The New Zealand dairy industry was built on communities working together and people sharing their knowledge with others.
That community connectivity has eroded over time and new Fonterra Shareholders’ Council chairman Duncan Coull believes that strengthening these bonds could play a key role in helping farmers get through the downturn.
The industry succeeded due to collaboration, innovation and cooperation. That meant coming together to find solutions and then sharing knowledge, he said.
“If we can focus on that we can get through this together, but it needs to be at a community level.”
The Otorohanga farmer has been in the role for just over a month after serving as deputy chairman to Ian Brown for 12 months. The Council is an elected national body of 35 people, representing the co-operative’s 10,500 farmer shareholders. Each member represented a geographical ward throughout the country.
Prior to being elected deputy, Coull chaired the Council’s representation committee and has served on the Council for five years in Ward 16, which spanned Otorohanga to Raetihi.
The industry faced tough times but that adversity provided a great opportunity for the council to better engage and re-connect with farmers, he said.
“It’s been great, it’s been, some would say challenging, but some would see this as an opportunity.”
Coull was also acutely aware of the financial issues the country’s sharemilkers faced. The Council decided to take a support role, rather than directly helping sharemilkers.
“The current climate is tough for all but the plight of our sharemilkers is not the direct responsibility of Fonterra. Sharemilkers and owners needed to sit down with each and have some open dialogue and for the interest of both parties work through the issues.”
Sharemilkers and farm owners needed to work together to get through the tough times, he said.
“We don’t want to get into a situation where sharemilkers walk off farms because of their inability to maintain a viable business. If that happens, the costs shift from that day forward directly to the farm owner.”
Coull said he had been approached by numerous experienced farmers who have offered their help to those newer to the industry, who needed mentoring.
He grew up on a small 70-cow dairy farm in Taranaki. Looking back, he said the upbringing played an important part in shaping how he was raised.
“It taught us about having to work together to achieve and also learned about going without to get ahead.”
He married Julie 10 days before his first sharemilking job in Taranaki and sharemilked for five years before purchasing their first farm as a 30-year-old in 2000. They have two children, Cameron and Dylan.
That farm was sold in 2002 when they moved from Taranaki to a new farm north of Otorohanga.
They bought a second farm about 15km south in 2007. Both are currently farmed by contract milkers, milking 270 and 450 cows respectively.
In between milking cows, Coull worked as a rural banker in 2003 for three years in the King Country before starting up farm consultancy firm Rural Business Solutions in 2006.
Coull saw a gap in the consultancy market where a consultant could take a holistic approach in reviewing a farm’s physical and financial and bring into the farm a business plan.
“I have a strong desire to help people and during my time banking I could see that many farmers were increasing productivity, but profitability in many cases was deteriorating ,” he said.
He did not set out to become a councillor. He was encouraged to stand for the role by other farmers when position became vacant and put his name forward because he wanted to give something back to the industry.
“I had a responsibility within the industry given the success that I’d had,” he said.
The lift in dairy value at the latest GlobalDairyTrade auction was encouraging, but prices needed to keep lifting before it could be called a recovery.
“We’ll see if that trend continues, he said.
“Most farmers were encouraged to see that change after 10 auctions in a row. it would have been a morale boost but by no means a cause for celebration.”
There was a lot of emotion out in the industry at present and that had often spilled over in meetings farmers have had with Fonterra directors. This was driven by the milk price and criticism around the co-operative’s performance, which was warranted, he said.
He was also concerned around farmers’ understanding of representation and governance. The council was there to represent farmers and there were too many members of the council being elected unopposed.
“There is an opportunity for council to lift itself in its own work as well and we have a situation where many of our councillors are up for re-election and run uncontested and I don’t think that’s healthy for the cooperative as a whole.”
His business commitments and Council duties meant he is seldom in the milking shed, but is able maintain a link inside the farmgate in his daily interaction with farmers.
“I have a handful of clients I’m still looking after. Fortunately I’ve got a very capable team in the business that are picking up any slack and have full confidence in the team we have on farm and a very understanding and supportive wife.”
Coull said his primary focus at present was chairing the Council, giving the role the energy it deserved and supporting farmers as best he could.
The calls from farmers have quietened in recent weeks with many occupied with calving. But the job still meant regularly making the commute north to Fonterra’s headquarters in Auckland to attend meetings and those trips varied from week to week.