The first woman president of one of New Zealand’s most male-dominated organisations explains how she plans to work with her sector’s critics
When she was named the new president of Federated Farmers, Katie Milne had not considered the implications of a female taking the role for the first time in the organisation’s 118-year history.
“It has been a rollercoaster right at the start because I knew how big the job was when I put my hand up, but I hadn’t really factored in how important it was or what sort of statement it made for women, so that side of it has been really overwhelming really,” she told Newsroom.
“It has blown me away actually, but reflecting on it I can see that it is an appropriate response given there it a lot of talk about gender balance and pay equity, it makes sense that everyone will be interested.”
Milne plans to use the attention as a platform to achieve the goals she has set for her term. That is, re-engaging with environmental groups and the urban population.
“I was elected on my skills and I am passionate about all the things relevant to farmers, and the fact that I was a woman has certainly got extra interest for people outside of farming which has been a good way to start reconnecting with the urban population.
“We have become a bit of faceless thing that you can throw stones at – but when you bring it back to the farming family, it is a little bit harder to demonise a family.
“I want to remind people what farmers are actually doing and that is that we actually grow some of the most amazing food in the world. I think we have disconnected from that.
“We are growing food to feed families and I think people get caught up in the bigger issues, which are issues definitely, but we are forgetting what is actually going on on the farm.”
Milne also wanted to address the breakdown in relationships with environmental groups over the impact of farming on soil quality and pollution.
“I want to build that trust back up so mainstream New Zealand know that farmers want the same things that the rest of New Zealand wants.
“We all want that good water and good scenery but we want to get good production as well through good animal husbandry, good animal welfare, good environmental processes and good uptake of technology that’s available.
“We can all have high ideals about how we think things should be, but what if it sends your rural communities broke?”
“We all want New Zealand to thrive. Some of the best answers to some of the new challenges that farming faces do come from farmers working it out on the land. They use new science and advice to help them, it is that number eight wire ingenuity.”
Fish & Game NZ chief executive Bryce Johnson said he welcomed the opportunity to rebuild a relationship with Federated Farmers.
He said the relationship breakdown had occurred under the previous leadership of William Rolleston.
“It is very good to hear because her predecessor, he took them backwards. The environmental movement in general has had a pretty bad past with Federated Farmers until Bruce Wills became president six years ago. He was exceptional and we had a very good relationship.
“We ended up sharing quite a few forums together and putting our respective points of view across. Agriculture has a serious adverse environmental effect and it losing the social licence to operate. The public now have really woken up to that fact.”
Johnson said he looked forward to working with Milne, a call that was echoed by Greenpeace New Zealand’s agriculture spokeswoman Gen Toop.
“Federated Farmers hasn’t seen eye to eye with Greenpeace a lot in the past and they have challenged many of our calls. We are more than willing to meet with them and discuss how we can progress moving forward and how we can clean up New Zealand.”
Milne said she would argue the plight of farmers, but was looking forward to using her strengths to work with the groups.
“We can all have high ideals about how we think things should be, but what if it sends your rural communities broke? We need to work together and really, properly listen to each other.”
She first became involved with advocating for farmers when the Resource Management Act brought new restrictions to the industry in 1991.
Learning about the Act and the issues it brought about showed Milne she wanted to make sure farmers’ voices were heard.
Her leadership roles have since progressed, holding positions including Deputy-Chair of Westland Milk Products, a volunteer firefighter and chair for sustainable farming in the Lake Brunner Catchment Project. She also serves on the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee and previously held the role as West Coast spokesperson for Federated Farmers.
She has been recognised for her work numerous times, and credits her success to her listening skills.
“Thinking deeply about what someone said and trying to understand where they come from gives you a better understanding and maybe a way through to finding a solution,” she said.
“You need to open yourself up to hearing the other side properly.”
She had often taken on the roles despite feeling out of her depth, and encouraged other women to do the same.
“If things have come along outside of my comfort zone, I have still given them a crack. I might have felt at the time like I didn’t have the skills but I tried to be brave enough to lean in and take up these opportunities when people have offered them.”
The biggest challenge of farming was taking time away, she said.
Milne owns a dairy farm with her partner Ian Whitmore at Rotomanu, near Lake Brunner on the West Coast. They have an adult daughter.