Kate Scott: Front footing the fast-moving regulatory environment.

Ideas That Grow: Kate Scott, 2018 Nuffield Scholar.

The interview with Kate Scott took place in May 2022 and the version below was edited for clarity. Listen to the podcast above for the original conversation.

Bryan Gibson – Editor of Farmer’s Weekly.

I’m Bryan Gibson, editor of the Farmer’s Weekly. And today we are talking to Kate Scott who is calling from central Otago. Is that right Kate?

Kate Scott – 2018 Nuffield Scholar and Landpro Executive Director.
Yes, it is. I’m based in, what is typically, sunny Central Otago. So, a little place called Bannockburn is where I call home, which is just out of Cromwell for those listeners who aren’t familiar with the area.

Bryan: Good stuff. And what took you to Bannockburn?

From dairy farming in Taranaki to environmental consulting in Otago.

KateA little bit of a strange story. So, some people will know that I hail from Taranaki originally. I grew up on a dairy farm in Taranaki and some 16 years ago, my husband and I packed up our life to go and milk cows in central Otago. So probably not the most usual journey to dairy farming – was shifting from dairy farming central to Central Otago. But that’s how we ended up in the South Island.

Bryan: And enjoying the journey down there?

Kate:  Yeah, look, it’s been an amazing journey for us. So, my husband, who coincidentally, his first name is Scott – it confuses a lot of people when I refer to him. But Scott and I shifted down and we were on farm, milking cows for about seven or eight years all up. Then we took the opportunity to pursue some other avenues at that point, after a year of working together on farm. We moved off-farm and started Landpro, which is a consultancy business that’s been growing since 2007, now to a team of about
80 people.

We’re an environmental consultancy business and probably 60 to 70% of our work would be in the primary sector, working with farmers and growers to help them to navigate what are not insignificant hurdles and challenges in the environmental space. And now we also happen to call a small vineyard home too. I can’t say I know a heck of a lot about vineyards, but it’s been a pretty quick learning curve and something that we are really enjoying. Being able to have a little bit of space in such a beautiful part of the country.

Bryan Wow. So, you are making wine now!

KateYeah. To be fair. I don’t really make it, the only thing I’m probably good at is the drinking bit, but we do have some wonderful winemakers that work with us to make the wine from the grapes we are growing on our land.

Bryan: Well, that is um, a terribly important skill to have.

Kate: It is.

The Nuffield Scholarship and gaining new perspectives.

Bryan: And amongst all that, I think it was 2018 when you did your Nuffield Scholarship, is that correct?

Kate: That’s right. So, I was a 2018 Nuffield Scholar. That was an amazing journey, you know, having that opportunity to travel the world and to not only undertake, a research project, which I’ll tell you about in a little bit, but also that opportunity for personal growth and reflection and understanding. And I think as much as anything, to understand how the world works.

For me, probably one of the standouts was learning about the role of geopolitics within food and within agriculture. And I call on the things that I observed and learnt during that process often – now in my day job. But yeah, it’s certainly been one heck of a journey since that time. That’s for sure.

Bryan: Now your topic seems to me to be a little bit related to your consultancy, is that right? Um, taking a look at how New Zealand farmers can embrace, and improve sustainability, that sort of thing.

Kate: Yeah, that’s correct. What I did my research on was enabling better environmental outcomes in agriculture. Back in 2018, I was starting to see a bunch of the challenges that certainly a number of my clients were facing. How could they ensure they continued to have profitable businesses, but deliver better outcomes for the environment too? So those challenges that we’re all probably feeling more acutely now.

I took that opportunity to go and have a look to understand what things we were doing well. I asked, what are the areas where we can do things better? Some of the findings I identified in my research were things like, you know, I felt that we had to have an overarching strategy for sustainable agriculture within New Zealand, because if we’re not all on the same page, in terms of where we are wanting to go, how are we going to get there? How do we create that coherence?

I also identified during that study, that there’s a bunch of barriers in the way. And look, it’s perhaps a little odd for the consultant to say, but in my view, sometimes I think, if we could change our approach and view the world with a ground-up perspective and have less regulation, not more, we might actually end up with much better outcomes for our communities, for our environment and for our businesses. And so all these things that are just as relevant then as they are now.

