The top 10 agribusiness up-and-comers

The top 10 agribusiness up-and-comers

We have experienced, innovative and inspiring stewards of the country’s natural resources, but who will be the next generation of people to lead New Zealand’s primary sector to dizzying commercial heights?  Well, we haven’t got a crystal ball, but our judges – Primary publisher Vincent Heeringa, Waikato agribusiness professor Dr Jacqueline Rowarth, Lincoln agriculture and life science associate professor Jon Hickford, and Westpac senior manager of corporate business Mark Wisnewski – are pretty sure we’ll all be hearing a lot more about the following 10 folk in years to come.

The pest eradicator

James Russell’s work is internationally renowned – he uses ecology, statistics and genetics to study how rats and other pests invade predator-free islands, and uses the knowledge to try to prevent further invasion. His expertise is in demand, with overseas organisations calling on him to help eradicate their own rats (80 percent of the world’s oceanic island groups have been invaded by rats), all of which has helped him earn the 2012 Prime Minister’s MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist prize.

With a long list of publications behind him, the senior lecturer at the University of Auckland (at both the School of Biological Sciences and the Department of Statistics) has worked in all manner of far-flung locations – from the Western Indian Ocean to French Polynesia to the Tibetan Plateau - as well as undertaken post-doctorate study in the US and France.

His PhD, however, was closer to home. It took him around New Zealand’s islands looking at rodent invasion and ways to implement island biosecurity. He also did the groundwork research in planning the eradication scheme of Gareth Morgan’s ‘million dollar mouse’ project, which asks New Zealanders to invest directly into eradicating mice on the Antipodes Islands – critters that are wreaking havoc after arriving with a shipwreck over a century ago.

Next year he’s off to Paris for six months to work with French experts in island conservation (France having invested much in this area since they administer clusters of islands all over the world), concentrating on how the two large unknowns of invasive species and climate change might interact with each other.

“This research will be really enlightening and hopefully helpful for our Pacific neighbours, who have strong French and New Zealand affinities,” he says.
In answer to whether New Zealand does enough to keep its scientists in the country and gainfully employed, he thinks the ‘brain exchange’ of young scientists is one of the best things New Zealand can do to keep itself open-minded.

Exposing our scientists to new methods and ideas, while exporting our ideas to other nations, helps us maintain our edge in areas such as conservation biology – and many of them do come home, he says.

“Most institutions in New Zealand do a really good job of attracting back and retaining the best scientists, and I think New Zealand really stands out internationally because of the strong linkages we have between scientists and industry such as agriculture and conservation, meaning new and good ideas actually get implemented.”

He believes the new science challenges proposed by the Government will be effective in channelling scientists’ efforts to pressing issues, and keeping them busy.

His next New Zealand-based project is to look at the environmental attitudes of New Zealanders. “As a nation, and in our local communities, we need to imagine the kind of New Zealand we want to have in 50 years’ time. I think an introduced mammalian predator-free New Zealand could be one such aspirational goal. New Zealand’s biodiversity and landscapes are at the core of our national values and identity, which in turn underpins our hugely successful agricultural and tourism markets, and I think most people agree these are values we want to protect.”

The custodian of taonga

Jamie Tuuta’s role is enormous – he must protect and enhance Maori assets, administer 100,000 hectares of Maori land throughout the country, and manage a variety of investment interests.

But you could even say he was born to the role – the CEO of Maori Trustee was raised by his grandparents on a family-owned farm in Okoki, Taranaki, and with his grandparents heavily involved in the local Urenui Marae, his early years were shaped by constant discussion of tribal matters.

Since studying law at the University of Waikato and a brief stint as political reporter for Maori Television, he has held a range of governance roles in areas such as health, iwi development, fishing, agribusiness, investment, and Maori development and education sectors. He has a keen interest in Maori economic development that is both profitable and sustainable, and as CEO of the Maori Trustee he will be involved in bettering Maori primary sector industries, both economically and environmentally.

