The ‘Ideas that Grow’ podcast, brought to you by Rural Leaders, gives voice to the inspiring, transformational food and fibre sector leaders – of which were often involved with the Nuffield Scholarship or Kellogg Rural Leadership Programmes.
It is proudly presented by Farmers Weekly managing editor Bryan Gibson, and supported by AgriHQ.
Listen to the podcast, or read the transcript below.
Bryan Gibson (BG): I’m Bryan Gibson, Farmers Weekly editor. This week, I have a very special guest, Dame Jenny Shipley. How’s it going?
Dame Jenny Shipley, 1984 Kellogg Scholar, Bay of Islands (JS): Very well, thank you.
BG: Good. And where are you calling in from today?
JS: Well, I live in Russell in the Bay of Islands now. And while I still do a lot of traveling domestically and when I can internationally, this is where we call home.
BG: Oh, wonderful. The winterless north.
JS: The winterless north, and it couldn’t be a greater contrast really, from my beautiful Canterbury electorate. But even learning to garden in the north is an entirely different process. But I’m enjoying it very much.
BG: Now, you grew up down in the Deep South, is that right? And spent a lot of your political career at least, in Mid–Canterbury?
Strong South Island roots
JS: Yes, I was born in Gore and my father was a Presbyterian Minister in Pukerau at the time. So many of those early roots were in a truly rural area. And interestingly, I’m going back there this weekend to take part in a nice ceremony. So I stay connected with a lot of those old roots, even though I’m now living somewhere else.
I spent a lot of my time in the South Island, and the early part of my life, in Nelson and that also has transformed. I don’t think there was a grapevine in Blenheim, or in the Marlborough area when I was a child. It’s a magnificent example of intense of horticulture today.
As a student I went to Canterbury and met Burton and the rest is history. We farmed and then I went into politics and had the great privilege of representing one of the most productive electorates in the country in that central and Mid-Canterbury area.
BG: Such a powerhouse of a rural area isn’t it?
JS: Very much, yes.
Kellogg and the desire to lead
BG: You connected with Rural Leaders for the first time doing a Kellogg Scholarship back in the early eighties, is that correct?
JS: Yes. We were young and farming, and I was already involved in a lot of community leadership. At that time the challenges for agriculture in New Zealand were huge. The change was immense, the economic viability was demanding, interest rates were horrifying. Rural communities were very active, with a lot of emphasis on leadership.
I got given the opportunity to apply for the Kellogg Rural Leadership Programme, which was an emerging force at that stage. I forget whether it was year three or four that I was a member of – but it was a fabulous experience and in many respects it clarified my desire to lead.
The Programme taught me a lot about what else I needed to focus on in order to be effective. But it definitely gave me the strength and sense of impetus to get on – initially as a Counsellor in my local Malvern area and then into politics.
Is sector history repeating?
BG: We talk about the early to mid-eighties in the farming world. It was obviously, as you say, such a disruptive time. Many people think that we’re going through a similar sort of thing now. Do you see those comparisons?
JS: Well, I think the commodity cycle is much stronger at the moment, although it’s clearly able to be volatile depending on what happens both at home and abroad.
The other difference, I think, is that agriculture today in New Zealand is not dependent on government subsidies. At that stage you’ll recall, there were multiple transitions going on – the support for agriculture was being removed, the markets were extremely volatile and the farming community was really facing challenges on multiple fronts.
Even in my early years as a Member of Parliament, the residual effects of that period flowed through – it was a very difficult period. Today I think that while there are huge challenges coming up economically, I personally think the agricultural sector is in a very resilient state.
But what is different now, is that there are so many regulatory pressures coming on farming which I don’t think were present in our era. And so, yes, there are huge challenges, but I think the economic viability overall gives at least some ability for farmers to confront those. I think the leadership question is different too, though, and perhaps that’s something that needs to change. So it’s relevant for where we are now.
BG: How is that, do you think?
JS: Well, when we were farming, all of us belonged to Federated Farmers. It was a widespread group. Husbands and wives turned up and it was an active process in most local communities. I’m not familiar with whether that’s the case now. But like many organisations, I think that they’ve become more professional.
