Friday, July 1, 2022

Strident advocate of value of irrigation

A passion for engineering and water has led to a lifetime of work for on-the-ground trailblazer Dr Terry Heiler, recipient of the Lincoln University’s Bledisloe Medal 2013. Annette Scott caught up with him in Tasmania. International consultant in natural resources Dr Terry Heiler has seen a lot during a lengthy career specialising in water management and irrigation. He has been involved in about 40 projects in 25 countries on behalf of international financial organisations and host countries.

A former chief executive of Irrigation New Zealand, he is currently a member of the National Infrastructure Advisory Board advising government on the development of a 20-year national infrastructure plan. He is also an appointed member of the regional committee of the Canterbury Water Management Strategy.

His ability to see the big picture and to establish and implement meaningful action plans are two fundamental traits that have distinguished his career.

When he talked about the Lincoln University honour he appeared a little stunned by the award.

“Yes, they want to give me a Bledisloe Medal,” he said. “I am humbled, it is most unexpected. I am truly honoured.”

A doctoral graduate and former long-serving staff member of Lincoln University and chief executive of a number of its associated commercial entities, his career has brought great credit to the university and significantly advanced New Zealand’s land-based interests.

Heiler acknowledged the university and his 27 years with Lincoln.

“This (award) has made me reflect on the influence that Lincoln has had on me and my career. I learnt many things that I didn’t take into Lincoln,” he said.

Farm systems and big natural resources were on the learning curve.

“Being an engineer I just wanted to get on and build things. It was working with the team at Lincoln that made me see my engineering contribution as part of the much larger scale and certainly provoked much wider thinking. Personally I made many great friends.”

Heiler has played a distinguished role in the science, engineering and formulation of policy around the use of water for land-based productive and conservation investments.

A civil engineering graduate with a first class honours degree from the University of New South Wales, Heiler joined Lincoln College in 1966 as a research officer with the campus-based New Zealand Agricultural Engineering Institute (NZAEI). In his career through to retirement from the University in 1993 he moved up the ranks to director and chief executive of the institute.

Through it all his service was characterised by a clear understanding of farm systems and an ability to apply professional engineering skills to optimise benefits from water usage by farmers.

Heiler led Lincoln University’s thrust into the commercial research and development sphere, transforming a number of organisations, including the NZAEI into Lincoln Ventures, now known as Lincoln Agritech. He was the first chief executive of LinLinc, a company that brought together most of Lincoln University’s trading and entrepreneurial units within a single structure with several million dollars worth of business generated by its constituent members.

He also led the establishment of Lincoln International, a business enterprise tasked with marketing the research, extension and capacity-building resources of the university and the wider agricultural community in the Lincoln area into international development projects. His efforts in this regard were recognised by the government of the day with an Export Commendation award for the company.

He was instrumental in NZ re-joining the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), an alliance of funders and international agricultural research centres. His standing with the government was recognised by an invitation to chair its External Aid Advisory Committee.

Beyond the campus Heiler’s leadership ability was acknowledged in appointments to the boards of Landcare Research, WoolPro and Tectra.

In 1987 he was awarded the Crawford Reid Memorial Award by the United States Irrigation Association. The award honours individuals who have significantly advanced the irrigation industry and proper irrigation techniques and procedures outside of the US. He is the only New Zealander to have received this award.

Heiler left Lincoln University to pursue private consultancy work and in 2006 he was appointed inaugural chief executive of Irrigation New Zealand. It was a landmark appointment for the organisation which, after restructuring and rebranding, was seeking to move forward as the unified irrigation voice in NZ.

His responsibility was to lead the promotion of best practice across NZ’s irrigation industry in water management, water efficiency, and the environmental impacts of intensified land use.

His role with IrrigationNZ was seen as providing leadership of the NZ irrigation industry with scientific and accurate advocacy to government and other key decision-makers.

He joked how he agreed to take up the inaugural chief executive position on a part-time basis to help get the organisation on its feet.

“It was more like full-time with part-time money.”

Heiler retired as chief executive in 2010 but remains strident in his advocacy of irrigation as essential if NZ is to meet the market challenges of the future.

In his spare time Heiler and his wife Barbara run a small farming business based in Central Canterbury. The couple has a holiday bach on the West Coast, where they enjoy chasing the odd whitebait.  

The Bledisloe Medal, initiated in 1930 by the late Viscount Bledisloe, former Governor-General of NZ, is awarded to a former student or past or current staff member of Lincoln University who has made an outstanding contribution in their chosen field, advanced NZ’s interests and brought credit to Lincoln University.

Heiler will be presented the Bledisloe Medal 2013 at the university’s graduation ceremony on Friday. 

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