Currently he also holds down a directorship of Aotearoa Fisheries Limited and Te Ohu Kaimoana Trustee Limited, is the Chairman of the Ngati Mutunga ki Wharekauri Asset Holding Company Limited, and is former Chairman of Parininihi ki Waitotara Incorporation (which owns 20,000 hectares of dairy land and has business interests in dairy farming, crayfish, forestry and commercial property). He’s also on the board of Wool NZ.

With the Maori Trustee, he’s implementing a new strategy that will take stronger leadership in getting Maori land and assets working and ensuring they deliver benefits for the owners. Engaging with Maori land owners, he plans to cultivate higher aspirations to create a “legacy of success in this generation”. Key to this is understanding and defining what wealth is to a Maori land owner.

“For example, some owners of Maori land and assets are willing to forgo economic or financial returns for non-financial gains such as employment, educational or cultural considerations. The starting point is understanding what the aspirations are – and how to utilise the land and assets to achieve these aspirations.”

He wants to overcome the problems Maori landholders have in fragmentation and ownership structure, turning them into opportunities. And since Maori don’t tend to sell their land, they need to become more commercially astute to make the way they farm more about cash flow than capital gain. “Maori also need to be clear that if we truly are intergenerational then we must ensure that we act and behave in a manner consistent with this longer term view. The fact that we have a longer time horizon should never be an excuse for poor performance.”

The YFC enthusiast

Erica van Reenen has many strings to her rural bow, but of her achievements, reinvigorating a slew of Young Farmers Clubs has made her stand out as a top up-and-comer.

She has just finished the Kellogg Rural Leaders Programme, after a string of rural scholarships and awards since she began her career in agriculture with an undergraduate and Master’s degree from Massey in agricultural science. In the last two years she has convened Young Farmer contests in Taranaki/Manawatu and Waikato/BOP, served as secretary and chair for another two areas and co-founded the Hamilton City YFC.

Her passion for YFC comes, she says, from the country’s need to attract its best and brightest to agriculture to help solve some of the world’s most pressing problems, such as resource limits, climate change and food security.

“Agriculture has to be part of the conversation; get children interested from primary school-age and foster them through to careers in the sector,” she says. As well as encouraging scientists, “we also need to be investing in, and developing the technical skill base in young people. We need capable people in the sector who know one end of the fence post from the other to be able to implement changes, so we need to put resources into places such as Telford and Taratahi as well as the cadet programmes such as Waipaoa and Smedley.”

“The programmes being implemented by New Zealand Young Farmers are a great start to this, and should be strongly encouraged. They need to be scaled up to be able to cover as many young people as possible. Beyond that, we need to be marketing the options for young people into agricultural careers far better, and as a nation we need to ensure there is sufficient investment into research and development as well as technology transfer to make career options in these areas viable.”

She grew up in Wanaka on a small farm and her father was a practicing vet; she never saw herself doing anything else but work in agriculture. Formerly at MAF and now Extension Manager, Mid Northern North Island at Beef + Lamb, her job involves connecting farmers with best practice, latest research and developments in the field.

“I really enjoy working with a wide range of people and developing strong networks; the job provides the perfect vehicle to do that. I get to work with farmers, scientists, teachers and academics, bankers, accountants, consultants, policy makers, local government, economists and so on, which provides great networking opportunities and the chance to learn more about various components both within and outside the sector.”

The kiwifruit avenger

At 35, the dairy-farmer’s son-come-banker-come-orchardist Nathan Flowerday became the youngest-ever board member of Zespri, standing this year “because I didn’t want to be looking back in five to 10 years’ time, knowing that I could have contributed more to the kiwifruit industry in its time of need”.

Waging battle against Psa disease while running his own orchards in Te Puke, he’s already well-versed in all areas of the kiwifruit postharvest sector. He was a member of NZ Kiwifruit Growers Incorporated from 2010 to 2012, and in 2011 was the first Associate Board Member trustee to join the AGMARDT Board of Trustees - a role he counts as invaluable preparation for the Zespri position.

