Federated Farmers national president Bruce Wills brought a
diverse set of skills to the role. Photo by Linda
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
It also includes the celebrated woodland garden, Trelinnoe
Park, established by his parents, which is open to the
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
''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,''
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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