Female #FoodHeroes

Karen Williams

Karen is a farmer in Wairarapa in New Zealand. She is also Chairperson for the Arable Industry Group and a Board Member of Federated Farmers New Zealand.

 

What do you do?

I am the Arable Chairperson for Federated Farmers New Zealand, and I sit on the Board of Federated Farmers. I represent the needs of arable farmers in New Zealand in a political space through involvement in both policy development and advocacy. I am involved in initiatives that are looking to grow the value and contribution of the arable industry in New Zealand, a country which has very strong sheep, beef, and dairy sectors. My responsibilities at Federated Farmers also include being the board spokesperson for fire, biosecurity, hazardous substances, and rural education. Prior to being on the Board, I ran my own business specializing in resource management, facilitation, engagement and speaking on agri-environmental issues.

I farm a 224ha property at Gladstone in the Wairarapa region of New Zealand in partnership with my husband. Our farming operation specializes in mixed cropping over the spring/summer period, beef and lamb finishing through autumn/winter, and we also run an agricultural contracting business. We grow malting barley, feed barley, milling wheat, feed wheat, ryegrass and red clover seed, and are currently trialing some ancient grains for more specialist bread products. Most of my role in the farming business is focused on management, finance, strategy and compliance, though I look forward to the days when I can be “hands-on” on the farm.

I am also a Mum to three school-age children and am actively involved in coaching their hockey and being their taxi driver!

How did you get here?

The short answer is that I was a town girl with a resource management degree and a passion for improving the environment who married a farmer and embraced farm life. I have a vision to see agriculture and food production thrive, but it must not be at the expense of our environment and our decisions must be made with a view to the impacts on our children and future generations.

To achieve my vision, I have worked hard to upskill, learn, network and voluntarily commit my time to ensuring that agriculture and food production have a sustainable future. This has required perseverance, tenacity, resilience and a focus on my long-term goals. It has also required the ongoing support of my husband and family.

Why do you love your job?

In the Escalator[1] Growth and Leadership Programme I completed back in 2015, we had to identify what our unique selling point was. This is not a comfortable position for most women, answering what is unique and special about themselves, including me.

What I determined to be my unique selling point was an ability to understand both sides of the issues around developing a profitable farming business and ensuring a healthy environment for our future generations. I grew up in town not on a farm, I did an environmental degree (Master of Regional and Resource Planning), and then worked on policy development for local and regional government espousing for the control of adverse effects on our environment.

Did I fully comprehend the impact of supposedly good regulation on our food producers? Probably not. When I married a farmer and became heavily involved in our farming business and what was required to be profitable, I understood the importance of writing policy and regulation that was encouraging of on-farm profitability and environmental sustainability. From this I determined my leadership ‘why’ – to “help farmers and the agri-sector to better engage with local, regional and central government to ensure they are more environmentally, economically and socially sustainable”.

I love that I can actually make a difference. That I can help government and regulators to see that farmers are real people and real families trying to make a living and be stewards of the land, and that I can encourage farmers to be more aware of the impacts on the environment and how they can change and adapt – it’s a pretty exciting role.

Can you share some examples?

In June 2016 I was appointed as the arable representative on the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) Governance Group for the response to the Wairarapa pea weevil biosecurity incursion. This pest is actually a beetle that reduces yields and can affect seed and grain quality so that it can’t be sold for human consumption.

I had a key role in securing funding from the government to develop a future-focused cropping strategy for the Wairarapa, and have continued to work with MPI to secure on-going ex gratia/compensation payments for growers alongside the extended regional growing ban. In June 2017 I was awarded the inaugural Federated Farmers ‘Biosecurity Farmer of the Year’ award for my leadership on the pea weevil incursion. I am still involved in this group and look forward to eradicating the pea weevil from our region in the next 12 months.

Over the past few years I have been working with local primary industry groups to minimize the negative impacts of regulation on farming in the Greater Wellington Region whilst still achieving good environmental outcomes. In 2016 I was appointed to the Greater Wellington Regional Council’s Farming Reference Group, and I am a member of a Wairarapa collaborative group developing a “Wairarapa Economic Development Strategy” and a “Wairarapa Food Story”.

You are also part of the World Farmer’s Organisation. Has that changed your view of farming?

In September last year I was very fortunate to be able to speak on behalf of the World Farmer’s Organisation (WFO) at the World Seed Partnership Conference in Naypyidaw, Myanmar. The purpose of the conference was for international groups to work with the Myanmar Government to provide suggestions on ways to establish a more efficient seed sector and improved and more resilient crop yields.

What became very apparent to me after travelling for two weeks in Myanmar and meeting with farmers, was that they were not particularly well represented as a cohesive organization, there was no obvious investment in farmer capability, and they were grappling with a number of challenges (including poor roads, lack of infrastructure, flooding of farmer fields, land development challenges and market access).

In my recommendations to the WFO, I identified the potential for the formation of a farmer advocacy group and investment in personal and professional leadership and development of farmers. Supporting these two initiatives would enable leading farmers to embrace positive change and encourage other farmers to have the confidence to do the same.

This opportunity was one of the highlights of my professional career and made me realize that as global food producers we are all facing difficult challenges that collectively have the potential to threaten global food security. My view is that while we need to tackle our own challenges nationally, we also need to mobilize and confront this on a global scale.

What is your advice for young women wanting to contribute to sustainable food and farming?

Firstly, believe in yourself and what you can achieve! And secondly, invest in your own personal development, whether it be technical skills or the softer skills which may include learning to be influential, assertive, confident and courageous. Any journey of this sort will be a mixture of successes and failures, so recognize the learning in both, and build a support network around yourself.

How does agriculture need to change to be fit for the future?

More than ever we need to be on the front foot of challenges that confront our industry. With the power of social media to disrupt farming and agriculture (whether it is credible science or not) we need to put ourselves in the driver’s seat and tell our story. We need to profile the people in our food industry and what food they produce, we need to share the challenges we face (drought, fire, pests, disease, trade barriers, emissions, water quality, soil health, labor shortages, regulation), and we need to promote the solutions we have adopted or are exploring.

Maintaining our ‘social license’ to operate by those who judge us harshly and swiftly will be an ongoing challenge, and we will need to be organized and decisive in our push back. We must engage better with our consumers and regulators, we must host them on our farms and explain what is required to produce healthy and sustainable food.

Over the past 10-15 years my husband and I have been very proactive in showcasing our farm, what we do on it and how we strive to improve our environment and our community. We host government ministers, members of parliament, regional councilors, regulators, school groups, international visitors and TV crews all with a view to showcasing agriculture and food production in a positive light.

What’s one challenge you face as a woman in agriculture and what do you think needs to be done to overcome this?

The challenge that frustrates me the most is the assumption that your time is not valued in a monetary sense, and this can have a significant impact on women’s health and mental wellbeing as they seek to juggle many roles. Women are often givers of their time. They give to their husbands and partners, they give to their farming businesses, they give to industry good, they give to their jobs, and they give to their children and communities. Often this leaves very little time to invest in themselves either educationally, physically, spiritually or emotionally. Women’s participation in these many roles needs to appropriately remunerated. This will reduce some of the financial burden and enable them to stay committed to their contributions to agriculture and food production and allow them to feel valued for their significant contributions.

 

Karen is just one of many inspirational women working in agriculture. Visit our Female #FoodHeroes page to hear from other women working to improve plant science and nutrition.