He’s been rural from the start – he grew up on a dairy farm in the Waikato, and then graduated from Massey University to work as a rural manager for ASB Bank in the Bay of Plenty for five years. Next up was a corporate foray – a three-year stint in London with Merrill Lynch Investment Managers as a business analyst and management accountant, before returning home to embark on all things kiwifruit.

While the kiwifruit industry has very publicly had it tough in the last few years – suffering bad weather and Psa – Nathan feels it’s important to recognise that all agribusinesses, not just kiwifruit, are in more volatile times than they have been in the past. “We are more connected to the rest of the world than we have ever been; and whilst this can be a real positive from a trade perspective it comes with potential biosecurity risk. . . there are plenty more examples that haven’t received as much public attention [as Psa] and we would be foolish to think that Psa will be the last incursion the agribusiness sector experiences.”

But he believes the Government Industry Agreements (GIAs) will be beneficial in drawing both industry and Government in to understand the specific risks that are threatening each industry, and how to mitigate them and respond to them. He says Psa is an extremely hard lesson learned for everyone, and that other industries are now sitting up and starting to prepare themselves against the same.

As a former rural banker he feels the banking sector will have a huge part to play in the kiwifruit industry recovery, as it was generally the more innovative growers who were more involved with Zespri gold variety, and who are now among the worst affected Psa growers.

“Ultimately these growers have a drive for innovation and this will be one of the key success factors in the kiwifruit industry returning to our upward trajectory to contribute to our horticulture sector’s $10 billion dollar strategy by 2020.”

In the coming years, he plans to concentrate on fulfilling his role at Zespri, focusing on improving kiwifruit grower returns, and assisting the kiwifruit industry in the road to recovery from Psa using his knowledge of orchard conversion. Although, with fond memories of a dairy farm upbringing and a keen interest in the dairy arm of New Zealand agribusiness (he almost bought a farm before Psa hit), he tells us not to be surprised if years down the track he takes a more active role in dairying.

The rural marketing sage

Wairarapa-based Lucy Cruickshank is a little different from others on our ‘up-and-comers’ list, in that she doesn’t work ‘down on the farm’. Rather, she markets and sells premium New Zealand products into lucrative export markets. 

She completed commerce and physical education degrees, with an emphasis on marketing and management, at the University of Otago, before earning her stripes at Wakatu Incorporation. Wakatu is a $250 million Maori Incorporation based in Nelson. It has a vast portfolio of businesses including Tohu Wines – a brand Lucy helped establish in NZ and the UK – and the KONO food brand, spanning beverage, seafood and horticultural products. She followed her time there with high level positions at Watson & Son, one of the country’s largest Manuka honey operations, and Pure Wairarapa, a sales and marketing collective for gourmet food products from the area. These days, Lucy serves as a trustee of FAME (Food & Agribusiness Market Experience), board member at the Wairarapa Chamber of Commerce and managing director of Innov8 Aotearoa, which consults to and coaches NZ food businesses.

Lucy is also a keen athlete and singer and made it to the finals of the most recent Masterchef series. She is the grandaughter of Reg Cruickshank, a successful exporter of wool, possum, canned rabbit and bluff oyster in the early 1990s and she says her parents – both ex-rural broadcasters – always encouraged their children to look ‘beyond the farm gate’.

Lucy has some common sense advice for exporters she deals with. She says they should not leave all the selling of a product to the importer or distributor: “like anything in life, relationships are critical and exporters need to be committed to visiting the market regularly and promoting their products.”

She counsels them to develop an online presence and explore sales through alternative market channels such as Amazon and Rakuten, collaborate with complementary companies in offshore markets, and eschew commodity products in favour of “understanding what the market wants and developing niche products underpinned by  credible science”.

The data whiz

Kathryn Hempstalk admits, frankly, that she would not be working at Livestock Improvement Corporation (LIC) in Hamilton if a friend had not lured her there. 

There was no particular reason for Kathryn to consider anything other than a pure IT company when she was mapping her career, in fact, with a PhD in computer science from Waikato University, and numerous professional accolades and scholarships, she was far more focused on the opportunities she could pursue overseas.

