There has been a rise in women in agribusiness leadership positions recently. Natalia Rimell spoke to some of them about their background, the effect Covid-19 has had, and sought their thoughts on the future of agribusiness.
Sirma Karapeeva: CEO, Meat Industry Association (MIA)
Sirma Karapeeva took over the MIA top spot in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic in April.
For Karapeeva, starting the role two weeks into the national lockdown was a real "sink or swim moment".
Top of her priorities list was ensuring that companies were supported in keeping operations moving and at the same time implementing new protocols to prevent the spread of the disease while farms continued to operate.
Due to new protocols devised between processing companies and the Meat Industry Association, including physical distancing measures, there was a noticeable reduction of livestock in the industry's peak time.
This, combined with extremely dry conditions over the summer period, made for unavoidable delays.
Another issue created by the lockdown was the loss in revenue from restaurants as they shut their doors,
This made for significant pricing volatility and a reduction in global supply distribution — which ordinarily generates 16 per cent of export revenue as the country's second largest goods exporter.
But as with most challenges, there are usually unexpected upsides and Karapeeva says she is "proud of the way the sector responded in the face of such adversity".
"What was exciting about that was how everyone pulled together to tackle this complex issue.
"The collaboration amongst the meat companies, with our farmer colleagues and with government needs to be commended and this is exciting because it shows what is possible with greater cooperation and alignment," she says.
In March 2020, meat exports reached $1.1 billion up 12 per cent on last year which came despite exports to China falling 9 per cent.
Karapeeva says the industry is so resilient because it has "pursued a policy of market diversification and exports to more than 120 markets worldwide, and has been able to pivot and re-direct product to other countries and channels such as retail".
She explains that beef was redirected to the United States and Taiwan and sheep meat to the UK and Malaysia when China was under pressure due to the pandemic.
"Processing and exporting companies have shown real agility and decisiveness throughout the Covid-19 period and have been able to draw on their strong long-standing commercial relationships in a wide range of markets," she says.
New Zealand has long been a trusted provider of safe, nutritious and sustainable food globally.
When asked about her concerns of rising trade protectionism as a risk to the country's ability to export, Karapeeva says:
"Open and predictable market access is vital for the ongoing success of our export-focussed sector as it creates a stable and level international playing field."
The MIA supports the Government's leadership role in trade liberalisation and the maintenance of market access and negotiation of trade agreements.
She says current trade agreements such as the China free trade agreement and the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership have been beneficial, support trade liberalisation and improve access to New Zealand's markets.
"The World Trading Organisation is also fundamental to the success of small trading nations like New Zealand.
"Removal of non-tariff barriers is an important priority for the sector as these are opaque, unpredictable and costly to the country.
"Non-tariff barriers on our beef exports to the Asia Pacific region cost $1b annually."
Karapeeva remains positive about the industry's future in the wake of Covid-19. "As our markets reopen and recover, there are significant opportunities.
"New Zealand is a trusted producer of natural grass-fed red meat."
She says consumers are increasingly focused on health and nutrition, and we are well-placed to capitalise on that sentiment.
"Now, more than ever, the red meat sector is proving how important it is to the New Zealand economy.
"As New Zealand's largest manufacturing sector, we are generating critical export revenue and supporting thousands of jobs communities across the country."
Farmers — some of whom have felt rather under-appreciated and under attack on their environmental credentials — have lifted their heads higher.
Jacqui Hahn, Federated Farmers Waikato president
Jacqui Hahn became the first female president of Federated Farmers Waikato in May 2020 after five years at the organisation. She has long been a vocal supporter for more women in leadership positions within the sector.
She thinks women in farming should be encouraged by the fact that there are rising numbers of women in leadership roles and the usual barriers for women aren't in place at her organisation. "A barrier is there only because you believe it's there and because you believe there is no way round it, you never get round it."
"'Feds women' are women that listen, hear, try to understand, acknowledge all parties and work towards deliverable sensible outcomes."
She didn't set out to become president. "But I was encouraged and supported strongly, and only really felt ready this year and hoped I would become president — which emphasises the lack of a barrier!"
In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, Hahn has set high expectations for her role: "I desperately want to ease people's pain and fear, and just hope I can with the help of my executive, and our very hard working national policy team, who are working in a high-pressure environment."
Currently, they are working on the the appeal process of Plan Change 1: Healthy Rivers/Wai Ora plan.
She says the plan is hard on the sheep and beef sector and there are some unexpected twists for dairy and arable farmers. "It is a massive change from going to close to 100 per cent permitted activity to mostly consented activity".
The Federation states its fundamental concern over the plan is that it 'will not only result in a significant overshoot of water quality targets but also it will impose unreasonable and unnecessary costs on farmers.'
Hahn says water concerns are amongst her biggest challenges, but admits that she may not see the end of it before her term is finished. "As much as I'd like it to be sorted before I leave in three years, that's probably not the case for Plan Change 1 — at best it will recur every 10 years. At worst we won't be finished in the Environment Court."
Hahn is also concerned about farmers' welfare and state of mind: "Often farming is part of farmers' whole identity. They have built up a system that suits them and their farm and regulation can be like an uninvited guest staying with you at your house and telling you your cooking's off and you don't make the beds right."
By nature, her role won't easy: "My task as a pan sector spokesperson is not plain sailing."
Following the outbreak of the Covid-19 virus, she says there have been resultant issues including "painfully slow processing", shortages of feed, stocks not fattening and store stock left unsold. Productivity has also been down as some parts of the meat business were not considered "essential business" during the Covid-19 restrictions. There were also delays in getting supplies on farm due to the lockdown and some service businesses have since been permanently closed.
