Optimistic over farming sector's future

Federated Farmers national president Bruce Wills brought a diverse set of skills to the role. Photo by Linda Robertson.
Federated Farmers national president Bruce Wills brought a diverse set of skills to the role. Photo by Linda Robertson.
Federated Farmers national president Bruce Wills stands down next month after three years in the role. He talks to agribusiness reporter Sally Rae about his tenure and his optimism for the agricultural industry's future.

His desk might have been cleared in Wellington but New Zealand's farming community can be assured they have not seen the last of Bruce Wills.

After three years at the governance helm of Federated Farmers and a prior three-year tenure as meat and fibre chairman, his involvement, following the organisation's annual meeting on July 4, will only be as a ''very loyal'' member.

But that does not mean that he will be permanently swapping his suit for a Swanndri and heading for the hills of his Hawkes Bay farm.

''You will see my name pop up in various quarters,'' Mr Wills (53) said, as he spent his last day in his office in the organisation's headquarters last week.

An eloquent and capable leader, comfortable with being in the public spotlight, he brought an interesting set of skills to the top job.

He spent more than 20 years in the banking industry before the opportunity arose for him 10 years ago to return to the family farm, where he grew up, to farm in partnership with his brother, Scott.

The medium to steep hill-country property on the Napier-Taupo road won the rural category of the 2008 Hawkes Bay environmental awards.

It also includes the celebrated woodland garden, Trelinnoe Park, established by his parents, which is open to the public.

As a former banker, a newcomer to farming and a self-described ''bit of a greenie'', being elected to the helm of what was a very traditional farming organisation was ''a bit of a change'', he said.

The three years had gone quickly and it had been a busy time. Even when he managed to be home on the farm, it was ''fairly all-consuming''.

''Even when you're out in the hills with the dogs and bike, your mind is dwelling on things you need to do in the week in Wellington,'' he said.

But it had been a ''huge privilege'' to be in the role and represent his fellow farmers. On reflection, he and his team had made a difference, which was very satisfying, he said.

Mr Wills went into the role with some ''pretty clear views'' of what he wanted to achieve and where he thought the organisation needed to go.

He stood as one of four contesting the role - the most seeking the office in the organisation's history - and outlined three clear aspirations he stood for.

''I was very much the outsider. I was the new boy to farming, the new boy to farmer politics,'' he said.

But he believed those aspirations were what the membership wanted and, when it came to highlights of his tenure, they included how those three had ''come a long way''.

Mr Wills wanted a Federated Farmers that was more collaborative with its advocacy, having previously having had a reputation for ''being a bit combative''.

He brought a different style that was planned and purposeful and he had strong support for that. There had since been some very strong relationships built in Wellington, he said.

He wanted farmers to have more open and more honest discussion about their environmental impact.

The environment was something that was a passion for him: ''I'm known as a bit of a greenie.''

The conversation among farming leaders was now very different from three years ago.

Back then, when they came together to discuss the issues concerning farmers, there was much talk about the likes of interest rates, exchange rates and commodity prices.

They were all very important to farming and remained so but, in more recent times, when the group came together, they wanted to talk about water, the environment and biodiversity.

Farmers were smart and they read the signals. They knew they had to lift their game ''on the environmental stuff''.

They had heard the concerns from both markets and urban centres that they needed to be more sensitive to their environmental impacts. It was a ''really encouraging shift,'' he said.

When he was first elected and announced that farmers had to do better, he admitted there was ''a bit of push back''. But those same people were now asking him: ''How do we go faster? What more can we do?'' and that was very satisfying, he said.

His third aspiration was for the farming community to be inclusive of the rest of New Zealand.

He was very honoured to be recently named 2014 Landcorp Agricultural Communicator of the Year, which followed on from being a finalist in the 2013 PRINZ Communicator of the Year awards.

He was focused on bridging the gap between rural and urban and talked to urban New Zealand ''all the time'' through various media forums.

''We are a grass-fed economy. What does happen on our farm does absolutely matter to Lambton Quay and Queen St,'' he said.

He spent a lot of time having the conversation with urban groups about the importance of agriculture and the need to support the industry in order for there to be a vibrant economy.

He believed New Zealand's agriculture sector was in a really exciting phase. The world was ''screaming out'' for high quality protein. That was what New Zealand produced and had a reputation for.

His role had involved plenty of travel and, at every meeting, two words were talked about: food security.

That, coupled with the prospect of how to feed another two billion people by 2050, put New Zealand in a very fortunate position.

Food security was a massive issue and Fonterra's WPC scare was a ''wake-up call''. What he did see around the world were very smart food producers ''snapping right at our heels''.

New Zealand could not afford to rest on its laurels. It needed policies to support it and focus on science and innovation.

This year's general election in September would make a difference and he was worried about some of the political policies being touted.

''If we get the wrong policies, it's going to be bad for Lambton Quay and Queen St as well,'' he said.

Asked for his thoughts on the red meat sector, Mr Wills said while there had been a lot of conversations and discussions, he would have been ''a lot happier'' if more progress had been made in the industry.

However, he was very optimistic about the sector's future. In his view, the dairy industry had ''well and truly'' experienced what he called the China effect; sheep meat and wool had experienced it to a small degree and he believed beef had yet to be affected by China's influence.

He believed increasing profitability and confidence in the farming industry was going to help drive change. He was frustrated that people were ''so gloomy'' about change.

''I'm a great believer, at the end of the day, the market will sort it,'' he said. Mr Wills was excited by the ''whole bunch'' of smart, young, capable people coming through the farming industry.

He was also thrilled by the diversity at Federated Farmers, the lowering of the age-group involved and the increasing number of women.

When he joined the national board, there had never been any women on it. Now there were two: Jeanette Maxwell and Katie Milne.

As well as Mrs Maxwell and Ms Milne, it also comprised the likes of himself as a former banker, a medical doctor, a former New Yorker with a background in investment funds analysis and a Dutch immigrant dairy farmer.

It had been a ''fabulous'' board and it had made real progress. Farmers had acknowledged the industry had changed and people with different skills were needed, Mr Wills said.

Mr Wills acknowledged that standing down from the role was the end of an era, particularly having worked closely with the organisation's staff and also provincial team.

But it was time; there was a great board coming on, a new chief executive, Graham Smith, due to start work in late July, and Federated Farmers was ''in good heart''.

When it came to his own future, Mr Wills was excited both by ''having a bit of freedom'' and other opportunities he was looking at, plus ones he knew would come his way after being in a high-profile role.

He still really enjoyed farming but there was also an opportunity to hopefully make a difference to the farming sector by ''doing stuff beyond the farm gate''.

But the balance of the past three years would change and he was looking forward to spending more time with family, and farming.