“I didn’t think I would last more than a year [at LIC] but four years on I am still here, and really happy with it,” she says.

“It’s extremely rewarding to be able to produce something that farmers actually value using.”

What Kathryn does at LIC is “use computing and mathematics to solve dairy farm problems and make farmers’ lives easier.” It can be as simple as providing an iPhone application to record data – like body condition sores – or as advanced as developing new technologies for machine learning so farmers can accurately predict when a cow is on heat.

“One of the things I am most proud of is working on the EZ Heat camera, which detects whether a heat part is activated or not, and sends information to the Protrack drafting system to draft the animal after milking,” she says. Recently she’s been working with AgResearch on a project for detecting mastitis using thermal cameras.

When Primary talked to Kathryn she was at a conference in Australia, where “there has been a barrage of questions and utter disbelief at all the cool things I get to work on”.

Kathryn has just won the Emerging Scientist at the Kudos (Hamilton Science Excellence) Awards for 2012 – awards she calls “a great initiative towards recognising [New Zealand] scientists.”

“I’d like to see it go nationwide though, and I’d also like to think that our graduates would be made aware of all the awesome things they could do if they looked closer to home.”

The farmer-banker

Born and bred on a dairy farm, Aidan Gent of Westpac has been able to meld two things he loves in his professional life – getting out and about with the farming community in his role as agribusiness manager in Taranaki, as well as keeping a foot in the corporate sector.

It’s a unique job, and one that Aidan clearly relishes. He says there are a couple of things he keeps foremost in mind when dealing with farmer-businesspeople of the area: “you have to act with integrity and listen carefully to the needs of each individual business, first and foremost.”

On-going feedback is important, as is the fact that “an agribusiness has a lifespan significantly longer than most bank managers’ careers, so successfully portraying the bank’s position, as opposed to your own personal position, provides continuity,” he says.

As a result of his positive, professional manager and recognised leadership potential, Aidan was recently chosen by Westpac to attend the One World Youth Summit in Pittsburgh. The Summit – only second to the Olympic Games in bringing together representatives from all over the globe – sees attendees debate and formulate solutions for the pressing issues the world faces. Aidan, and Ferrah Wells, another Westpac employee, were part of a group of 40 selected to speak at the summit, and presented on Sustainable Development, focusing on the NZ agriculture story, and the role of business in driving a sustainable future.

“Being on the world stage surrounded by 1200 young leaders from 183 countries, and with the calibre of speakers we were fortunate to hear from, promotes a huge amount of “diversity of thought,” says Aidan.

One thing he knows, though, is that New Zealand has great leadership potential in agriculture – in all its forms. “As farmers, we are ultimately custodians of the land – and understand that being in business is a privilege, not a right.”

The new challenge lover

Caine Thompson manages four vineyard operations for Napier-based Mission Estate – a total of 150 hectares, supplying fruit for New Zealand’s oldest winery.

It’s a pretty remarkable job for someone who, just three years ago, won Young Horticulturalist and Viticulturalist of the Year, but Caine’s achievements don’t rest there.

He is currently also heading up the organics unit at Mission, “an exciting job to be leading,” he says. The unit is charged with running a side-by-side analysis of the effect of organic practices on fruit quality, quantity, cost of production and wine quality when compared with the conventional equivalents. It’s a national project now, incorporating Marlborough and Central Otago, and takes in all aspects of growing including pest, disease and weed control.

“The organic wine sector is gaining momentum and we want to be able to quantify, for our business, what is involved and what effects, positive and negative, result from such a trial comparison,” says Caine.

Another exciting project he’s involved in is the development of a grafting technique – a co-development with Professor Gerhard Pietersen from the University of Pretoria in South Africa. It’s a world-first ‘indicator’ grafting technique, which grafts a red variety bud onto the trunk of a white variety in order to identify leaf roll virus (which can be seen on red, but is normally impossible to detect visually on white variety plants).

