, would be membership funded (Groundswell, Federated Farmers or Forest & Bird are good examples at different ends of the political spectrum). 

Reading back on it now, maybe the concept was not novel. He Waka Eke Noa structurally created a mechanism for a peak body. Unfortunately, it attempted to take on the sector’s most difficult and philosophically divided issue – pricing agricultural emissions. 

It is the one issue where there is agreement on the need to do something – until we must decide what that something is and pay for it. It seems that collaborating more and telling our story better remain the solution when it gets hard.

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