That we live in "interesting times" seems to be an often quoted and all too typically overused phrase. These days, of course, it is also something of an understatement – as any farmer, for example, will tell you.
We have been used to fighting our battles on several fronts for a long time now, whether it's been Covid-19, the worst drought Northland has seen for years, the changing nature of pastoral industries, or the importance of balancing profitability, environmental sustainability, and farmer wellbeing.
Opportunity and uncertainty make for strange bedfellows, but all too often that is life as we know it and understand it.
Covid-19 and the subsequent nationwide lockdown have had a significant impact on our industry and our communities, and we know that it will continue to do so for some time to come. We also know that we are not alone, and that the economy has also fought its own monumental battle for survival.
For farmers, during these times, it has often been a question of balance as much as anything – a complex juggling act of recognising how fortunate we are to work with space all around us, of being an essential industry in lockdown, while at the same time battling the operational challenges brought about by the pandemic, the market uncertainty, and the constant threat of supply-chain disruption.
Sometimes it seemed easier just to hunker down and get through what was ahead of you, to tell yourself that everything was okay. But farmers are nothing if not realists, and all too often it was a case of simply looking around and asking yourself, "Holy hell, what's going on in the world?"
The drought that roared through our region from Christmas until May offered little respite for reflection, of course. It bit hard and deep and, in many ways, it had a greater cumulative effect even than Covid.
It impacted severely on grass growth – the engine-room of our pastoral farming system – driving up purchased supplementary feed inputs, challenging dairy milk production, stock weights and, ultimately, profitability. Not surprisingly, the toll on farmer wellbeing was significant.
The past six months have been a bumpy ride to put it mildly and, while farming is a resilient sector, the combination of Covid, drought and uncertainty have tested many of us in ways we could never have foreseen.
Yet the reality, amazingly, is that farmers are now starting to pick themselves up again, and just in time for calving, too.
How my pride for Northland grew during lockdown
After fighting Covid together we must rebuild together
The importance of recognising the changing nature of the social, economic and political environment we farm in, continues to exert its hold – indeed, it would be fair to say that, as an industry, we are in a period of change, at a pace and breadth arguably not seen for a generation.
The need to be able to not only balance this but to improve farm profitability, environmental sustainability and wellbeing is well and truly under the spotlight.
The business of farming is a complex one with a significant number of variables that are beyond the farmer's control, and the ongoing question is: how do you carve out opportunity for you and your family, while managing these variables and mitigating risk?
There are countless articles that deeply analyse this, and I am not going to try to repeat them here. However, if you break down some of the above ideas a little, a number of key elements or key themes begin to emerge.
The place and importance of collaboration, whether as a catchment or as a region, between central and local government, with industry or with other farmers – along with the recognition that in some areas we can achieve more together than we can alone.
The place of business principles across all pillars (or triple-bottom line), which includes:
• The importance of a vision, strategic and operational planning (both financial and physical)
• The importance of delivery or execution of these plans and the ruthless attention to detail this can entail
• The need to deeply understand your business and its drivers – be it milk production, stock production or real estate
• The value of benchmarking and the rigour of analysis
• The importance of risk management.
Aligned to these themes, it is a fact of life that we must constantly recognise the impact of market and climatic variability, changing government policy and societal expectation (our licence to farm).
It goes without saying that to successfully manage all of these factors, we must never lose sight of the importance of building robust support networks and maintaining ongoing personal development.
The challenge in every business, including farming, is how to shift theory to practice and embed these behaviours and disciplines in what we do day by day, week by week and year by year.
Despite the challenges of the past six months, of Covid lockdown, drought and uncertainty, at the heart of the equation for all of us is one dynamic driver – the primary sector is purely and simply a great industry to be involved in.
An industry where genuine collaboration continues to occur, and opportunity remains for those involved; an industry that, while facing challenges, has much to contribute to our region and our country as a whole.
Our team of farmers, both nationally and in Northland, is as prepared as any team can be to weather the storm of change, both on the land and in the boardroom. There are challenges, there is no denying that, but when push comes to shove, I am backing our team all the way.
• Luke Beehre is project lead of Northland Inc's Extension 350 programme, and a Hukerenui dairy farmer.