When leaf roll virus takes hold in white vines it can be catastrophic for growers, because it’s usually not discovered until too late – and there is no cure; the only remedy is to remove all infected vines and replant. So the new technique has the potential to save local vineyards thousands of dollars per hectare of plants once it has been refined for wider adoption.

Caine is concurrently studying towards an MBA through Massey in whatever spare time he has, and says he loves the idea of being able to apply himself to more challenges, both within his areas of expertise and outside of them.

“In time I would like to be more involved in other aspects of the wine business such as sales and marketing initiatives and discussions encouraging sustainability, research, and regional diversity of New Zealand wines.”

The proud rural vet

Michael Lilley from Murchison on the West Coast hopes his own children will have the same supportive, rural childhood that he and wife Kelly enjoyed.

He’s now got the chance to put that wish into action, having become father to his first child, Arthur, this year. And as well as becoming a dad, Michael had another reason to rejoice in 2012 when he was awarded the title of the National Bank Young Farmer of the Year at the end of May.

For Michael, who works at a vet and has excelled in his involvement with Young Farmers, with clay target shooting, and even as an amateur coal shoveller (at the Reefton A&P Show in 2010), it’s all about moving towards leadership and governance in agriculture and helping take the industry forward.

He says his longterm aim is to buy his own farm. “I’ll most definitely be involved in agriculture in five or even ten years’ time – we’re constantly on the lookout for opportunities [to buy a farm] that will help us realise that goal,” he says. Being involved with the Kellogg Rural Leaders Programme and FAME (Food and Agribusiness Market Experience programme), as well as the Young Farmers win, has provided lots of opportunities to develop professionally, which will all come in handy in time.

Not that he’s unhappy working as a rural vet at the moment – a job that has its unique challenges. “Working out of a small clinic, you are expected to be capable across a wide range of species and take control of a variety of working situations,” he says. “However, working in a remote area you get to deal with a fantastic group of farmers who support you professionally – and there’s a great network of vets willing to share their knowledge, so help is never very far away.”

At the moment the country is grappling with how to keep New Zealand-trained vets in rural areas, and a bonding scheme exists. Michael says as well as bonding vets, selection of potential candidates needs to be wider to ensure the numbers are coming through.

“While it is a difficult degree I think the selection process could take into account some non-academic factors, to better select vets with the passion to work rurally,” he says.

“To me, part of the attraction of vet practice was to be able to have a professional career and all the great things that come with living and working rurally.”

The power duo

According to his Twitter profile he’s a “self proclaimed Dirty Boot (aka hands on farmer) with a touch of green”. And among Ben Allomes’ 143 ‘followers’ are media types like Ali Ikram and Marcus Lush, not to mention Labour MP Jacinda Ardern. This is one very connected farmer. And he’s on a mission.

As the youngest-ever director of DairyNZ, Ben makes no bones about representing the next generation of farmers. “There needs to be succession in the industry, at a farming level and at a leadership level.”

Ben sees the DairyNZ role as a natural progression from his three years as national president of Young Farmers - but he’s reluctant to be labelled as a leader.

“You don’t say leadership, you do leadership. If you see a problem and you can see a solution, and you try your best to fix it - and at the same time take people along with you - I suppose you could say that’s leadership.”

One of his passions is conservation. Having studied natural resource management at Massey University, he says farmers have to “do the right thing”, but they need science and research to understand what the right thing is. The ultimate goal is to improve public perceptions about the dairy industry. “I’d love to see it as an industry for Kiwis to be proud of, and for Kiwis to aspire to be part of physically or emotionally.”

Farming to Ben is about fulfilling the Kiwi dream. After all, he and wife Nicky both “started with nothing” 13 years ago. He spent his early days on a small dairy farm, and she came from a sheep farm. 

Together, they now farm around 1,500 cows and employ ten staff on three properties. Along the way, they’ve picked up the 2008 Sharemilker of the Year Award.

And now that much of his time is devoted to off-farm activities, Ben says he couldn’t do without good staff and an understanding family. “The whole journey’s been very much together, along with our four kids.”

This story originally appeared in Primary magazine