Friday, July 1, 2022

Passion for farming goes a long way

Align Farms chief executive Rhys Roberts recently won the 2022 New Zealand Zanda McDonald Award, which supports talented and passionate young professionals in the ag sector.

Rhys Roberts has seen Align Farms expand from two farms to seven during his nine years with the company. Photo: Johnny Houston

Align Farms chief executive Rhys Roberts recently won the 2022 New Zealand Zanda McDonald Award, which supports talented and passionate young professionals in the ag sector. Colin Williscroft reports.

He may be chief executive of a company that operates seven farms, a market garden, a milk factory and a yoghurt brand, but Rhys Roberts’ pathway was one that has traditionally been followed by many in the dairy sector.

Roberts and his wife Kiri were Canterbury sharemilkers before joining Align Farms nine years ago as farm managers.

Then after a stint as operations manager, he was appointed chief executive in 2017.

He said the business has changed a lot from the time he and Kiri came on board.

“When we started there were two dairy farms, so I guess I’ve surfed the wave relatively well and grown with the business, which is great,” Roberts said.

“I’ve learnt just in time, I call it JIT (just in time) training, taken some pretty big gambles and dived in the deep end plenty of times.”

He said the Mid Canterbury company’s shareholders and board have been very supportive of the whole team in helping them grow.

“They let us get on with what we’re good at,” he said.

It’s a philosophy he believes in himself.

“People are critical to every business,” he said.

“We’re seven farms and 5000 cows, we can rattle off all the stats but most importantly, we’re one team.

“I’m a firm believer that the best people make the best farmers, so you’ve got to recruit well.

“Get the employment piece right, recruit the best people, then get out of their way and let them go and do what they want to do.”

His focus on building a ‘future workplace’ includes a market garden that helps feed his team through fruit, vegetables, meat, poultry and eggs from their farms.

All of the team are on flexible rosters and can manage their own schedules, choosing shifts that suit them. 

That frees them up about 1000 hours combined a year, which they reinvest back into the community.

It’s that sort of foresight, along with his passionate and entrepreneurial approach to farming, including creating a significant difference to the company’s bottom line, which was highlighted by the judges of this year’s New Zealand Zanda McDonald Awards when naming Roberts the winner.

The awards, now in their eighth year, are usually a trans-Tasman affair, crowning an overall winner from NZ and Australia.

However, because of covid-19 restrictions, this year there is a winner from each country.

The restrictions also changed how the NZ competition was run.

Originally, the four finalists, Roberts, along with Restore Native Plant Nursery director, beef farmer and mortgage broker Adam Thompson, Farmlands head of sustainability and land-use Katie Vickers and Beef + Lamb NZ national extension manager Olivia Weatherburn, were meant to spend three days in Martinborough.

The proposed agenda there included media training and farm visits, as well as a 15-minute presentation, followed by 45 minutes of questions.

Instead, the final came down to a Zoom interview made up of a 15-minute presentation on what the four finalists were passionate about and how they would like to influence the industry, followed by 35-40 minutes of questions.

Roberts, who went to school with Thompson and has met Vickers and Weatherburn indirectly at events, says his fellow finalists are all incredible leaders with easily identifiable strengths.

Once covid restrictions ease, the competition organisers hope to get them together for media training and spend time with leaders in the sector.

Roberts plans to take that a step further.

He wants to use part of his $10,000 training grant on a course that he would like to complete and devote the rest to get the other finalists together for some sort of learning programme.

Covid permitting, part of his prize includes an all-expenses paid trans-Tasman mentoring trip to high-performing farms and businesses in both countries.

For Roberts, the focus will be on vertically integrated businesses like Align that are close to his heart.

“Those businesses that do that do the pasture to plate, or grass to glass, model well,” he said.

“We’re pretty passionate about that and I’d like to go and learn as much as I can.”

He said because of NZ’s history in food production, the sector is in a good position to capture the world’s imagination when it comes to clean, nutrient-dense food.

Plant-based and petri dish-produced food will occupy a place in the food chain, but he’s not worried about that.

“We’re at the opposite end of the spectrum. We need to maintain that position by farming smart, farming with passion and farming with producing good food at the centre of our minds,” he said.

However, he says NZ food producers need to maintain their low cost of production.

“That’s an area that’s under severe threat in NZ at the moment, the cost to get to markets or enter markets is growing rapidly,” he said.

“Some of it will be transitory but some of those costs are going to be persistent, so we’re going to have to be smart farmers over the next four or five years to make sure that we maintain that low cost of production.”

He said while there’s been a lot of focus in recent years on water quality, the bigger issue for NZ globally is going to be carbon emissions.

“We need pristine, clear water – I’ve got no doubt in my mind that’s critical – but what’s going to hit us harder … because our (emissions) profile in NZ is so skewed compared to the rest of the world, is the carbon space,” he said.

“As a country we need to get more creative around capturing carbon, that’s right tree, right place, not blanketing every piece of land with trees, but it’s around getting agriculture to be an integral part of the carbon capture story.

“If we don’t get that right and (instead) use all this transitory offsetting of carbon, I think we’re going to miss the biggest opportunity that we have in front of us.

“Right tree in the right place is going to be part of the story, but more importantly we need to focus more on how to capture more carbon in our soils via pasture production.

“That’s the biggest challenge we’re going to face in the next 10 years.

“We should be focused on water quality locally because it’s our communities that count, but on the flipside our consumers around the world are going to be more focused on our carbon footprint.

“That’s what’s going to cause us grief in the global space.”

For now, Roberts wants to make the most of what winning the NZ Zanda McDonald award will bring.

“You see a lot of opportunities come past, but you’ve got to take them with your own hands. I’m realistic that it’s up to me now to take those opportunities, networks and connections and run with them,” he said.

“I’d also like to grow awareness of the award, it’s in the best interests of everyone to have a really thriving young farmer leadership award, so that we put wind under everyone’s wings and let them grow and succeed.”

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