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Maintaining Our Licence to Operate

As our world continues to change, farmers can meet their obligations to respect the whenua they are operating on through continued engagement and commitment to innovations such as regenerative farming systems, says former Ngāi Tahu Holdings chief executive Craig Ellison.

It is fascinating to see how the assertions of public opinion – often driven through social media (or actual media responding to it) – brings an occasional tinge of fear as we operate in a sector no longer recognised as the sole economic driver of the country, nor admired for all the good things it does. That concern is familiar across the food and fibre sector as farming practices are increasingly scrutinised. Falling under the unforgiving glare of public examination can be a tough process.

So how to respond – and how not be an echo in an empty room? It would be easy to dismiss concerns raised, as often they may not be factually correct. It is easy to become defensive and not engage, as criticisms seem to dwell only on what the sector does not do well.    

However, we need to take the harder road and engage. It is not with an expectation that our rhetoric will sway our critics – but to truly answer deeper questions around our ability or capacity to operate. Down that pathway are answers for both sides of the debate, and perhaps an acceptance that we must do better.

Times have changed and will continue to do so – only the pace will vary, and we need to be in step with those changes. In step does not mean subservient. We have a right to operate, but an obligation to operate well. Fit for a Better World’s grounding in values of Te Taiao – a deep relationship of reciprocity and respect with the natural world – reflects the obligation facing all of us.

At Ngāi Tahu Farming we have just as many critics as the wider sector. The difference to us is that we don’t have a desire to seek social licence to operate. We have an obligation to respect the linkages to the land we operate upon and recognise the whakapapa of the mana whenua on whose behalf we manage the farms.

If you thought social media commentators were tough, wait until you meet the aunties of Ngāi Tūāhuriri. They are tough and have been strong critics of how we have operated, particularly around the sensitive issue of the quality of water leaving our farms. They rightly have high expectations that our performance will improve. Their hapū memory recall the changes that have occurred to the land and waters here in their takiwā.

After lengthy engagement – in the most open sense – we agree it is up to us to meet those standards. And while we are not there yet, we are moving in the right direction.

Our managers and kaimahi have deeply engaged with mana whenua as we look to develop Te Whenua Hou Te Whenua Whitiora, our regenerative / adaptation farming model. Only by that engagement, by listening and explaining, and where necessary changing our position, have we the right to continue.

Situated on the north bank of the Waimakariri river, it looks to prove what can and can’t be done with different agricultural techniques.

The project looks to match two farms, similar in size, identical in location, and to enable accurate measurement of the beneficial impact of regenerative farming – not on paper, not in the lab – in the field.

That measurement will be supported by investment in lysimeters and other technologies, through scientific rigour, and by measuring of all inputs and outputs from each farm. The research will cover social, cultural, environmental, and financial pillars. From soil organic matter, to milk quality, root zone nitrate loss to kaimahi wellbeing, from mātauranga Māori to market assurance. And of course, the financial performance of each farm.

If successful (and we are optimistic) the methodology will be rolled out across all the dairy farms operated by Ngāi Tahu Farming. That is the expectation of mana whenua – and that gives us the capacity to operate. We must build trust by performance, not by words.