DairyNZ and Fonterra have paid tribute to Michael Spaans, who has died after a long illness.

The 54-year-old Te Aroha dairy farmer had been a DairyNZ board member since 2008 and was elected chairman in November 2015.

In a statement DairyNZ said: "It is with great sadness that DairyNZ acknowledges the passing of (Reindert) Michael Spaans, husband, father, farmer, director, and recent chair of DairyNZ."

Spaans was also a director of Fonterra from 2013 until January 2017 when illness forced an early retirement. However, he continued on as a director of ASB and Shoof International, and with his farming interests in Canterbury, Chile, and the United States, as well as his home farm.

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DairyNZ acting chairman Barry Harris said: "Michael will be greatly missed by the board, our staff, our farmers and the wider Waikato community. His passion and knowledge of the sector, and dedication to improving outcomes for dairy farming profitability and sustainability are well known.

"We are going to miss his thoughtful debating and farmer-first approach to investment, his involvement with the dairy leaders group, his focus as chair of the Waikato Dairy Leaders Group and the group's desire to improve the state of the Waikato River, and support for the Healthy Rivers plan in particular."

Growing up on a family farm at Tauhei, near Morrinsville, Spaans attended Mangateparu School, Morrinsville Intermediate and Morrinsville College. He later took over his parents' farm at Manawaru, residing there with his wife Kristina and their three children, now aged 16, 20 and 22, until his passing.

A keen basketballer as a young man, Spaans started farming life in Te Aroha as a young sharemilker, getting into governance around the time of the creation of Fonterra. He started with the old New Zealand Dairy Group shareholders' council and continued to serve as Te Aroha Ward rep when the council and company became part of Fonterra. From there he has held many governance positions, dedicating his life to improving farming in New Zealand.

Michael Spaans (54), husband, father, farmer, director, and recent chair of DairyNZ. Photo / Supplied
Michael Spaans (54), husband, father, farmer, director, and recent chair of DairyNZ. Photo / Supplied

"Michael always had presence and not just because he was 6ft 9in tall, but because he was thoughtful, considered, and passionate about farming," says DairyNZ's chief Executive Dr Tim Mackle.

"Besides his love and dedication to his family, he was also dedicated to DairyNZ, even ill, he made such an effort to add value to our organisation. He felt and was often quoted as saying how vital an organisation like DairyNZ was to act in the best interests of farmers, and the DairyNZ family are going to miss him.

"Our deepest sympathies lie with his family, especially his wife Kristina, who has also dedicated her past nine years to us too."

Fonterra chairman John Wilson said in a statement the company had lost one of its strongest people.

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"[Michael] and I go back many years and I saw him approach his illness in the same way he approached everything in life. He was resolute and determined and did his utmost to continue on as normal. It was a brave fight and I am sure that will not surprise those of you who knew him.

He said Spaans was a proud dairy farmer with a passion for Fonterra and the industry.

"I have often talked about the importance of having leaders developing within our ranks and Michael is a very fine example.

"Michael served on the New Zealand Dairy Group Shareholder Council, before joining the Fonterra Shareholders' Council at the time our Co-op was formed. He was also part of the first intake for the Fonterra Governance Development Programme, and later built his governance experience outside the industry including directorships with ASB Bank, Shoof International, DairyNZ, Manuka SA, Waikato Innovation Park, Innovation Waikato and Ospri New Zealand."

DairyNZ said a replacement chair would be announced shortly, along with a replacement solution for a new farmer director.
Michael Spaans is survived by his wife Kristina and children Olivia, Logan and Harvey.