New farming group leader targets meat reform

GERALD PIDDOCK
Last updated 06:12 23/07/2014
Rick Powdrell
Fairfax NZ

NOT JUST FARMERS: Rick Powdrell says the new Federated Farmers national board will continue the collaborative approach undertaken by former president Bruce Wills.

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Rick Powdrell sees a tough three years in front of him as the new Federated Farmers meat and fibre chairman.

Meat industry reformation, stricter environmental regulations, a wool levy vote and land use change are some of the issues he sees affecting the country's 12,500 sheep and beef farmers.

"It's going to be an interesting period for me," the Te Puke sheep, beef and dairy grazing farmer said.

But he enjoys a challenge.

His 28-year association with Federated Farmers begun when he was "roped into"the organisation in 1986.

"We had a pretty convincing field officer in those days who convinced me it was a good thing to be involved in. I would say he was right.

"I look back when I was young and we had some pretty good people around here that inspired me to join."

He was involved in local meat and fibre matters until the early 1990s, before stepping away for a decade because of the responsibilities of running a farm and raising two children.

But he maintained an interest in farmer politics.

He also served on the Beef+Lamb Farming for Profit committee, he chairs the Te Puke Veterinarian Service, and sits on the board of the Te Puke Economic Development Group.

More recently he served two years on the meat and fibre executive, firstly as its Bay of Plenty representative and then as vice-chairman before he was elected to the national board at the group's national conference in June.

He is also the federation's Bay of Plenty provincial president.

The turning point for Powdrell in his leadership aspirations with Federated Farmers came when he underwent a Kellogg Rural Leadership programme.

Many on the new Federated Farmers board were not just farmers. They had achieved in other areas of life and had big skill sets.

New president Dr William Rolleston was an example of that, he said.

The organisation had changed immensely under the tenure of Bruce Wills to a more collaborative approach, which he supported.

"That's how I like to operate. It's my natural style. I'm not a confrontational person, but I'll put my foot down if I need to." That process was needed if there was to be any progress in meat industry restructuring, which Powdrell has set as a goal during the next three years.

"I'm not going to say it will be all fixed, because I don't know if anyone knows what 'all fixed' means."

It was, in his words, "a complex beast".

"Unfortunately time and time again, it gets compared to the dairy industry."

When Fonterra was formed, the companies involved were owned 100 per cent by farmers, but red meat farmers only owned about 50 per cent of their industry. The rest was in the hands of private companies. "That really puts a whole lot of complexity into it."

One of the hardest issues in this debate is to get farmers to engage, he said. "There are a lot of farmers out there that think someone else is going to do it for them."

The meat industry in the South Island was dominated by the two cooperatives Silver Fern Farms and Alliance Group whereas in the North Island, it was in the hands of private companies.

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The often-maligned Sunday night spot buyer was just one factor in many that needed to be resolved. Those that engaged in that activity were a minority, he said.

A year ago, the federation's meat and fibre executive decided they needed to learn more about farmer behaviour.

Powdrell said this would put them in a better position when they discussed meat industry matters with the government or other sector bodies.

Their work showed that loyalty - particularly to people more so than a company, played a large role in supplier behaviour.

That manifested itself in the number of stock or supplier agents that attended a farming family wedding or twenty-first birthday.

"Those are the strength of relationships that get built up.

"Often, if an agent changes companies then farmers change with them. The person of contact is as important as the company."

The industry needed to understand that, Powdrell said.

They also released an industry options paper authored by the federation's meat and fibre policy advisor Sarah Crofoot for farmer feedback.

The executive now had to analyse all of that information for common themes.

They were also in discussions with the meat companies.

Their interpretation of 'loyalty' and 'committed supplier' sometimes differed from the view of a farmer.

"If we are to move this industry forward in some shape and form, one of the big things is that all the key players are going to have to communicate more and get a lot closer than what we are."

None of it was going to be easy, he said. There also needed to be a greater focus on the sheep and beef industry's view on water and the environment.

Currently much of the debate had been around the dairy industry's role.

"Some of the ideas been looked at could have severe impacts on future sheep and beef operations."

Powdrell said that farmers had done very well in recent times, considering the strength of the New Zealand dollar and the lingering effects of the Global Financial Crisis.

However, the volatility of lamb prices remained an issue. As much as farmers enjoyed the years when prices were high, volatility in the industry did nobody any favours, he said.

"I would much rather see a steady progression gain as long as it keeps ahead of costs."

Powdrell also backed the campaign to bring back a levy on wool. Beef+Lamb are holding a referendum later this year for farmers to vote on the levy's reintroduction.

He sat on the wool levy group formed to run the referendum and believed farmers needed to hear the information so they would make an educated decision.

"When we lost the wool levy, with one stroke of the pen, the government slashed millions of dollars in research and development into wool."

Powdrell is one of the few large scale sheep farmers left in Te Puke.

Others farming sheep or with forestry blocks had converted to dairying, beef cattle as well as horticulture.

"Im still a reasonably big sheep farmer, and a lot of emphasis goes onto the sheep operation and in that respect I'm up with the play with what is going on with sheep.

"Being in a not so big sheep area, I suppose it gives me a bit of balance, particularly around the impact that dairy support is having in the meat and fibre industry."

He investigated the feasibility of a dairy conversion on his farm, but it was too difficult because of its setup.

A better option for many farmers contemplating a conversion could be to borrow a fraction of the costs and use the money to improve their infrastructure or productivity, he said.

"They might increase their productivity and bottom line by 'X', and they have only taken on $300,000 of debt."

His 502 hectare sheep, beef and dairy grazing farm near Te Puke has been in his family for three generations.

He and wife Rose own 275ha and lease the rest of the property. He runs 2500 romney ewes and 525 hoggets and 97 beef steers. His dairy grazing operation has 350 dairy heifers, 180 of which stay on as winter cows until just before calving. He also runs 25 empty dairy cows that graze the farm for 12 months and 300 dairy calves that graze from December to May.

But his primary focus is on lamb finishing. It is an integrated system where the cattle are used to clean up pastures, while the beef steers provide flexibility in the system if it became dry, those numbers drop away, he said.

About 750 of his older ewes are mated to a terminal ram and start lambing next week, while the rest of the ewes lamb in mid-August and the hoggets in September.

The biggest challenge farming in his area was weed control and controlling pasture growth in the spring.

His pasture growth curve also has a large peak, which made it hard to keep on top of it from October to December.

He maintains his pasture quality by cutting the grass and storing it for silage. His farm also came under pressure in the late autumn because the farm was still stocked up with heifers and calves.

"But we can't complain about the climate. It tends to be pretty good here," he said.

He uses a farm manager, who essentially runs the farm to allow Powdrell more time to focus on his duties at Federated Farmers.

"I'm in a position now where I'm the 'boy'.

"I let him know when I'm going to be away, so he can organise the things he wants assistance with when I'm here. Some people struggle with that."

gerald.piddock@fairfaxmedia.co.nz

- Waikato Times

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