The 1970s and ’80s were tough decades, and they shaped Geoffrey Young’s values and principles.
Having left school in the mid-70s, he returned to work on the family farm at Orepuki, coastal western Southland. For the next decade or so he was not paid any wages, receiving instead shares in the farm business.
“Venison was quite valuable then so I’d go out and shoot a couple of deer each week and sell them to get some pocket money. I’d also sell the occasional dog,” Young says.
He never considered it a hardship – rather, it taught him the value of money and how to get by on very little.
That resilience paid handsome dividends when farming was thrust into turmoil during the economic reforms of the 1980s, by which time he was farming on his own account.
He did without, adopted low-cost all-grass wintering and collected dead lambs and calves to feed to his dogs.
“Perhaps I’ve always been a bit different, but I do know the value of money.
“I appreciated where I could save money and live as economically as possible.”
This approach along with a “get things done” attitude, still resonates today and has driven much of his approach to public and community involvement.
Young hates what he considers wasteful spending and bureaucrats imposing costs and pointless obligations on ratepayers and taxpayers.
His involvement with Federated Farmers, which began in 2002 and culminated with his election as provincial president in 2019, was a call to duty, a bid to try to improve the working environment for farmers.
Last year Young unsuccessfully stood for the mayoralty of the Southland District Council, concerned about the performance of the council’s consenting and land management processes.
Young was approached last October by senior Southland Federated Farmer members to stand for the BLNZ board against the incumbent director and current chair, Andrew Morrison.
“I did it because I’m at the age where I can give back and get away from the day-to-day running of the farm and give my son a crack,” Young says.
“The other issue and an area of real concern is that bureaucracy within councils and government is becoming, to a degree, intolerable and hindering people more than enabling people.”
He says industry organisations are not listening to grassroots farmers and he wants to be their voice.
Young says he also saw his candidacy as an opportunity to create a strong, united and imposing lobby group of like-minded people representing Federated Farmers, DairyNZ and BLNZ.
“That is nothing against Andrew Morrison, he has worked hard for farmers, but the board is on the wrong pathway and has not pushed back against regulation as it should have and as farmers expect them to.”
He cites freshwater reforms, significant natural areas (SNAs) and other aspects of biodiversity as government policies the producer bodies should have resisted more vigorously.
His farm has been affected by all of these policies.
Young bought the 640ha Orepuki home farm that had been in the family since 1864.
A wish to experience farming in the high country, where he had done some mustering, prompted a desire to sell it and buy a high country station.
The influx of dairying provided that opportunity and in 1993 he sold most of the home farm and bought Cattle Flat Station near Lumsden.
He retained the original home block so his ageing mother could continue to live there until she died in 2000.
Cattle Flat, at that stage a pastoral lease, ticked all his boxes.
At 5400ha and peaking at 1200m above sea level, it had scale and allowed him to use horses for mustering and to test his dog-working skills.
The property has a 20km frontage on the Mataura River and encompasses three water catchments.
Largely underdeveloped, it also gave him the opportunity to set it up the way he wanted.
Young immediately embarked on tenure review, a lengthy, complicated bureaucratic exercise to freehold part of the property while releasing areas of high conservation value.
The endeavour gives an insight into how he operates.
Young spent 13 years working through the process, opting to do it himself rather than employ experts.
“I knew my bottom line. I didn’t want anyone else negotiating and weakening my position.
“It was stressful but I came out in the end with a very good result.”
Throughout his career Young has been heavily involved in the community, such as chairing the trust that established the Tūātapere Maternity Hospital and getting involved with local theatre and the Mid Dome Wilding Tree Trust, among others.
His experience combating wilding trees galvanised his frustration with the SNA obligations imposed on landowners.
Young says the Department of Conservation is too bureaucratic, with too few people in the field, and a poor manager of the weeds and pests on public conservation land.
“There is no point safeguarding snippets of SNAs of private land and impinging on private property rights when they can’t manage the land they have.”
He says the Southland District Council estimates mapping SNAs will cost it $18 million.
“It won’t save one plant or one animal yet comes with all that expense.”
Young concedes he is just one person on the BLNZ board, but he hopes to create a movement that will improve the industry and free it from excessive rules and regulations.
“I want to see a vibrant, sustainable farming industry for my children and my grandchildren.”
Specifically, he wants changes to He Waka Eke Noa and emissions pricing so productive sheep and beef land is not planted in forestry and methane tax does not force farmers out of business.
“If we lose 20% of production from sheep and beef properties, that is absolute nonsense and NZ can’t afford to have that amount export income lost.”
Farmers should pay no or very little tax on methane emissions.
Young maintains HWEN is not united, evident by Federated Farmers not signing the final document and establishing six bottom lines it says are needed for it to stay.
Just how far to push a government with a Parliamentary majority is always a risk, but Young says a strong and united voice provides negotiating strength.
On trade, Young acknowledges the importance of NZ provenance and environmental integrity, but not at the expense of the country’s production base.
“No other country would tax farm emissions as this government wants to.”
Young says the fact that he unseated the BLNZ chair and that nine remits were considered at this year’s board AGM send a signal that farmers want change.
“We need to up our game and get back on the side of grass root farmers,” he says
Young has two children, a son and daughter, who are both farming and says his four grandchildren all love farm life.
It is their future that drives him.