The milk price slump created an opportunity to strengthen financial literacy in the rural sector, Richard Hegan says.

Hegan, who is ASB's general manager rural, says navigating the milk price cycle has helped bring home the importance of a strong balance sheet to many farming businesses.

It has also resulted in improvements to financial reporting - led by farmers, not their bank.

"The downturn forced farmers to stare harder into their financial position," says Hegan.


"We talked with farmers a lot about managing the things they could control, which meant a close rein over capital and farm working expenses, and required a lift in financial reporting to support decision-making."

Farmers are also "connecting the dots" about the size, scale and complexity of their businesses and the need for comprehensive financial reporting.

"Many Kiwi farmers are running an asset base and cash flows that are bigger than some of New Zealand's listed companies, yet they don't have the financial reporting and systems to support that scale."

Financial literacy has been a key theme of Hegan's meetings with farmers up and down the country.

It is estimated just 25 per cent of farmers produce their own budget and cashflow statements. That doesn't feel high enough, Hegan says. "I see a lot of heads nodding when I talk about it."

He reckons New Zealand banks may well have played a role in contributing to the rural sector's low levels of financial literacy.

"It goes back to the old days of rural banking, where we thought it would be a great service model for rural managers to take care of budget and cashflow modelling for farmers.

"In hindsight we may have played too big a role in producing budgets and cashflows for farmers with the unintended consequence that the industry hasn't taken account for its own financial reporting."


But Hegan feels the picture is slowly starting to change as technology, particularly cloud-based tools, simplify processes and empower farmers to take charge of their books.

Improved financial reporting is also starting to emerge from family-driven succession planning, as younger generations come through to farm management, and with the establishment of advisory boards.

"I would be very happy if we get to the point where we never do another budget, because our farmers are confident enough to use digital tools available to them, and we support the process.

"So, instead of us having our heads in our laptops producing budgets, we can spend this time having deeper and more meaningful conversations with our customers about the output of the reporting, and how we can help them secure their financial futures."