The guest speaker at the 2021 Awards Dinner was Professor Hugh Campbell, Founding Director of the Centre for Sustainability at the University of Otago.
Prof Campbell looked back and looked forward in what was an entertaining and challenging speech about the New Zealand economy’s reliance on using the land.
Here is his speech in full:
Thank you so much for that introduction, and thank you for the invitation to join you here tonight in Blenheim. My special thanks to the organisers and sponsors of this event who have invited me to join you at this splendid celebration of hopeful futures for Aotearoa New Zealand. Never has a bit of celebration of hopeful futures seemed so important as it does now.
Prizes and awards have a long history in rural New Zealand – particularly in farming communities like Marlborough. Before coming tonight, I did a bit of due diligence on the history of rural prize-givings in Marlborough. Even a brief reconnaissance quickly revealed that the good folks of this region have been both enthusiastic competitors and humble winners of prizes over an extended period of time. A goldmine of information was the 125th anniversary history of the local A & P Association. Just over 140 years ago, in 1880, a group gathered at the Club Hotel and declared the formation of the Marlborough Agricultural and Pastoral Association. Surely there is a Historical Places Trust blue plaque signifying such a notable event. And the purpose of an A&P association, of course, is to run a show. Only a few months later the men and women of Marlborough gathered to test their skills, display their produce, consume each other’s cakes and jam, and evaluate the quality of each other’s livestock and equipment.
In the list of prizewinners were included the following categories: Many are directed at the core business of pastoral farming – Merinos, and Bulls in breeds other than shorthorns. There are equestrian pursuits signalling the centrality of horses to farm life – provided the ladies wear skirts. There are clearly categories celebrating almost any activity or industry then present in Marlborough: Best Tip Dray, Best Shod Hackney, Best Provincial-Made Rope, and Best Local-Made Buggy. My favourite is: Best Looking Sheep Dog. The owner of this paragon of canine beauty being the appropriately named J. McKenzie.
At the end of every show, of course, is the Grand Parade, when the prizewinners and their livestock, horses, buggys, tip drays and unusually handsome sheep dogs would promenade the main showground. Except for the sheep. It was part of the generally received wisdom of any A&P show that I attended that sheep couldn’t be relied upon for steadfastness in a parade-ground situation.
I loved those parades and I love those lists of prizewinners: The South Taranaki A&P show results are how I know that my own forebears made their mark in the decades leading up to World War One: Campbells of Kaupokonui and their prizewinning Aberdeen Angus cattle with names like Hatter, Cupbearer, Cavalier, Countess, Colonel, Barbara, and the somewhat eccentrically named Electrician. Clearly my Great Grandfather was signalling his approval of modernising improvements in Hawera and Eltham at the time.
The history of rural prizes and awards tells us a lot about ourselves. They trace our family histories, but also the history of our collective rural past. They tell us about the priorities and needs our working lives created, and the value we placed on how we related to the land. They are a stocktake of what we are valuing, and implicitly a signal of where we think we are going.
From the inaugural A&P show in Marlborough in 1880 the place that we are heading towards is not 2021, yet! First we must stop in 1972. Let me explain why.
I grew up on a sheep and beef farm just outside of Ngaruawahia, in a part of the Waikato that was almost entirely devoted to dairy farming. My earliest recall is of trotting along behind my formidable farming Grandfather. I’m wearing gumboots and a lumpy jersey. It is probably somewhere just before 1972. There is a strange double reality to that memory, as we were both existing comfortably on a pastoral farm in New Zealand which was standing in continuity with nearly a century of successful predecessors. It was a very safe and secure farming world, it was very profitable, and in less than a year, it was going to fall apart.
It is hard to overstate how totally my kind of family farm dominated the New Zealand landscape, economy and politics for the majority of the 20th century. And we dominated the New Zealand landscape for two very specific reasons: first, we had privileged access to the lucrative British market for our pastoral exports. And second, we’d faced our first major ecological crisis and through scientific ingenuity had successfully adapted pastoral farming to a fragile landscape.
As far as New Zealand’s economy went, pastoral farming was the economy from 1880 to 1972. Every year from 1920 to 1967 pastoral farming had contributed over 90% of New Zealand’s total export earnings. Fishing, forestry, mining, manufactured goods, tourism all had to fight it out in the very low single digits. Perhaps the peak moment was during the Korean War in 1952 when, in today’s monetary terms, a single bale of wool was selling for $8000. Today a bale of crossbred wool fetches less than $120.
When people question why New Zealand became so locked in as a producer of basic farm commodities, and how come we didn’t get into value adding, these figures tell you the reason why: we didn’t need to. Having exclusive access to the lucrative British market for our wool, butter and sheepmeat was all we needed to generate quite remarkable returns from a basic commodity production system.
It wasn’t only the lucrative British market that kept that great pastoral farming venture bobbing along. There was a very specific ecological bargain that was struck in the hill country of the North Island. The colonial phase of settlement of farms was ecologically catastrophic. By the 1920s our hillsides were eroding, our soil base collapsing and introduced pests like rabbits were running rampant. What happened next was a triumph of kiwi scientific ingenuity known as the Grasslands Revolution. A new approach to pasture was developed in New Zealand, combining nitrogen fixing clover, with deep rooting ryegrass to start to hold those slipping hillsides, overlaid with a dusting of superphosphate. This was the ecological bargain we struck with the New Zealand landscape: light touch, light stock, recognise the fragility of the ecological substructure, don't overstock, try not to disturb the soil.
