Friday, December 8, 2023

LISTEN: Banking on a sustainable future

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Katie Vickers, a 2019 Kellogg Scholar, is on a mission to help regenerate our planet by influencing business practice to close the gap between purpose, people, and profit.
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Katie talks with Farmers Weekly editor Bryan Gibson about her Kellogg research, beliefs, and her role as Sustainability Manager at Rabobank.

Listen to the podcast, or read the transcript below.

Bryan Gibson (BG): Kia ora, you’ve joined the Ideas That Grow podcast, brought to you by Rural Leaders. In this series, we’ll be drawing on insights from innovative rural leaders to help plant ideas that grow so our regions can flourish. Ideas that Grow is presented in association with Farmers Weekly.

(Katie Vickers) KV: Welcome to Ideas that Grow, the Rural Leaders leaders podcast. I’m Bryan Gibson, Farmers Weekly editor and this week, I’m with Katie Vickers. How’s it going?

KV: Good, Bryan.

BG: And where are you calling in from?

KV: I’m ringing in from Fairlie today.

BG: And that’s where you call home at the moment?

KV: Yes. Recently moved down here from Christchurch. So just getting back into rural life and loving it.

BG: And you are currently working for Rabobank as a sustainability manager, is that right?

KV: Yes, I am. My role is really around helping to support the bank’s sustainability ambitions and supporting our clients, and in what is a reasonably challenging environment out there, but just helping them and supporting them, understanding what changes are coming and how that will impact their businesses and I guess wrapping our arms around them and helping them through that.

BG: You’re right, there is a lot of stuff going on in that space that farmers have to deal with. So it’s kind of cool that the banks are sort of arm in arm with them facing up to that challenge, isn’t it?

KV: Yes. And I guess the changes are pretty complex, but we probably need to start thinking slightly differently around how we tackle some of those challenges. One of the reasons why I wanted to work for a bank was that you can see that they’ve got quite a strong lead in terms of how they can support clients. And I guess at Rabobank we’re committed to the agri sector and I love that kind of passion that they’ve got for the sector.
Our role is really around how we support them, but also how we sort of link them up with the right knowledge and networks. Because it’s such a complex topic and so different for every farming system, [so] it’s important for us to be able to understand their unique needs and make sure that we’ve got the right toolkit to support them in making good decisions for their business.

BG: Good job. Have you always worked in the agri-food sector, or is it something you’ve sort of evolved into over time?

KV: No, I’ve always been in the agri sector. So I grew up on a sheep and beef farm just north of Kaikoura, went to Lincoln [University] and then decided after Lincoln, that I definitely want to be staying in the agri sector. So I managed to land a job at Farmlands Cooperative, and I worked there for eight years. About six of those years were actually in marketing, so I’ve come from a marketing and comms background, and then spent my last two years there in a sustainability role. And then just recently moved to the bank, so it’s been an awesome journey.

BG: Now, while that was going on, you applied yourself to the Kellogg programme, and you took a look at nutrients and food, and that sort of thing. Is that correct?

KV: Yes. So my topic was around putting the food back into food. And the kind of question I was looking to answer was what would it take for our primary industry to produce nutrient-dense food. And I think the reason why I wanted to explore that was I’ve always been brought up with a really holistic approach, and I care deeply about the health of our planet and health of our people. And I’ve got a twin sister who is a holistic health practitioner, so she kind of works on how we can help our people’s health, because we’ve got a massive crisis in that space.
My kind of passion has always been what role does agriculture have to play in that? And how do we work with our soils better to influence the food that we eat, which in turn influences the health of our people? So it’s obviously a massive topic, and it was hard to even really scratch the surface on a lot of that stuff. But I did a whole lot of interviews and research with soil scientists and nutritionists and industry leaders, and you get some really cool insights out of that. No real answers, but lots of different things to consider or think about.

BG: A lot of people would think that food that New Zealand food producers make is pretty nutrient-dense and natural and grass-fed and [so forth] already. So is there more that can be done at the farm level to enhance that?

KV: Yeah, I guess. I’m not an expert in this space. And I will never claim to be. But I think my thinking was really expanded when I read Nicole Masters’ book, For the Love of Soil. She talks about the relationship that we have with the soil. In this day and age, I think there’s so much more we’re learning about the soil and the microbiology of the soil and the knowledge we have of that is growing. And as we understand more, we kind of need to do more on-farm. So the role that my research played was kind of understanding that today we use a lot of synthetic fertilisers, and we have quite a strong reliance on that, and that hasn’t been a terrible thing. But it’s like moving forward, how do we understand how to use our soils more to work better so we don’t need to have such a reliance on some of those synthetic inputs coming into our farm systems.
So, if you look at the kind of environment we’re in today with the rising input costs, it’s about how we create more resilient farming systems, I suppose, and having a different lens on what that might look like in the future. So the research I did was: okay, how do we understand our soil more to understand the impact it has on the food that we produce?

BG: And what sort of insights did you get from some of the people you interviewed?

KV: One of the really interesting ones I did, I didn’t actually interview him, but I did a whole lot of research on the work that Dan Kettridge has done out of the [United] States. He’s got a business called the BioNutrient Association. His role is really around looking at some tools that consumers could use in the future to be able to scan apple A and apple B, as an example, and see the different nutrient composition of those apples and therefore make a decision as to why they might be paying $2 more for apple A because it’s got a much higher nutrient profile. Those tools aren’t in the market and in bulk yet, but I have absolutely no doubt that they will be in the future.
So that’s when that kind of thing could change the landscape of farming, when consumers have got the power in their wallet to be able to make those decisions, to say, ‘well, you know, I want to know why I’m paying more for this apple, because I’m getting the nutrients that I need’. And with that, you’re hoping that there’s been less environmental degradation to produce that product, whether that be apples or meat or whatever.

