Comment: Federated Farmers dairy chairman Chris Lewis asks if the current Covid-19 crisis is going to do the same for businesses, farmers and the general public as the Global Financial Crisis?

Back in 2008/2009 the global financial crisis hit businesses hard and forced us to change some things we did pre - GFC.

Is the current Covid-19 crisis going to do the same for businesses, farmers and the general public?

I can't get all the discussion points arising out of that question into 600 words, but let's take a stab at key issues.

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Back in GFC times, we had low pay-outs and commodity prices that created a lot of tension on-farm, with deficits being run and capitalised into loans.

Banks stopped doing budgets for clients, and encouraged farmers to do their own. We saw interest-only loans, tough access to capital - many of you will remember the struggles and stresses.

It hit people in different ways, but everyone has a story of hurdles to overcome – and the same is true for Covid-19.

Future tales told around the dinner table or down at the pub will probably start with "Remember that lockdown, when we all had to be at home for more than five weeks".

But New Zealanders adapted to what Alert Level 4 demanded of us, no less so than the modern farmer and his/her family members, who learned new ways of doing things, or fine-tuned old practices.

Online conferencing and catch-ups with suppliers, advisors, mates and family members became second nature. This has been essential for communications, mental wellness and keeping the morale going strong, especially in the first few weeks.

Turning up the dial on this sort of technology has been on steroids for me in terms of Federated Farmers duties. Fortunately, Feds had decided to make the big change to Microsoft Teams last year. Our accounts team changed to a Cloud-based solution.

We had to make changes during the Christmas periods and there were some other speed bumps, but it has proved a real blessing in lockdown, with all staff able to keep working from home, and barely a pause on most of our advocacy and caseload fronts.

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These are similar changes to those that farmers have been doing in the last few years. I've changed to Cloud-based payroll with PaySauce, Feds employment contracts, an accounting package, herd recording - the list goes on.

I've had internet at my shed for ten years for staff to use technology, Viber team chats, and so on. Recruiting for and interviewing of staff has gone online, like so many other functions that underpin modern farming.

All of this hinges on internet and cellphone connectivity, and if it's to be achieved without driving farming families to distraction, with decent download and upload speeds.

Federated Farmers dairy chairman Chris Lewis. Photo / Supplied
Federated Farmers dairy chairman Chris Lewis. Photo / Supplied

Results of our recent survey of members shows just how poor connectivity is out in some of our hinterland:

• Download speeds have tanked with 76 per cent in the 0-20 Mbps range. Within that, around 32 per cent of respondents are enduring 0-5 Mbps and around 50 per cent of respondents in the 0-10 Mbps bracket. Those responses are from those respondents that had internet connections reliable enough to complete the speed test (some indicated in the comments their connections weren't good enough to oblige with download and upload speeds).

• Upload speeds are slightly better with around a third enduring 0-2MBps upload speeds, and 45 per cent in the 0-4 Mbps bracket.

• In terms of the comments, slow speeds and unreliable connections take the top two spots.

• General business advice is for 1.5mbs per employee, so for a farming family with one partner doing the farm cloud computing, the other partner working off farm, and three kids doing school work is roughly 7.5mbs, so the majority of survey respondents under 5mbs are struggling to compete standard tasks. One Netflix stream needs between 3-5mbs, if you are watching on two devices then you need 10mbs.

Also in the last few weeks we've had to prioritise Health and Safety of our workforce and thankfully Feds and industry groups have stepped up with good resources.

Then we had to prioritise our work and contractors' work, with social distancing being the new golden rule.

We've had to make contingency plans for the worst-case scenario, engaging with multiple stakeholders. I've had more than 100 emails from businesses I deal with, for example.

As we go down the Alert Levels, we still need to plan ahead and prepare for any changes, as this virus knows no boundaries or follows some rule book of experts.

Going forward we need to work out our own strategies; let's not make this hard – key priorities should be covered in a one-pager.

I've always focused on a clear purpose for our farm, with 5+ key values that has helped me plan ahead. But I've never lost sight of our vision! That approach is not a bad template for the agriculture sector as a whole.