Chair optimistic about NZ‘s irrigation

Irrigation NZ chair Kerri Johnston.

An organisation restructure, ongoing climate discussions and a pandemic has made Keri Johnston’s first year-and-a-half as Irrigation New Zealand chair pretty full on.

But despite the challenges, Keri says the organisation is “in a really good place”.

“It’s great to be able to say that,” says Keri.

“We’re really excited about where we’re heading.”

Keri says sitting on the Food and Fibre Leaders' Forum along with other sector leaders has helped ensure that irrigating farmers and growers voices are heard.

“We've seen advocacy change,” says Keri.

“It's no longer a case of banging your fists on the table or driving tractors up to parliament and saying ‘we don't like this’.

“It's about saying: this isn't going to work for us. Some things will, but other things need tweaking – so here’s what we’re proposing.

“I think everyone starting to realise that there are benefits of having more positive, partnership-type relationships with politicians.”

Conveying the message (sidehead)

Keri says communicating changes across the primary sectors has been a priority.

“Communicating effectively right down to the very last person who needs to know is really important.

“At face value, some of the regulations can look daunting and horrible and must make farmers wonder what we've been doing. But actually, we have been building those relationships and networks, and have managed to make some really positive changes.

“The freshwater reforms are an example of this – you can see the difference from when they were first put out for consultation compared to where they landed.

“We did manage to have an influence on the outcome. It’s not perfect – there are still some things that could be tweaked, but we have the doors open to be able to deal with those. They haven't been slammed in our face, and that makes a big difference.”

Grassroots expertise

Keri says the diverse expertise on the Irrigation New Zealand board has made a positive difference within the organisation.

“We have a great mix of skills from grassroots farmers to people with a strong commercial background, and we’re from all around the country.

Keri brings a diverse mix of skills herself. She owns a South Island beef farm with her husband, and works as a full-time engineer specialising in environmental regulation.

She fits this in with travelling to Wellington a few times a month for Irrigation New Zealand.

She says seeing Irrigation New Zealand’s progress makes it all worth it.

“We used to hold a conference every two years, which was a big income earner for the organisation. The loss of the conference due to Covid-19 made us sit back and ask why does the organisation exist? Does it need to exist? And if it does, how do we go about providing value for our members in a financially sustainable way?

“That has been a big challenge for us but we got there – and I'm really proud about that.”

Looking forward

In the next year, Irrigation NZ’s focus is to advocate for a national water strategy.

“Irrigation is going to be critical for the country going forward – especially with Covid-19 and climate change bearing down on us.

“The best way to achieve food security is with water. It doesn't mean wholesale expansion of irrigation across the country. It means doing irrigation well, and the areas where you get the most bang for your buck, as well as being able to deliver environmental and community outcomes.

“An example is water storage, which we’ll need in order to be more resilient against climate change. Water storage should also be about storing community water supplies and environmental flows, not just irrigation alone.

“It's about focussing on the big picture and taking a holistic approach.”


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