Farmers show resilience to adapt to changing world

DairyNZ chief executive Tim Mackle
DairyNZ chief executive Tim Mackle

A New Year has arrived, and I'm pleased. Time to move on from 2013.

Not that all went badly last year. Not at all. The dairy industry and Fonterra in particular were in the news a lot - but maybe that helped New Zealanders understand us better.

We came through it together and perhaps, out of it all, we know a little bit more about each other.

2013 may have started badly for farmers with the drought, but it ended well weather-wise and with a positive milk price forecast.

I guess that's the farmer's view. After all, it's all about the milking season, not the calendar year for us.

If the cows are producing well, the grass is growing and milk price looks good, then we can weather the other storms or droughts that might come our way.

Last year certainly taught us that our farmers can farm through adverse events. Any kind of adverse event.

Drought, food safety scares, ministerial inquiries, disease outbreaks.

Resilient? We sure are - 2013 was a clear signal that farmers are adapting, changing and farming better through challenges.

It should be no surprise to dairy farmers that we are no longer the lowest cost milk producer in the world. We haven't been near it for more than a decade, due partly to higher asset values (land), feed and relatively expensive labour. But we are the most innovative, known and valued as early adopters of technology.

That's the face we need to put forward now.

With DairyNZ investing $83 million (three quarters of it from farmer levy) a year in research, development and lifting the game in farming, we need to shift our public image from some kind of Fred Dagg to ensure people see us as the smart farmer who is internationally competitive, cares for the environment and our cows, attracts and looks after the best talent and contributes positively to communities and to the country. Sounds like a tall order, and it is.

But dairy farmers have a vital role to play in ensuring our urban and rural communities thrive, not just merely survive.

It is time to move the public debate on from the endless discussions of our industry in 2013 to the complexities of succeeding in the business in today's world.

How do we set community water quality and quantity limits, and how can we be competitive and responsible farmers in today's super-connected world where public expectations of us have become a part of our daily life?

How can we be the best?

So 2014, welcome. Time for a new year of challenges.

* Tim Mackle is the chief executive of DairyNZ

Fairfax Media