I think the importance of supporting and enabling farmers to continue to do really great work is hugely important to me. That’s what drives me to get out of bed in the morning. It’s knowing that by working with those clients, we’re actually helping them to showcase and demonstrate the good things they are doing and identify the areas where they can continue to work on to do more.

And I think it’s been a real shift in the view of farmers in that space, since 2018. You know, the amount of knowledge and understanding that farmers have gained in that time has also been quite significant.

The Nuffield Research and a global context.

Bryan: Now, obviously you did a bit of travel. What did you see out there in the big, bad world, that either worked or didn’t as far as this goes?

Kate: One of the things I found really fascinating at the time, that was probably quite reassuring, was that New Zealand farmers for a while there were certainly getting a really bad rap about all the terrible things they did. But when I went out and had a look at the way that agriculture was being undertaken and other parts of the world, it pretty much highlighted for me that there was a lot of things we were doing very well.

In terms of managing the effects of our activities on the environment. I think one of the other things that stood out for me is that we actually have quite different challenges in terms of our environmental impacts from farming here in New Zealand compared to elsewhere.

An example of that would be that we run a predominantly pastoral agricultural system and therefore our impacts on fresh water, they will be some of the core concerns we see, and still see, here in New Zealand. Whereas if you go to other parts of the world there’s a whole lot more of their agriculture undertaken in indoor systems.

The impacts and the challenges that were top of mind for those farmers at that point in time were more along the greenhouse gas and emissions space. Identifying that we all have the same top 10 issues and challenges we are trying to overcome. They just came in a different order, depending which parts of the, the world we were undertaking our activities. I found that quite fascinating.

The other thing that I found interesting was the differences in scale. Some of the solutions I might have seen that were being deployed around some of the climate-smart agriculture in places like Denmark, for example, where, you know, you’re talking about very small-scale farms, perhaps those solutions aren’t likely to gain much in the way of traction in New Zealand. So, look, I think that was a really fascinating observation – that there isn’t a one size fits all in terms of an approach. I don’t think there’s any one silver bullet out there.

Bryan: You mentioned earlier about the pros and cons of having quite a strict regulatory framework. Did you see anything abroad that was better or worse than what we have?

Kate: It’s fair to say the deep-dive that I did into the regulatory space, around controls relating to agriculture in the environment – it’s probably fair to say that as a general rule New Zealand has some of the more stringent requirements. Obviously, some regions are different to others, but if we go into some of the more stringent regional requirements around land use controls on farming, it often wasn’t the case that those same level of controls were necessarily required through parts of Europe, where I spent a lot of my time. They had other controls and measures in place.

So, for example, it might have been the P caps that might’ve been in place. Yes, they had some controls, but they probably weren’t quite as stringent as some of the challenges we were facing here.

But they’re also quite difficult to compare because there were different layers of government, and different issues and challenges that were trying to be overcome. That was probably one of the challenges when I was trying to do a more in-depth analysis. It became quite difficult cause you weren’t always comparing apples with apples.

Tackling agriculture’s regulatory challenges.

Bryan: Seems to me, sticking with that regulatory sort of avenue, that the market itself seems to be starting to move farmers and food producers in that direction. And you know, maybe you can get more buy in that way. Is that something you’re seeing?

Kate: Yeah, look, I’ve seen a really big shift. I spend a lot of time talking to a broad range of farmers from a range of different sectors and catchment groups. And one of the things I often talk about is the fact that we need to make sure that from a mindset point of view, if we stop thinking about all of this change being regulatory driven.

It’s not just central government or local government making the rules to say that we have to change. If we actually think about it in the context of the consumer and those people that want to buy our meat or our milk, or our wood, those people are wanting to see, and be confident, that the products that they’re buying are doing the right thing. Whether that’s by the environment, or by people, or by animal welfare.

I very much believe that there’s a real market-driven change occurring there. But again, if we come back to our mindset, if we view the change in the construct of a market-driven change, then instead of doing it because someone’s telling us to do it, which we inherently don’t like to do, then our reason for doing it is a little bit different.

