Scholar seeks international lessons to return home

Tracy Brown on her and husband Wynn’s farm near Matamata. Photo: Catherine Fry.

The current climate of rapid change in our primary industries needs to be taken up as an opportunity to position ourselves globally, rather than resisted, according to Matamata dairy farmer Tracy Brown.

And she herself is doing just that, with the newly-announced 2020 Nuffield scholar – one of five announced at Parliament in early-November – planning to use her latest opportunity to gain insight into the policies and processes other countries are using to create positive environmental change.

“While I’ve been active in the New Zealand environmental space, this experience will enable me to gain the international networks and experience that will add to my effectiveness in the roles I have or will have in future,” says Tracy, who has been leading environmental change in the dairy industry for nearly a decade.

She began her primary industries career more than 20 years ago, after completing an agricultural science degree at Massey University, working for the NZ Meat & Wool Board’s Economic Service as an agri-economist.

She’s been dairy-farming with husband Wynn for the last 25 years and today is a director/shareholder of Tiroroa Farms Ltd, a 700-cow dairy farm near Matamata.

She’s also a multi environmental award-winner, chair of DairyNZ’s Dairy Environment Leaders Forum and Ballance Farm Environment Awards Alumni and a member of the Dairy Environment Leadership Group that oversees the Water Accord. And she was recently appointed by Cabinet to the Essential Freshwater Independent Advisory Panel and elected by farmers to the DairyNZ board.

“We are going through a really intense period in the dairy industry where there is a lot of uncertainty. But it’s also a time of opportunity as well,” says Tracy. “If we, as a country, get this right – if we align our actions on-farm with a greater vision around a national food strategy, make things work in a way that we can continue to produce food while lowering our environmental footprint and maintaining profitability, we will also give hope to other countries around the world.

“People are looking to connect with a better way of doing things, they’re wanting to make good choices for the planet and they can do that by buying our food.”

And many countries are looking for hope and a way forward, especially in terms of environmental issues.  “If we are at the forefront of changing consumer preferences hopefully this will add value and increase demand for our produce,” says Tracy.

Her and Wynn didn’t have a wake-up moment that jolted them into embracing sustainability practices, they’ve just farmed with the environment in mind since they began at Tiroroa. “I think it’s embedded in the way we are and the way we operate. It’s been a progression over 25 years of understanding and growing our knowledge and realising that we were on the right track – and what we felt was the right thing to do was in fact the right thing to do.

“We and our children are all outdoors people. The land provides our livelihood and supports our recreational interests. It is important to us that we protect and nurture our environment for future generations so our children and grandchildren get these experiences and benefits also.

“As when we started off farming ‘sustainability’ wasn’t even a word used, now it is often over-used.”

The start of Tracy’s journey to her high-profile roles of today began when her and Wynn won a habitat enhancement award in 2001’s Ballance Farm Environment awards for a particular wetland habitat on their farm. Today they’ve created 14 wetlands on Tiroroa and they had installed 13-14km of fencing along streams and waterways before the Clean Streams Accord came in 2003.

“Following our Waikato Supreme Award I became involved in the Waikato Ballance Farm Environment Awards. It was at the height of dirty dairying, many people were anti-dairy and we were the only real dairy finalist at the National Sustainability Showcase.

“It was really not great to be in the dairy industry then. So we thought ‘what can we do to try and improve the industry’s image and also try to support other dairy farmers to farm in a more sustainable and environmentally-friendly way?’”

Various opportunities came up for Tracy to contribute off-farm including the Dairy Environment Leaders Forum, and Water Accord Group.  “This meant I could understand more about the dairy industry strategy and commitments and then translate that to what that would mean on-farm for farmers.”

Now, having been involved with change at on-farm level and via strategic roles, Tracy understands both aspects. “I can translate strategy down to what that looks like in actions on-farm but I also have knowledge of the practicalities to make that happen on-farm and can translate up into the vision. So I guess it’s about how practically we can make these things work.”

Part of the Essential Freshwater Independent Advisory Panel, Tracy says the group received the information the same time as the public and was not involved in shaping the proposals.  “Recently we have been attending public, hui and industry meetings, listening to feedback and questions and gaining an understanding of the issues. Then we review the submissions and will write a separate report to the Minister for the Environment containing our recommendations.”

Tracy says NZ is already world-leading in climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. “For our milk we emit on average .9kg of C02 equivalent per litre of milk and the world average is 2.4. So we’re well-ahead of the game in that space and I think that is where our opportunity is – around producing low-emission food.”

But she says there’s a subtle difference between leading the world at reducing emissions and leading the world at producing the lowest emissions food. “The world needs food and NZ produces food with very low emissions associated with it. If we stop producing this food other countries that might have higher emissions per litre of milk – for example – our food production might get substituted by theirs. This is called ‘emissions leakage’ and the world could in fact be worse off.”

Tracy says it’s also vital people understand GHG from agriculture is NZ’s highest emission industry because our country doesn’t have other big industry, manufacturing and transport sectors like other countries do. “We also have so much renewable energy – that acts like a carbon credit. Other countries have really big energy sectors which produce high rates of emissions – but don’t have the renewable energy we have.”

But while NZ is making progress, Tracy believes looking outwards – or overseas – will give us more answers on how to move forward. “I’m really interested in trade, and environmental work and sustainability. So I want to gain international experience and see our NZ product in the marketplace as well as see what the emerging issues are for primary sectors around the world, and to see how other industries and countries tackle environmental issues.”

The Nuffield Scholarship includes 18 weeks’ international travel. Part of this is with 10 fellow scholars travelling through six countries across three continents in six weeks. One topic she’s thinking about is defining sustainability from a trade perspective. 

“I’m interested in how sustainability issues will affect trade in the future. I’m also interested in how other countries and communities have been through big environmental change in a positive way so that communities are still vibrant and people still have economically-viable businesses – all while reducing their impact on the environment. I might have to look outside of agriculture to do this.” Watch this space.


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