This article first appeared in our sister publication, Dairy Farmer.
Outgoing DairyNZ chief executive Tim Mackle says he is optimistic about what lies ahead for the dairy industry despite the wide array of challenges it faces.
To succeed, it will take an industry-wide effort as well as cross-sector collaboration with wider farming sector groups, he says. But whatever challenges are thrown at the dairy industry, keeping farmers front and centre of DairyNZ’s response must be front of mind.
This has been the cornerstone of his approach in 15 years of leading the industry-good organisation.
The dairy sector has grown and evolved massively during that time and with it, challenges and changes to DairyNZ.
The organisation has had to grapple with the implications of industry expansion, payout volatility, Mycoplasma bovis, central and local government regulations around freshwater and emissions, animal welfare issues around non-replacement calves and ongoing issues from covid-19.
Mackle says that strong empathy for farmers and how these issues impacted them meant the decision to step down was a difficult one.
“I care deeply and passionately not only about the organisation but also about the people who we’re serving, which are the farmers. That’s what made it difficult and it wasn’t an easy thing to walk away from.”
His advice for the new chief executive is to remember that the job is all about the people – farmers, the staff, board and wider industry partners – and being able to navigate those different interactions.
“But most critically, establishing that relationship with farmers, really understanding farmers and having that strong empathy for the issues that they deal with.”
In any given week Mackle says he could be meeting with local or central government, groups like Federated Farmers or being asked to speak to the media.
Whoever the audience, Mackle says it is important for him to always be guided by the principles of why he was there, so that even if he is not with farmers, they are always at the front of his mind.
Mackle says he regrets not being able to spend more time with farmers, but the nature of the role meant it often took him away from those interactions.
Farming is very much in Mackle’s blood. Born in Kaikōura, he is the son of fourth-generation farmers Ron and Margaret Mackle.
“I do get their challenges and frustrations and I really value that. I like working with farmers and that means the good times and the times when you get a bit of a rev-up.
“Their expectations quite rightly are always high.”
While at school, Mackle fully intended to go farming and planned to run the family farm with his brother. His intention was to do a diploma in agriculture, but his mother convinced him to study towards a degree instead.
In 1989, he went to Lincoln University, where he studied towards a Bachelor of Ag Science and graduated in 1992 with first-class honours.
Prior to DairyNZ, he worked for the Dairying Research Corporation and the Dairy Board, which later became part of Fonterra. In 2001, he was appointed as an executive assistant to then chief executive Craig Norgate, working on special projects. Next he ran a stand-alone business within Fonterra called Anchor Ethanol.
He then spent two years at Dexcel, with much of his time spent assisting with its merger with Dairy Insight – which became DairyNZ.
Mackle says the Dexcel chief executive role came about following a conversation he had with then Dexcel chair (and now DairyNZ chair) Jim van der Poel in an elevator at Fonterra’s headquarters in Auckland.
“He said, ‘We have a really important job going, would you consider applying?’ ”
Mackle put his name forward and succeeded in getting the job in late 2005.
The two years of Dexcel included clearing up lingering issues with funder/provider internal debates over how and where farmer money should be spent.
“The bottom line is that the merger in late 2007 to create DairyNZ was one of the best things that happened because it removed that friction.”
Stakeholder engagement was not a huge priority in DairyNZ’s early days – a legacy of the priorities of Dexcel and Dairy Insight.
Mackle credits DairyNZ’s first chair John Luxton with changing that mindset.
“He had the foresight to say to me and the board that we are going to have to get more involved in this policy game.”
Mackle’s challenge was working out what that looked like, and complementing the existing advocacy work of groups such as Federated Farmers rather than duplicating it.
That came in the form of evidence-based policies, using the scientists and economists on staff.
“We built that and that’s something that changed with the advent of DairyNZ.”
Luxton saw what was coming as more policy work at local and central government level was formulated and the sector had to be at the table when those policies were formulated.
The dairy industry’s growth has been one of the sector’s biggest changes over the past 15 years and the industry had to work out how it could resolve the challenges this expansion has caused.
“We have always had the philosophy that we need to be there to help solve these problems but in the smartest way.”
That means identifying the problem, being clear at a community, catchment or national level what they are trying to solve and then working out a solution.
Discussions around sustainability were still in their early days when Mackle started as chief executive, although the industry had already established the Clean Streams Accord in 2002.
“Even before I arrived, there was research going on about nitrogen. We have been doing N research at DairyNZ for 20 years. But in saying that – how do you engage with communities and stakeholders – that was all new to us.”
It’s meant that to a large degree, Mackle has been the public face of the organisation as it navigated all of these issues both good and bad.
He saw that as a no-brainer.
“That’s part and parcel of the job and I’ve always been happy to do it because I believe in dairy and I believe that farmers want to make progress and are making progress.”
Fronting the industry in the public space was always underpinned by a great team behind the scenes supporting him and knowing that progress was being made at a farm level, he says.
“That’s a journey and it goes up and down but generally we’re making progress.”
Grappling with those challenges has helped keep him motivated, he says.
“I’ve stayed so long for a bunch of reasons, but it’s mainly about people, the great people at DairyNZ come to work every day to help farmers and indirectly help the country. They are motivated by that purpose and I am too.
“I haven’t had a day where I haven’t wanted to get out of bed for this job. I reflect on that and think I’m lucky.
“I feel incredibly privileged to have a great team of people. I might have a big title but I don’t have all of the big ideas. We deal with so many different issues at DairyNZ that you couldn’t even attempt to have all of the ideas and it’s really critical that you have a great team of people across the board who can think really deeply and get on and deliver stuff.”
Mackle sees the industry’s role in mitigating climate change remaining high on the agenda because the industry cannot afford to sit back and rely on its carbon efficiency.
If there are ways to further reduce its emissions through technology and science, then it should.
That does not include calls from environmental activists for the industry to cut its herd size, which Mackle calls “soundbites with no science”.
“The answer to concerns about unsustainable dairying is sustainable dairy. We need to work harder on solving the problems we have got. We need to be able to have our cake and eat it and enjoy the benefits of this great sector but at the same time solve the challenges that we have got.”
Looking back, he is proud of what DairyNZ’s science programme has achieved and points to the work around researching forage plants that reduce nitrate leaching as an example of where it has been successful.
“Multi-organisational programmes that are well funded, well resourced, with the best people on them – and I’m really proud of that evolution.”
That research has shifted from freshwater to more of a focus around climate change in recent years.
Mackle says sourcing and retaining people within the industry will also remain a challenge, affecting farmers on multiple levels. The covid-19 border lockdowns really exposed this issue for the industry, he says.
“We still think we’re several thousand people down and it’s not just a numbers game, it’s a capability game.”
One of the sector’s biggest strengths is its collective co-operative spirit, which Mackle believes stems from its early days of hardship. He questions what role that will play in the future.
“I worry that if we lose that collective spirit and support for the idea of industry good, that it may undermine our future success.”
Mackle says he is also grateful for the help he has had on the way from key staff, his family, former chairs including Luxton and Michael Spaans and former Fonterra chair John Wilson – all of whom are now deceased.
“Three of them have passed on, and Jim – he was there at the start and now he’s there at the end.
“I feel really privileged to be able to serve farmers in this way.”
Mackle also acknowledges that the organisation has not always got everything right. But when mistakes were made, they are analysed to find ways to do it better and move ahead.
“Learn from – that’s been a real philosophy for me.”
As for where to next, Mackle will not say, though he says he is committed to staying in the primary sector.
“For me, the next chapter has got to have real strong purpose.”