This article first appeared in our sister publication, Dairy Farmer.
An affinity with the soil has led to several career paths for Canterbury’s Lucy Johnson, but they all have one thing in common: people.
“Helping empower people to grow and innovate is where I feel I add the most value,” she says.
“It is about looking at how you can share your knowledge and build people up. People living on the land have their own passions – whether that’s cows or grass or whatever – and it is important to look at how to make an enduring farm business.”
Johnson, who is the most recent board trustee of the Dairy Women’s Network (DWN), grew up as one of five girls in North Canterbury on a sheep and beef farm. Her mum had a passion for horticulture, growing and harvesting lavender, which was dried in the basement of the woolshed.
“We had the sweetest-smelling woolshed of all time,” Johnson says.
Her mum also established one of New Zealand’s first truffle orchards.
“For a lot of my childhood I remember international food writers visiting our place to sample the various ingredients we had on farm,” she says.
“We had a privileged childhood, being allowed to roam the land, and explore. We grew up in a picturesque part of the world.”
After finishing school – which she says was “not necessarily her favourite place” – Johnson headed overseas for a gap year. During that time, she found she had a strong appreciation for and interest in landscaping.
Returning home, she attended Lincoln University and completed a Bachelor in Environmental Management. She did work experience for a landscape architect but soon found out that “often the scope of landscaping was the first thing to get squeezed when the budget gets constrained”.
“In reality, landscaping became a strong hobby and not a profession for me,” she says.
“So I chose to learn more around geomorphology, which was the interaction of soil and water.”
After finishing university in 2003, she found a way to apply her learnings both in theory, and in life.
Johnson worked for Environment Canterbury for six years, starting in their customer centre and moving on to consenting, and then compliance out in the field.
She left the role, feeling some commercial experience would give her more rounded learning.
“I felt constrained within the bounds of the system,” she says.
“Prior to that, I had been building enduring relationships. Sometimes, it’s not the conversation you have, but how you have it.”
She moved to the Synlait Milk Group at the time of the Global Financial Crisis in 2009 and spent nine years there looking after farm suppliers and working within the manufacturing plant.
“The business grew rapidly – there were 70 suppliers when I started and 220 suppliers when I left,” she says.
“I had some great mentors and leaders there.”
Within the company she moved to working solely with the farm team, in charge of all infrastructure and consents on Synlait Farms.
She went on to take a core role in rolling out the Lead with Pride initiative, a quality assurance programme for farmers – and the brainchild of Johnson herself, first conceptualised not long after starting with Synlait. In 2011 she completed the Kellogg Rural Leaders programme, looking into a range of quality systems operating within the primary sector.
“The idea was to create a procedure to enhance environmental outcomes rather than true compliance,” she says.
“I thought it was just another ‘hare-brained’ Lucy idea but it had some real weight to it.”
After the birth of her first child, she “changed, as we all do”.
“I went out on my own in 2018 and started an agribusiness and project management consultancy, working in my line of training,” she says.
“I worked alongside farming businesses, levy organisations, red meat companies and agri-related enterprises to help them develop projects, team build, coach, set goals, develop quality assurance programmes and support the implementation of Lead with Pride.
“I know that supporting people to consider the environmental aspects of their farming business will be critical in maintaining farm viability in the future.”
In the throes of covid-19 in mid-2020, she moved to a role at Amuri Irrigation. She found herself asking what else she could contribute to the primary industry.
When the role of DWN board trustee was advertised, Johnson was excited; it aligned with her passions and interests.
“The idea of helping people chunk down information into practical sense really appealed to me,” she says.
“There are strong industry experts on the board, people from a variety of backgrounds, and I felt they could really inspire me.”
Johnson also liked the idea of giving something back to the industry, while learning more about it.
“It is great to be around inspiring and enthusiastic people trying to improve and support the industry in a collective sense,” she says.
“I am excited to embark on my formal governance journey with DWN.”
DWN Trust board chair Trish Rankin says: “Lucy has extensive policy and regulatory knowledge which will enhance our understanding of the opportunities and challenges faced by DWN members and stakeholders. She brings her energy for agriculture, family and upskilling people to our organisation”.
Johnson has two children, a boy and a girl, and she has tried to instil a sense of “togetherness” in them.
“I try to teach them that all they have is each other,” she says.
Currently living in Christchurch, Johnson says one day she would love to get back onto the land.
“But in the meantime, it is great to have that rural connection through my network,” she says.
“We often visit family living rurally and try and teach the kids where food comes from and about living on the land in general.”
These days she predominantly works for Amuri Irrigation, while doing a little bit of seasonal consultancy work.
She says examining capability is quite a passion point for her.
“I’d like to explore keeping productivity strong by creating standardised and repeatable processes,” Johnson says. “I believe that ensuring positive and practical solutions are gained through a continual focus, and embedding lean principles to the way we work, will ultimately enhance productivity. There is such a loss of productivity – from food waste to a waste of thinking and energy.
“We need to look at a different way of streamlining the processes we have to keep progressing as an industry, to embrace the variability that will continue. After all, we’re dealing with a biological system.”
She says we also need to encourage people into the primary industries.
“We need to introduce a raft of strategies to make the primary sector appealing, to attract and retain great talent,” she says.
“We need to work alongside young people to show them how wide the primary sector actually is. They don’t have to go farming – they could be rural bankers, or sell seed, or work in agri-tech – a huge growth area.
“They need to understand that within the primary sector lie a neat set of people. Farms are medium to large businesses now; and what’s better, you can see the results of your work.”