But whether the grassroots element of representation is as strong, I don’t have such a feel for that. But I think that what we’re coming into is that we have to have both the agricultural leaders reflecting the experience of farmers on the ground and making the case very clearly about what can and can’t be done, and indeed what has been done.
We need to share our good news more often
JS: If I can just pause on this point for a moment. I’ve observed enormous change by farming in response to public pressures. I travel quite a lot around the country and have just have been down through the Waikato – right into the West Coast part of it.
One of the things that struck me over the last five years is that what started off as tree planting on agricultural land for emissions purposes, now the work around wetlands and the fencing of streams and things. New Zealanders can be very confident that the farming community is not only responding but leading in some of these areas.
To come back to the point, I think that for farming to advocate for itself, it’s not only advocating for what’s annoying and frustrating them, but there’s also a huge need for us as an agriculturally strong community to continue to share both the gains and the commitment of the agricultural community to farming well both for themselves, the community, and the future. I think that’s a big change.
When we were farming, many were just farming to survive. Now, I see farmers all over the place investing not only in best practice for themselves, but I do see a lot of change. I think the voice of that needs to be shared across the community much more broadly so that the urban New Zealand population both values agriculture and understands that it’s moving in response to many of the concerns that urban communities have.
BG: Farming, as you say, is always evolving for the most part in New Zealand because we are very good at it, and improving. That gets lost sometimes.
JS: Well a lot of it is a social response. I mean, farmers will tell you that they are fencing streams and planting for their own benefit and the benefit of their own environment. But there’s a huge public good element in it which unless people either have a chance to see, or you share how much is being done, or see the change that’s going on.
A sector supporting New Zealand through tough times
JS: I think that urban-rural split has always been a risk in New Zealand and it’s one we can’t afford to give airtime too. Because, frankly, if you just thought that even in the COVID period, if we had not had a strong agricultural sector during the last three years when the global economy had been disrupted, New Zealand’s position economically would be far more dire than it is at the moment.
Tourism collapsed, a number of other productive areas were compromised and yet agriculture was able to carry a huge proportion of the earnings, as it’s always done. But thankfully, on a strong commodity cycle at this particular time, and again, I think we should name the value of agricultural exports. The effort agriculture puts into the New Zealand economy to support our way of life, in a broad, holistic sense – not a them and us sense.
We’re in this together, being the best we can be at home and selling the best we can abroad in a best practice sense. I think if we keep sharing that over and over again, there’ll be a better understanding between rural and urban communities.
Leadership needs to reflect the people on the ground
BG: Just touching on what you mentioned earlier about how historically, people like Federated Farmers, organisations like that, had a very, kind of a, grassroots focus. It’s quite evident at the moment around the emissions pricing process that a large number of those grassroots farmers think that the farming leadership has, if not deserted them, then certainly not represented them well. What’s your take on how they go about that? And what are the challenges that those farming leaders have in engaging with the government on things like this?
JS: Well look, I’d be the last one to criticise them because I know how hard it is. I have admired the agricultural leadership, that they have taken a more inclusive, let’s find solutions together approach. I have been involved in a number of significant working parties not only on emissions, but in a number of areas that I can think of which I’ve simply been a distant observer. But I’ve noticed that level of engagement.
The problem is, in any leadership model, if you aren’t both working with, and then reflecting the people on the ground who actually live agriculture every day and have to implement the stuff, not only physically but also economically, then you have to test whether your leadership is in isolation as opposed to being able to carry people forward.
I do think we have to support the leadership group because unless they are able to foot it with the officials and the government ministers and be supported at that level, then they’re clearly not serving their constituency anyway. But every organisation, and I don’t want to make a judgment on Federated Farmers because I simply am not close enough to it, but there have to be systems where it’s not only consultation.
Often we say, well, we consulted, or we sent out a document and gave them a chance to comment. I think that for people to genuinely become supporters of a regime, they have to have a deep sense of ownership. They need to be able to see themselves in whatever is proposed as opposed to seeing something being imposed on them, which they don’t or can’t relate to.
So the test of high-quality engagement and consultation has got to be that measure of – can the people we’re representing see themselves in the proposed solutions or are we just saying, well, regardless of what you think, you’ve got to be there in five or ten years’ time. That’s not easy to do. I think in New Zealand’s circumstances, whether it’s agriculture or Maori – Pakeha relations, or any of the other demanding spaces, we’ve just got to put the time and work into it.