In combination, the power of the British Market and the Grasslands Revolution model for pastoral farming in the hill country resulted in decades of prosperity for farmers like us. One of the leaders of this approach to pastoral farming - a titanic figure in agricultural science called Sir Bruce Levy - wrote at the end of his career in 1970 that the great challenges of New Zealand farming had all been solved. Pastoral farming was the model that worked, and while some eccentric folk might experiment with other crops, fruits, vines, or fish, the triumph of the pastoral farm was inevitable and the New Zealand government should discourage all such lesser pursuits and concentrate on expanding the pastoral model to the fullest extent possible. This the kind of claim for which the Greek philosophers invented the term hubris.
This is the world in which the Marlborough A & P society gathered for its centenary show in 1972. I’m not entirely sure how the centenary took place only 92 years after the inaugural show, but reading between the lines of the association’s history it seems that the farming folk of Marlborough were so enthusiastic that in multiple years they held more than one show. There were a lot of prizewinners that day, although I regret to report the absence of a prize for most attractive sheepdog. It seems that by 1972 sheep dogs had to do more than just look good, they had to pen the odd sheep as well to get a prize. But the big silverware was reserved for the fundamentals of New Zealand farming in 1972: I quote from the historical account: ‘The star of the show was WG Parkes and Son’s champion Friesian cow Windermere Pearl, the second highest producing cow in the South Island that year. While the NZ Romney Marsh association trophy for super champion Romney was won yet again by the Thomson Bros of The Ford.’
Which brings us to the Grand Parade in 1972 which history reports was held up due to a tense jump-off in the showjumping along with the breakdown of one of the vintage tractors in the entrance to the parade ring.
It is a wonderful moment, but also poignant. It is the peak moment, the climactic ascent of the pastoral model in New Zealand. I remember late in 1972 when I biked home from school to find my mother crying in front of the telly. She was watching the news that Britain had decided to join the European Common Market – in what was thought at the time to be a permanent arrangement. The price of the ticket to enter the Common Market was the abandonment of the preferential trading rights of New Zealand farmers. Our goose was cooked, and our golden age of pastoral farming was over.
My academic career has followed what happened to primary production and land-use after the great crisis of 1973. My key questions have always been: what do you do when you are plunged into crisis? And how do you prepare for the next crisis?
My plan tonight was to avoid too much academic jargon. I’ll go there only once. I promise. Socio-Ecological Systems Theory tells us that to get out in front of a crisis you need more than one option available at any time. That is what we call resilience: you need redundancy in your system. That isn’t a negative thing about making people redundant, it is about retaining and nurturing pockets of difference and alternatives even when the main system seems to be going really well. It is about nurturing the seeds of a Plan B, even when Plan A seems to be perfect and under no threat. In 1970, Sir Bruce Levy was justly celebrating the unconquerable virtues of Plan A for land use in New Zealand, but he shouldn’t have dismissed the alternatives. What we desperately needed in 1970 was more recognition of possible Plan B’s.
We are here tonight, because we did find a lot of really exciting Plan Bs, and a whole pile of sectors, of land-use styles and strategies eventually came through and began to plot a different future for New Zealand. Out of crisis, some really important new industries emerged. Just look around us here tonight at an amazing wine industry sitting on land that, for over a century, was sheep farming country.
Throughout my academic career, what has interested me is how Plan B emerges. And this seems to be especially relevant at the moment, because we are currently in a big global crisis, and our sense is that there are many more shocks to come.
In the rest of the time I have available, I want to look into one big case study of the power of redundancy, the power of a those lurking seeds of Plan B: the kiwifruit industry. What drew me to that industry? Partly it was because I was trying to find sectors which were mainstreaming environmental production and values, but there was something else. In 1992, Kiwifruit faced a monster crisis very similar to the pastoral industries in 1973: it peered deep into the abyss but instead of sounding a long retreat, took the opportunity to completely rethink the industry from top to bottom. Its Plan B became awesome.
The early history of the kiwifruit industry was the classic boom and bust narrative. After massive early returns in the market, combined with an ability to acquire a whole lot of relatively cheap, highly productive land moving out of pastoral production in the 1970s, kiwifruit surged ahead right when traditional pastoral sectors were in deep crisis. And then the bubble began to burst. The government created the Kiwifruit Marketing Board in 1988 to try and salvage a ship that was rapidly sinking. By 1991/92 the industry was in utter collapse. Rumour has it that there was only one buyer in sight – the giant US fruit corporation Dole which was interested in a cheap source of kiwifruit for its canned fruit salad mix.