She says all thee factors — along with staff lost due to the border closures — combined with the isolation from people in the service sectors "had a profound effect on mental health, especially with drought conditions and additional workload all the above brought".
Hahn says staffing the industry in a post-Covid world where many experienced migrants got 'caught on the wrong side of the border' will be particularly tricky and time-consuming:
"Those with no previous experience with large animals will struggle to fill the gap, as it takes a couple of years for even the brightest people to acquire sufficient animal experience and to be able to meet all the very varied trades skills required on farms."
Karen Williams, national board member and arable industry group chairperson, Federated Farmers of New Zealand
For the past two years Karen Williams has been the arable industry group chairperson for Federated Farmers.
She was the first female chairperson, and is one of just two women among 24 provincial presidents of Federated Farmers. She has recently been elected as the new vice president of the group.
"We have a sprinkling of females in leadership roles in Federated Farmers, but we are still well below what I would consider optimal to provide diversity of thought around our decision making tables, says Williams.
The organisation is currently going through the process of board election and there are two women candidates — Williams included.
Williams say this isn't necessary an intentional move: "This gender inequity is not a deliberate ploy by Federated Farmers to exclude women. I believe there are more complex social and economic reasons at play here that I would like to explore."
She singles out leadership and development programmes that currently have strong female voices participating: Agri-Women's Development Trust, the Kellogg Rural Leadership Programme and the Nuffield Farming Scholarship.
In her role she has seen satisfying changes, including more visibility in government, the wider primary sector as well as the consumer.
"It is often overlooked that an arable farmer grows the seed that forms the basis for growing pasture for our livestock industry, the grain for complementary animal feed, the milling wheat for breads, cakes, pies and pastries, malting barley for beer production, durum wheat for pasta and pizza bases, and vegetable seeds such as carrot, corn and peas," Williams says.
She notes that arable production sales contribute $863 million towards NZ's gross domestic product.
On the effect of Covid on the industry, she states it was "predominantly business as usual" on farms due to the industry's essential service status.
She says the real difficulty stemmed from the double blow of the pandemic and the drought, reducing capacity at meat processing plants and closure of sale yards throughout some of the lockdown period.
"Farmers who were in extreme drought conditions and who would ordinarily destock to either the processing plants or through the sale yards were unable to do so."
She was heartened to see the lift in community efforts during this unprecedented time.
"What was really heart-warming was to see the rallying around in rural communities who were less affected by the drought to gather donated feed to go to badly affected areas such as Hawke's Bay."
One of the unexpected positive side-effects of Covid was a lift in farmer confidence, says Williams: "I think the experience resulted in a better understanding of the importance of agriculture to our economy, and some of the challenges farmers deal with. "Farmers — some of whom have felt rather under-appreciated and under attack on their environmental credentials — have lifted their heads higher."
When asked about future challenges for the industry, Williams continues to find the positives: "We hope to see a lot of skilled New Zealanders come into the agricultural workforce who were previously in different careers.
"I am excited about the opportunities that a different range of skills presents for our industry but we will need government-industry collaboration to train these people to work safely and effectively on-farm."
She admits that rural businesses struggle when it comes to limited mobile coverage and poor internet connectivity, and a decline in the condition of rural roads.
"As a mother of three school-aged children, the lack of internet capability during lockdown severely hampered both business meetings and school lessons. For us to be thriving rural communities who can adopt modern technology, improved infrastructure investment must be made in these areas."
Paths leading to agribusiness careers
Sirma Karapeeva A self-dubbed "city girl", Sirma Karapeeva found her place in the New Zealand farming industry first walking an international career path. "I come from an international background and have had an interest in international issues from an early age. " I joined the Ministry of Economic Development (the predecessor to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) as my first job out of university and quickly became involved in international trade matters — initially in the transtasman context and then as a negotiator for a number of New Zealand's trade agreements. "In New Zealand, when you are involved in trade policy you are never far from agricultural trade policy, which led me to join the Ministry for Primary Industries before moving to the Meat Industry Association. What is exciting about working at the association is the opportunity to see trade policy in practice and how it delivers real commercial benefits to New Zealand."
Karen Williams Growing up in a town, now owning and living on a farm is 'massive privilege' to Karen Williams, who exudes passion for the industry and the lifestyle that accompanies it, ultimately leading her to Federated Farmers. "The short answer is that I married a farmer. I brought my interest in environmental management, merged it with my husband's interest in food production, and together we have built a sustainable and profitable farming business. "Despite growing up in town, I was always really interested in people's interactions in their landscapes and the broader concepts of how we can provide for the health and wellbeing of people and maintain good environmental outcomes. "This led me to complete a bachelor of arts degree in geography and a masters in resource management at Otago University, followed by several years working for local authorities and a planning consultancy. "Once the juggle of farm, family and a career started to get difficult, I resigned from my planning role and invested more of my time in our farming business and the associated political and resource management processes."
Jacqui Hahn With both of her parents farmers, Jacqui Hahn was born into and raised in the agribusiness sector, destined to follow in their footsteps. "At 12 years old I had a share in a Suffolk sheep stud, and a flock of about 15 pet sheep that had been mismothered lambs. I bought and reared a couple of calves when I was 16, one of those calves we reared calves off along with 25 others as income while we converted my parents' property in 1998. "My background education was a certificate in production horticulture and office systems. I worked winters in a kiwifruit packing house including quality control and helped manage an orchard outside of Te Kuiti, so I have a feel for many agriculture industries. I also have a bachelor's degree in environmental management with an agri focus. "We started with a 450-cow herd and now have 1450 dairy cows, 300 replacements,16 bulls and teasers, rear 350 beef calves and run 300 ewes."