The power of industry at the highest level of decision-making
BG: Now, just digging into that a little more. I mean, you were obviously in central government for a long time. What’s it like in those meetings with industry? How much power do the industry leaders from the agricultural community have when they sit down around the table with the likes of MPs, Prime Ministers, officials?
JS: The answer is, it depends. And I’m thinking back on two or three occasions where the agricultural sector and governments were working intensely. When a government decides, for example, to break up monopolies, I think the conversations are quite demanding.
I recall at the time that we decided to break up a number of public organisations, the electricity sector and of course the dairy industry was in the line of sight. That was never an easy conversation and the agricultural leaders, and particularly the directors of the original company very much resisted that. In those moments, you’ve got to put the economic argument of why these particular sectors needed to be able to face competition, not only in their growers interest, but also in New Zealand’s market in the world. The resilience and flexibility to attract investment.
We were trying to grow the New Zealand economy and grow the efficiency of the New Zealand economy in the world. So to some extent, in those big strategic moments, it’s tense, because sometimes you’ll have agricultural leaders with you as champions. Sometimes you’ll have small players wanting you to act and take on the big players.
So there’s many dynamics going on.
Usually before those moments, if it’s a strategic question, the ministers will have debated the relative merits of this before they go barging in and say, well, look, the government has decided to strategically move forward and create competition in the agricultural marketing sector, or whatever it is. And then you try and engage.
It’s a wee bit like the emissions environment where you’re having to say, look, we have to work out a way in which to change. It is going to be different from what is the case now, so let’s try and work out where the mechanisms are and how we can move forward.
Sometimes you’re responding to requests from the agricultural sector to solve problems and then it’s straightforward. Your meet as equals at the table. You put the facts on the table, you get the officials to work through and come up with a solution. Often in the majority of cases, things just get sorted out. But in the big, complex policy issues, where big change is required, there’s higher degrees of tension, but generally you get there in time.
The Kellogg Programme and leadership pathways
BG: Now, you mentioned to me before we came on that as well as the Kellogg Programme, you’ve been involved in a number of other leadership programmes. Do you think there are good pathways into leadership positions in New Zealand at the moment?
JS: The Kellogg Programme is fantastic. I’d encourage any community to keep identifying young leaders and to promote them into those Programmes. Often people think, these people are too young. I must have been, I don’t know, 32 or thereabouts when I went into Kellogg. Often at that stage, you haven’t identified your leadership purpose and your particular intentions as to how you will use your leadership skills. But others often see leadership potential in those young people.
There’s no question that our political environment, our economic and social environment, need younger people coming through all the time in order for us to be able to shape the future successfully. I would encourage people to look for those chances and look for individuals who they can sponsor or promote and make sure they support them. Because often these are the young people, male and female, who have got kids and are trying to run a farm and all that. So the programmes themselves are a big commitment, but it’s worth it.
Supporting leadership development
JS: The other programme, I was actually involved in establishing, was Rural Women Stepping Out, I think we called it at the beginning. It was run out of Lincoln and was only initially a two or three day – and sometimes only a one day programme.
But it was at a time where there was huge economic stress on many farming communities. Lots of women came and had lots of examples of how women entrepreneurs were establishing small rural businesses to supplement the income of farms at that time.
Much of it was in the cottage industries, or services – many aspects of agriculture. I think that sharing and bringing together helped a lot of those women sustain the pressure of that period. I guess my point here is, rural communities are very important to New Zealand and keeping both men and women well and supporting them to be as engaged as they can be, both in running the farms and running the rural communities of which they’re a part.
Any support in leadership and leadership development is well worth the investment. So whether it’s the leaders at universities or the sponsors that are the companies who make these things happen, so that these families can make the choice, I think agriculture and New Zealand benefit from programmes like Rural Women, the Kellogg Programme and the Field Scholarships. All of those platforms are invaluable in terms of the legacy and the investment that they’ve made.
BG: Thanks for listening to Ideas That Grow. This podcast was presented by Farmers Weekly. For more information on Rural Leaders, the Nuffield New Zealand Farming Scholarships or the Kellogg Rural Leadership Programme, please visit ruralleaders.co.nz