Katie Vickers: Banking on a sustainable future.

Ideas That Grow: Katie Vickers: Banking on a sustainable future.

Lynsey Stratford has discovered farmers make a few assumptions that aren’t very helpful – like accepting the fact that work might be dangerous and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. As Lynsey explains, “There are changes we can make, but those assumptions and those mindsets have been deeply held for quite some time.” 

As a consultant, Lynsey helps the primary sector with people management and development services and training. And, when it comes to health and safety she says, “We shouldn’t expect people to just know this stuff, but rather teach them and support them as they develop skills.” 
Lynsey’s research report unpacks the paradox that while farmers care about their people, farms as workplaces are overrepresented in fatal accident and injury statistics. So, what can be done to improve this?

Bryan Gibson – Editor of Farmer’s Weekly.

I’m Bryan Gibson, the Farmers weekly editor. This week, I’m with Katie Vickers. How’s it going? 

Katie Vickers – 2019 Kellogg Scholar.

Good, Bryan. 

Bryan: And where are you calling in from? 

Katie: I’m ringing in from Fairlie today.

Bryan: And that’s where you call home at the moment?

Katie: Yes. Recently moved down here from Christchurch. So getting back into the rural life. But loving it.

Bryan: And you are currently working for Rabobank as a Sustainability Manager, is that right?

Supporting producers through changing times.

Katie: Yes, I am. My role is around helping to support the banks sustainability ambitions and supporting our clients, in what is a reasonably challenging environment out there – just helping and supporting them, understanding what changes are coming and how that will impact their businesses and I guess wrapping our arms around them and helping them through that. 

Bryan: You’re right, there’s a lot of stuff going on in that space that farmers have to deal with. So it’s kind of cool that the banks are arm in arm with them facing up to that challenge, isn’t it?

Katie: Yes. And I guess the changes are pretty complex, but we probably need to start thinking slightly differently around how we tackle some of those challenges.  
One of the reasons I wanted to work for a bank was that you can see that they’ve got quite a strong lead in terms of how they can support clients. I guess at Rabobank we’re committed to the agri-sector and I love that kind of passion they’ve got for the sector. 
Our role is around how we support them, but also how we link them up with the right knowledge and networks. Because it’s such a complex topic and so different for every farming system. So it’s important for us to be able to understand their unique needs and make sure that we’ve got the right toolkit to support them in making good decisions for their business. 

Researching food nutrients on Kellogg Programme.

Bryan: Have you always worked in the agri-food sector or is it something you’ve evolved into over time? 

Katie: No, I’ve always been in the agri-sector. I grew up on a sheep and beef farm just north of Kaikoura, went to Lincoln University and then decided after Lincoln, that I definitely wanted to stay in the agri-sector.  
So I managed to land a job at Farmland’s Cooperative, and I worked there for eight years. About six of those years was actually in marketing, so I’ve come from a marketing and comms background and then spent my last two years there in a sustainability role. Then just recently moved to the bank, so it’s been an awesome journey. 

Bryan: Now, while that was going on, you applied yourself to the Kellogg Programme, and you took a look at nutrients in food. Is that correct? 

Producing food to positively impact human and the planet’s health.

Katie: Yes. So my topic was around putting the food back into food. The question I was looking to answer was what would it take for our primary industry to produce nutrient dense food? I think the reason why I wanted to explore that was I’ve always been brought up with a really holistic approach. I care deeply about the health of our planet and health of our people.  
I’ve got a twin sister who is a holistic health practitioner, so she works on the how do we help people’s health, because we’ve got a massive crisis in that space. 
So my passion has always been, what role does agriculture have to play in that? How do we work with our soils better to influence the food that we eat, which in turn influences the health of our people? It’s a massive topic. It was hard to even scratch the surface on a lot of that stuff.  
I did a lot of interviews and research with soil scientists, nutritionists and industry leaders, and I got some really cool insights out of that. No real answers, but lots of different things to consider. 

Bryan: People would think the food that New Zealand food producers make is nutrient dense and natural and grass fed and all that sort of thing already. So is there more that can be done at the farm level to enhance that? 

Kellogg research and the impact of soil on the food we produce.

Katie: I’m not an expert in this space and I will never claim to be, but my thinking was really expanded when I read Nicole Masters’ book – For the Love of Soil. She talks about the relationship that we have with the soil. In this day and age, there’s so much more we’re learning about the soil and the microbiology of the soil, and the knowledge we have of that is growing.  
As we understand more, we need to do more on-farm. So the role that my research played was understanding that today we use a lot of synthetic fertiliser, and we have quite a strong reliance on that, and that hasn’t been a terrible thing, but moving forward, how do we understand how to use our soils better so we don’t need to have such a reliance on some of those synthetic inputs coming into our farm systems. 
I you look at the kind of environment we’re in today with the rising input costs, it’s about how do we create more resilient farming systems, and having a different lens on what that might look like in the future. So the research I did was, okay, how do we understand our soil more to understand the impact it has on the food that we produce? 

Bryan: And what sort of insights did you get from some of the people you interviewed? 

The shift to quality over quantity and premium pricing.

Katie: One of the really interesting ones I did, I didn’t actually interview him, but I did a whole lot of research on the work that Dan Kittredge has done out of the States. He’s got a business called The BioNutrient Food Association.  
His role is looking at some tools consumers could use in the future to be able to scan Apple A and Apple B as an example and see the different nutrient composition of those apples and therefore make a decision as to why they might be paying $2 more for Apple A because it’s got a higher nutrient profile.  
Those tools aren’t in market and in bulk yet, but I have absolutely no doubt they will be in the future. So that’s the kind of thing could change the landscape of farming, when consumers have got the power in their wallet to be able to make those decisions, to say, well, you know, I want to know why I’m paying more for this apple, because I’m getting the nutrients that I need. With that, you’re hoping there’s been less environmental degradation to produce that product, whether that be apples or meat or whatever. 

