Agriculture a hot topic of conversation

Myfanwy Alexander (left) and Emily Walker, founders of the Ag in Conversation podcast series,...
Myfanwy Alexander (left) and Emily Walker, founders of the Ag in Conversation podcast series, pictured at their 2023 graduation from the Agri-Women’s Development Trust’s Escalator programme. Photo: supplied
Tarras woman Emily Walker has teamed up with Otago Daily Times Rural Life 2023 Year of the Farmer winner Myfanwy Alexander to launch a podcast called Ag in Conversation, digging into hot topics in the world of agriculture. She talks to business and rural editor Sally Rae about how she landed in the rural sector.

When Emily Walker first moved to Tarras, she thought she lived in the city.

It has become something of a standing joke; having previously lived at remote Forest Creek, at the top of the Rangitata Gorge in Mid Canterbury, it seemed Tarras was quite the metropolis, she laughed.

Originally a city girl from Christchurch, Mrs Walker is a civil structural engineer who met her farmer husband Matt while she was studying at the University of Canterbury and he was at Lincoln University.

At that time, she gave little thought to the intricacies of a relationship with a farming lad while pursuing an engineering career.

While she stayed on to complete her master’s degree, Mr Walker moved around and moved up the ranks shepherding and managing stock.

After graduating, she worked as a structural engineer for a while before the couple moved to Tarras five and a-half years ago.

Civil meant inherently urban and the couple did a lot of thinking, moving to Central Otago for joint career opportunities and the proximity of opportunities for both.

Mr Walker is general manager of Lindis Crossing Station, a 770ha finishing property which is part of the Alpine Pastures Group.

Mrs Walker spent five years working for Rationale, a company established in Arrowtown in 1999 by infrastructure engineer Edward Guy whose vision was to deliver improved infrastructure outcomes. In that role, she did a lot of local and central government work, stepping away from structural engineering and more into investment management.

In 2022, she did the Kellogg rural leadership programme on investment management applied in agriculture.

The traditional model of primary production in New Zealand was facing significant challenges from internal and external forces which were only expected to increase in coming years, she said.

Challenges included water security and quality, climate change, carbon emissions, labour availability, market forces and biodiversity.

To continue in business and remain sustainable for future generations, change requiring sector-wide strategic and capital investment programmes was needed, she said.

Her research report attempted to provide specific support for agri-business leaders, focusing on answering the question whether an evidence-based approach to decision-making improves outcomes for small agri-businesses in New Zealand.

Her key finding was agri-businesses could be supported through an approach that used evidence to consider the environmental, social, cultural and economic impacts of their actions in making decisions.

Mrs Walker then started her own boutique consulting business, focusing on delivering that to farmers, small businesses, not-for-profits and industry organisations. She also contracted back to Rationale.

She was also involved with WAI Wānaka which received funding from the Our Land & Water National Science Challenge to work with landowners, iwi and community in the Upper Clutha to Revitalise Te Taiao — the natural world.

Last year, when she completed the Agri-Women’s Development Trust’s Escalator programme, she met Duntroon dairy farmer Myfanwy Alexander and they quickly "cobbered up" which led to the development of their podcast.

Applying for both Kellogg and Escalator was a way of "pivoting". She was working in an area that focused a lot on local and central government yet she was living in an agricultural world and the couple’s future was in agriculture.

She wanted to do more work in the sector and for a way to "pivot", which was why she took on Kellogg. That gave her the confidence to start her own business and "to know my idea wasn’t quite so fruit-loopy or out of the box as some may think".

She was not an environmental or farming consultant. She was more strategy based and it built confidence to know there was a need for that, she said.

Kellogg was more academically-structured and technical than Escalator; the research project was academically scrutinised which was not something new for her.

Escalator placed more emphasis on personal leadership and teaching governance — something she was very keen to get into.

She is now on the executive for Otago Federated Farmers and is its representative on the Central Otago Wilding Conifer Control Group, and on the Rural Women New Zealand Otago-Southland executive.

Both courses had been extremely beneficial and she made "amazing" networks of contact.

Both she and Ms Alexander were avid podcast listeners and agri-optimists but felt the voice of younger agriculture professionals and a non-interview style was missing.

Developing a podcast series had been a "massive learning curve". It was just before Christmas when Ms Alexander called in for a cup of tea on a quick trip south and they decided to pursue a podcast.

The first episode of Ag in Conversation went live on January 28; the in-between period was spent figuring out how to make a podcast from scratch with no experience but there was little time to feel daunted or overwhelmed.

"It was about how to build this aeroplane and fly it," Mrs Walker recalled.

Their aim was to dig into the "hotter topics" in the world of agriculture and their goal this year was to extend their listeners into both rural and urban communities to spread the understanding of what happened on-farm and in rural communities, and the challenges and opportunities in the rural sector. A month on and the pair were "starting to get into the groove".

While Mrs Walker grew up in Christchurch, her grandparents had a station in North Canterbury and she spent time with them.

Asked her knowledge of agriculture before becoming immersed in the sector through marriage, she said she probably had quite a traditional view of it through the lens of her sheep- and beef-farming grandparents who were passionate about farming.

She acknowledged she probably did not understand the intricacies involved, nor the opportunities.

Since she had been more exposed to the sector through her husband and consulting, the innovation, excitement, technology and opportunities stood out now.

It was a keystone industry in New Zealand, one that was fast-paced and constantly changing, and it was part of almost every conversation and political discussion.

"It’s just so crucial. At the base of it, we need a farmer three times a day," she said.

When it came to her future, she was keen to continue building her governance career, doing strategy work and getting more involved in supporting agriculture to think differently and be more led by evidence and science.

"I do see things quite differently. An engineering background teaches you to think out of the box, look at all options on the table and use science evidence," she said.

The birth of their daughter six months ago had added what she was juggling.

A new member of the family had highlighted a challenge for many people in the Wanaka and Cromwell area — a daycare waiting list of two to three years, she said.