Instead of being sold off to Dole, a remarkable rescue plan was launched by a group of leading growers and advisors who strategized an entire redesign of the industry: at least one of whom - John Palmer - is sitting here tonight. First, they rebranded as Zespri, recaptured the sector’s IP, and created a mechanism for grower control over a single coordinated industry strategy. They rolled out a new variety of kiwifruit – the Gold variety – specifically targeted at the Asian palate. For me, the final element in the new plan for the industry was going green. The kiwifruit industry completely reconfigured orchard-level kiwifruit production, from being the most chemically intensive producer of kiwifruit in the world, to being the world’s highest quality producer of environmentally-branded kiwifruit.
Here is where I got particularly interested as a researcher. To go green, you have to already have the knowledge about how to start to go green. For kiwifruit, waiting in the wings was one dedicated scientist at Hortresearch called David Steven leading a little team who had been stubbornly trialling Integrated Pest Management systems for kiwifruit in the early 90s – quite against the strategic advice of his managers. There were also about three fanatical organic kiwifruit growers – most of whom were nearly bankrupt - who were happy to trial that scientist’s approaches on their orchards. But when the crisis engulfed the industry, and an urgent call went out to see how to make kiwifruit orchards more environmentally sustainable, there those individuals were, waiting with a set of solutions ready to roll out.
And roll out they did. Remarkably, by 1998 – only 5 years later – 95% of export kiwifruit was being produced under their new KiwiGreen system and 5% was certified organic. Since then, these new pest control systems have been joined by modules on water, energy and biodiversity outcomes on orchards to create the Zespri System. The results speak for themselves. In 1991, the kiwifruit industry earned orchard-gate returns of less than NZ$200m. Recent ANZ surveys calculate that the industry will annually earn around $4.5 billion by 2025. Rod Oram likes to point out that Zespri produces around one third of the world’s kiwifruit, but captures two thirds of the global income generated by kiwifruit as a product. The most sobering figures of all are those showing the per hectare return of a kiwifruit or apple orchard in New Zealand compared to its pastoral counterparts, and those figures are taken from when Zespri was facing massively challenging conditions on orchards due to a huge re-grafting programme to address the PSA crisis.
What I draw from this story is a bigger truth about the importance of how Plan B emerges in a crisis. It is about a whole lot of individuals who were already doing things differently, often at the absolute margins of an industry, who turned out to be key resources for their sector when the big pivot arrived. For kiwifruit that pivot involved a whole lot of different people playing a part. Alongside a group of committed industry leaders, and a small group of scientists doing things differently, there were many others. They had to come together and work together to redesign the industry in the face of scepticism, reluctant banks and politicians, and a wider group of growers who were simply shellshocked and in despair. And they had to do it for years, before it became clear that the strategy was a huge success.
For any of you who have been involved in a whole lot of different land-use ventures over the last 40 years, you’ll know what I mean. You might recognise similar boom and bust moments, or even deep crisis like that which faced the kiwifruit in 1992. But you may also recognise the moment when someone started to do things differently: some crazy orchard or vineyard or fanatical aquaculture enthusiast, some person with a vision for a new market, some scientist with a particular moment of insight into a strategy for ecological management, or some farm family sitting on what had been a conventional farm that just decided to do the right thing even if seemed to be the hard thing. And maybe they did things differently without much impact for many years and no doubt a lot of them ended up not succeeding. But when the moment for pivot comes, those individuals become the fulcrum around which your sector begins to shift. The same things happened on apple orchards, on a numerous vineyards, it happened in the fine wool sector, and is happening right now in sheep milk production, in Manuka honey, in a number of visionary Maori land trusts like Wakatu right here. It is happening in the production of oat milk in Southland, and even in some concerted attempts to do dairying differently.
For the big pivot to Plan B to happen, all those people had to already be there, doing their thing differently, when the critical moment came. And, actually, those are exactly the group of people we are celebrating tonight. There is one very important difference between all our competitors tonight, and the world of A&P shows I grew up with the 60s and 70s. Back then, it was marvellous, and spirited, and creative, but in so many ways it was also grounded in what we had already achieved. It was a rousing celebration of Plan A. We’d already found out what worked for New Zealand and we were doing it very well. Until it collapsed and we needed to find new futures. Tonight is about celebrating all the people who are pushing towards our future as well as celebrating our past.
I want to applaud all of you who are thinking about new ways to care for our land, everyone who is trying to add value by adding environmental values, and for everyone who is thinking of bigger, more integrated ways to understand and live on our land. My particular applause is to those of you who are like those isolated kiwifruit heroes who were working quietly on the redundant margins of the system in the early-90s, doing what they thought was the right thing for the future, not yet knowing that the big pivot that would place them centre stage in a green revolution for their sector was only a couple of years, and one huge crisis, away.
My congratulations to everyone who has already won prizes. The things you are doing are both very hopeful and hugely encouraging. Good luck to everyone who was nominated for the next set of awards. We may not be giving out an award for best looking sheep dog tonight, but I’d like to think that 141 years from now, we’ll still be in a position to gather in Blenheim and celebrate sustainable, resilient environments, a future where working dogs of above average attractiveness and their handsome owners can continue to thrive, because of what people are doing here tonight. And so in the best tradition of every A&P show: let’s get on with the Grand Parade!
These themes are explored in Hugh's new book, Farming Inside Invisible Worlds, published in November 2020.