BG: Yes, I guess this sort of thinking has become more prevalent with the pandemic, with people sort of really thinking a lot about what they eat and keeping their sort of base level health as high as it can be, that sort of thing. So it’s really sort of top of mind for a lot of people.

KV: Yes, for sure. And I think it’s pretty obvious our food system is under stress. And whether it’s talking about a climate crisis, but there’s human health crisis or health crisis, a biodiversity collapse, so there’s all these different things that play into each other. And I think one of the key points that I like to think about is that we don’t want to look at these things in isolation. If you look at the human health crisis that we’ve got, and even with the latest pandemic, it’s not an isolation that all of these pieces have a real interconnectedness and it’s quite a different way to think about it. But I think the more that we think about the connection between the crisis of our planet and the crisis of our human health at the moment, it might help us to think differently about how we handle these things in the future.

BG: I guess that sort of thinking ticks a few boxes at once, as you say. It can do more for people’s health and a focus on soil can also do more in terms of freshwater quality and in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity. All sorts of those things do come together as one.
A lot of people, when you talk about, say, regenerative agriculture or related fields, a typical farmer might say, ‘well, I’ve yet to see the value addedness for me. So if I’m going to reduce production to adopt these things, I need to make that up somewhere else.’

So how does a sustainability manager at Rabobank approach these things?

KV: That’s a great question. I guess my personal mission is to help just plant little seeds in people’s minds around how they think about these things. And I guess I’ve always believed that you’ve just got to approach it conversation by conversation and I guess people will take different things from the conversations that they have with you. And my role at the bank, as I said earlier, is to really just support our understanding and where the bank or what role Rabobank needs to play in this space and how we support our clients. And that’s going to look really different for every client that we have. We have some clients that are in the regenerative space and really loving it and seeing benefits. We’ve got others that will want to be exploring it and others are saying, that’s not for me – there’s no right or wrong, it’s just how do we help create resilient farming systems in the future and make sure that people are profitable and sustainable and enjoying the life that they lead. Because at the end of the day, if they’re not doing that, there’s not a huge amount of value in it.
So I guess my role is just to have these conversations and I see business having a really important role in influencing the way that we think. And as a young leader, I guess we can help create the future and it’s important that we are part of that and I guess I want to be part of creating that future.

BG: I guess Rabobank being a global, agriculturally-focused bank would have a sort of a long-term view and a strategy around where things are going and what needs to be done to continue to do business in this space. So that would feed into a lot of the work that you’re doing.

KV: Yeah. And we are super lucky to have that global aspect. I guess it’s one of the pros of working for such an awesome business because we’ve got all these insights from across the globe to help our thinking. But I definitely reckon New Zealand’s leading the way in some of, particularly in the climate, space and understanding at a farm systems level, what we’re kind of dealing with.

BG: Yeah, it is. And another thing I guess we need to remember is that it’s not just a value proposition, it’s increasingly becoming a sort of cost of entry and market access, isn’t it?

KV: Yeah. And I guess I was late with that because obviously I’m not like a technical expert in terms of some of the stuff, but I come from a marketing background and the conversations when you have tricky conversations with people who might not be agreeing with some of the changes that are happening or are struggling to kind of comprehend it, which I totally can empathise with. But one of the pieces I always lead with is the market. We export 90% of what we produce here in New Zealand. So whether we like it or not, what’s happening and what consumers are demanding and what the market is saying is really important to how we respond. So we have to understand those market signals to make sure that we’re producing what’s going to be valuable and what’s needed from our customers.

BG: Yeah, I used to work a little bit in PR as well, and there’s an old adage: if you’re explaining, you’re losing quite often. It’s got to be obvious and it’s got to be transparent. And, you know, you’ve got to front foot these things, otherwise someone will front foot it for you.

KV: Exactly.

BG: So what made you apply to the Kellogg programme in the first place?

KV: It was part of my development plan when I was at Farmlands, and I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to do the programme. But I think for me, it was such an important time because in terms of my thinking I suppose during the programme, it really helped to kind of widen my thinking around what influence business could have in helping to solve some of the challenges that I could see coming up in the agriculture sector. So having the opportunity to do that was just incredible. And I don’t think that I know that I probably wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t had the opportunity to do that program. I guess it was the people that we were exposed to and the time that was kind of carved out to really explore some of the ideas that came up that was the really valuable stuff for me.

BG: I’ve been to one or two of those Kellogg alumni conferences, and just the feeling in the room is quite different to a lot of places. You know what I mean? There’s such a good sort of camaraderie between the alumni of the programme.

KV: Yes. I think for me, I mean, I’m a real people’s person, but for me, the connections with people in the industry was just phenomenal. And even now, like, if you were like, I really want to talk to X, Y and Z to try and find some information and you said that you did Kellogg, people are just so willing and happy to talk to you. And I guess it just like it gives you the opportunity also to speak to people who will challenge your thinking. And I think as I’ve kind of grown up and matured, I love having that. I love having people who will challenge my own thinking because it helps deepen my knowledge and my thoughts. And being able to have the opportunity or the exposure to speak to different people and have different perspectives is just so invaluable.

BG: Thanks for listening to Ideas That Grow, a Rural Leaders Podcast in partnership with Massey and Lincoln University, AgMardt and FoodHQ.

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