So, it becomes a lot easier to think, well actually, the reason I want to show why I’m doing a good job is because I want such and such, you know, and, you know, let the market actually value what I’m doing, and what I’m delivering, and how I’m doing a good job. The perspective shift actually helps to drive people along towards the change piece.

Bryan: I guess, chasing premium is a lot better than avoiding fines.

Kate: Exactly. It’s a pretty strong incentive there.

Sustainability and the speed of change.

Bryan: Yeah. Obviously, it’s been three or four years since you carried out your studies, and as we’ve been talking, the journey along this sustainability path is continuing – how do you feel about where we are at the moment?

Kate: I think one of the biggest challenges we’ve got at the moment is the speed at which things are changing. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in the rural sector or you’re in any other sector – the speed and pace of change is getting quicker. One of the challenges I have in my job is things are changing so quickly, that sometimes it feels like you are trying to drink from a firehose. I think that’s the overwhelming bit that everyone’s probably feeling and the pressure that everyone’s feeling.

I think that there’s an amazing amount of good work being done by farmers, and by catchment groups and communities coming together to actually understand how they can do a better job. That’s not always recognised for what it is either.

My advice to farmers is keep doing a good job, keep striving for change and improvement. If you take little steps, you’ll actually get there. That’s something we’ll start to see bed in a little more.

One of the challenges everyone is facing is this lack of certainty, particularly when we look in the regulatory space, how do we plan for what’s coming? Or how do we plan to implement change when we don’t know if it’s stopped, or is it still coming? I think that’s the part that people are finding hard to overcome in terms of taking that next step in the progress space.

Bryan: As you say, the pace of change seems to be quickening and people in my line of work are probably somewhat responsible for some of that. But one thing you can’t make go faster is the physical and biological processes of the environment, so you know, it takes a while for changes to filter through, doesn’t it?

Kate: Yeah, it sure does. And you know, we also need to make sure that if we want change to be a long and enduring change, I strongly believe that that change needs to be led from the ground up, rather than the top down.

A really big part of my Nuffield research was about taking that, that ground up approach and leading everyone along with you rather than telling them what to do. I think, where we are starting to see some of that meaningful change is from those communities and those areas where they’ve actually seen the value in coming together as groups to support the change.

That comes back to the fact you need to have a profitable business to be able to implement change. There’s still a lot of work going to have to continue to happen around how we adjust our farm systems to meet the challenges from both a climate change, and from a biodiversity point of view. But it’s a matter of how we find ways to work together and support that together, rather than the loneliness of trying to do it on your own the whole time?

The Nuffield Scholarship – positive, life-changing, challenging, and giving back.

Bryan: So now it’s quite obvious that in your Nuffield studies you’ve learned a lot, but how was the experience for you?

Kate: Hmm, you’ve spoken to a number of scholars through the podcast series you’ve been doing, but they all, well the ones I’ve listened to, talk about the fact that it was this life changing moment. That’s completely true. But I often try, when people ask me about it, to describe it as being this event that is kind of a positively disruptive thing in your life, that at the time.

Sometimes when you’re living it, you are, not sure what it means. It tips your world upside down and you feel very uncomfortable about your place in the world. But as you work your way through that, and you get the opportunity to reflect on it, then you see it as this hugely positive experience.

For me, that positivity comes from the people you meet, the family of other scholars that wrap around you. That you have this network of people, of Nuffield scholars open to you picking up the phone or flicking them an email. And they’re immediately interested in connecting with you on any range of issues or challenges.

And that’s about that whole challenging of your perspective and your knowledge and your understanding – building yourself.

The people have been the amazing part of the opportunity and that personal growth, that business growth too, certainly that also comes from that experience. It’s been one of the most amazing things that has happened.

I think sometimes we can get or fall into the trap where we think we do our Nuffield Scholarship, and then that’s that – the end. But actually, I would probably view Nuffield, and once you complete your travels and your report, that’s kind of the start of the journey. It’s asking what next? and how we apply what we’ve learned, and how we give that back to our sector – to the primary sector, that’s the really exciting piece.

The future of food and fibre is in the hands of our bold and our grounded people – those who give back to their communities and industries.

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