Throughout an absorbing career Maury Leyland has been associated with transformation. She has never shied away from new challenges and is now determined to be in the forefront of transforming the primary sector.
After Leyland left the Fonterra executive team in 2016 and her husband Dr John Penno stepped down as chief executive of Synlait Milk, the public-listed company he co-founded, they established Okuora Holdings to invest in innovative, early-stage growth companies focussed on sustainable agriculture and future foods.
"There are environmental pressures, and consumers are becoming more demanding, seeking out higher quality products and wanting to know the provenance of the food. They are also moving to plant-based diets," Leyland said
"We have become too dependent on a small range of exports. There's nothing wrong with the beef, sheep and milk products — they still attract global demand — but we need to have a strong portfolio of exports with a fantastic environmental story behind them. We do meat, wool and dairy, apples, kiwifruit and wine really well, but the list gets a bit thin after that."
Leyland, who earned first class honours in engineering science at Auckland University, held a range of positions in strategy, operations and HR during her 11 years at Fonterra, after a nine-year stint as strategy consultant at The Boston Consulting Group.
She was formerly a member of the Team New Zealand America's Cup design group, a director of Spark and also Transpower New Zealand, and a member of the Lincoln University Transformation Board.
She is presently an independent director of Genesis Energy, a member of the Te Hono Movement's steering committee, and chair of the Auckland-based Education Hub which produces research and the tools to improve school teaching practices.
Leyland and Penno, an agricultural scientist, formed Okuora Holdings in mid-2017 and its investments all link to high-value agriculture and food production.
There's nothing wrong with the beef, sheep and milk products, but we need to have a strong portfolio of exports with a fantastic environmental story behind them.
Leyland and Penno have taken stakes in Auckland-based Pastoral Robotics which has developed technology to reduce nitrogen leaching in the paddocks; Wellington-based Regen which employs sensor technology and farm data to manage irrigation and effluent systems, using the right amount of water; and QR code company, Trust Codes, that traces the origin and tells the story behind individual products (Leyland is the chair).
Okuora owns half of the 18 hectare Wangapeka River Hops farm near Nelson and has a 30.43 per cent stake in The Pure Food Co, which provides pureed, fortified and shaped food to the elderly in hospitals and aged care facilities in New Zealand and Australia.
"New Zealand grows beautiful hops with great aromatic flavour. Hops grown here are largely exported and in high demand with brewers.
"The Pure Food Co has utilised New Zealand products to develop pureed food for people who are in need of extra nutritional support," said Leyland.
"They are now making dishes that are shaped like proper meals and encourage people to eat well and improve their health and wellbeing."
Penno chairs the company, and Leyland is a fellow director.
Leyland and Penno, who commute between Christchurch and Auckland, also established Leaft Foods at Lincoln to develop a high-quality plant protein powder that can shake up the concentrate ingredients market here and overseas.
It is likely to compete strongly with the traditional plant protein ingredients like pea and soy protein — and The Pure Food Co will no doubt become a Leaft customer.
The Leaft protein, based around the abundant and energy-rich rubisco, is extracted from green leafy plants such as lucerne or oats.
After being harvested and juiced, the manufacturing process produces the rubisco protein powder.
As a by-product, the manufacturing process produces high carbohydrate silage feed for stock and reduces nitrogen loadings on farms. By using leafy crops that remove nitrogen from the soil, Leaft expects to produce protein with a lighter environmental footprint and greater nutritional advantages.
Leyland said Leaft was conducting "an awful lot of trials" and the plant protein should be commercial within 18 months to two years.
"The British produced a green protein during World War II but it wasn't very delicious," she said.
"We have produced a white protein that doesn't have a strong taste — you want the flavour of the other ingredients to be the stars. We made a pavlova and the protein performed well, showing strong foaming and gelling properties."
Leyland said a number of global food companies had shown interest in the Leaft plant protein.
"There's no reason why farmers around the country can't grow the green leafy crops for our protein and at the same time they benefit environmentally.
"That would involve a significant volume of protein and shipping thousands of tonnes. That's the potential of our food ingredient."
During the Covid-19 lockdown Leyland and Penno bought a 700ha sheep and beef farm in North Canterbury alongside the Hurunui River and called it Okuora Farms.
It's an ideal opportunity for them to put their innovative farming systems into practice.
"We have the chance to produce fine wools and high-value meat, we can grow the green leafy plants for protein and some horticulture on the flats — it may be hops, apples or something novel. We will look at a forestry option and it won't necessarily be pinus radiata," Leyland said.
"We want to be able to tell great stories about our products, their taste and where they come from. We haven't backed down on our [investment] strategy because of Covid.
"We want to be on the journey of serving high-end consumers and not just stand on the sideline.
"It's fun and it's challenging."