Bryan: Yes, I guess that sort of thinking has become more prevalent with the pandemic, with people really thinking a lot about what they eat and keeping their base level health as high as it can be. So it’s really top of mind for a lot of people. 

A food system under stress.

Katie: For sure. I think it’s pretty obvious our food system is under stress. And whether it’s talking about a climate crisis, a human health crisis or health crisis, a biodiversity collapse, there’s all these different things that play in to each other. One of the key points I like to think about is that we don’t want to look at these things in isolation.  
If you look at the human health crisis we’ve got, and even the latest pandemic, these pieces have a real interconnectedness and it’s quite a different way to think about it.  
I think the more that we think about the connection between the crisis of our planet and the crisis of our human health at the moment, it might help us to think differently around how we handle these things in the future. 

Bryan: That sort of thinking ticks a few boxes at once, as you say. It can do more for people’s health – and a focus on soil can also do more in terms of freshwater quality and in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity. All sorts of things do come together as one.  
A lot of people, when you talk about, say, regenerative agriculture or related fields, a farmer might say, well, I’ve yet to see the value-add for me. So if I’m going to reduce production to adopt these things, I need to make that up somewhere else. 
So how does a sustainability manager at Rabobank approach these things? 

Planting seeds – one conversation at time.

Katie: That’s a great question. I guess my personal mission is to just plant little seeds in people’s minds around how they think about these things. I guess I’ve always believed that you’ve just got to approach it conversation by conversation and people will take different things from the conversations that they have with you.  
My role at the bank, is to just support and understanding and what role Rabobank needs to play in this space and how we support our clients. That’s going to look different for every client we have.  
We have some clients that are in the regenerative space and really loving it and seeing benefits. We’ve got others that will want to be exploring it and others are saying, that’s not for me – there’s no right or wrong, it’s just how do we help create resilient farming systems in the future and make sure that people are profitable, sustainable and enjoying the life they lead. Because at the end of the day, if they’re not doing that, there’s not a huge amount of value in it.  
So I guess my role is just to have these conversations and I see business having a really important role in influencing the way we think. And as a young leader, I guess we can help create the future and it’s important that we are part of that. I want to be part of creating that future. 

Katie Vickers, Kellogger, Rabobank Sustainability Manager.

Bryan: I guess Rabobank being a global, agriculturally focused bank would have a sort of a long term view and a strategy around where things are going and what needs to be done to continue to do business in this space. So that would feed into a lot of the work that you’re doing? 
Katie: Yeah. We are lucky to have that global aspect. I guess it’s one of the pros of working for such an awesome business because we’ve got all these insights from across the globe to help our thinking. But I definitely reckon New Zealand is leading the way, particularly in the climate space and understanding at a farm systems level, what we’re dealing with.  
Bryan: Yeah, it is. And another thing I guess we need to remember is that it’s not just a value proposition, it’s increasingly become a cost of entry and market access, isn’t it? 
Katie: Yeah. I was late with that because I’m not a technical expert, but I come from a marketing background but when you have tricky conversations with people who might not agree with some of the changes that are happening, or are struggling to comprehend it, which I totally empathise with.  
One of the pieces I always lead with is the market. We export 90% of what we produce here in New Zealand. So whether we like it or not, what’s happening, what consumers are demanding and what the market is saying, is really important to how we respond. So we have to understand those market signals to make sure we’re producing what’s going to be valuable and what’s needed from our customers. 
Bryan: Yes, I used to work a little bit in PR as well, (we used) the old adage, if you’re explaining, you’re losing, quite often. It’s got to be obvious and it’s got to be transparent. You’ve got to front foot these things, otherwise someone will front foot it for you. 
Katie: Exactly. 
Bryan: So what made you apply to the Kellogg Programme in the first place? 

Kellogg, equipping today’s leaders for tomorrow’s challenges.

Katie: It was part of my development plan when I was at Farmlands, and I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to do the Programme. It was such an important time … the Programme really helped to widen my thinking around what influence business could have in helping to solve some of the challenges I could see coming in the agriculture sector. Having the opportunity to do that was just incredible.  

I know that I probably wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t had the opportunity to do that Programme. I guess it was the people we were exposed to and the time that was carved out to really explore some of the ideas that came up – that was the really valuable stuff for me.  

Bryan: I’ve been to one or two of those Kellogg alumni conferences, and just the feeling in the room is quite different to a lot of places. You know what I mean? There’s such a good sort of camaraderie between the alumni of the Programme. 

Staying connected with the Kellogg network.

Katie: Yes. I think for me, I’m a people person, so the connections with people in the industry were just phenomenal. Even now, if I really want to talk to X, Y or Z to find some information and you said you did Kellogg, people are so willing to talk to you. I guess it just gives you the opportunity to speak to people who will challenge your thinking.  

As I’ve grown up and matured, I love having that. I love having people who will challenge my own thinking because it helps deepen my knowledge and my thoughts. Being able to have the opportunity or the exposure to speak to different people and have different perspectives is just so invaluable. 

Bryan: Thanks for listening to Ideas That Grow, a Rural Leaders Podcast in partnership with Massey and Lincoln University AgMardt and FoodHQ. 

Our programmes work in partnership with some of New Zealand’s leading agribusiness organisations – click here for more.​