Recently, the question came up in a chat with Meridian customer and 2019 Dairy Woman of the Year Trish Rankin – who could talk about it ‘til the cows come home. So, she did – from sustainable practices to precision farming and picking the best team.
Trish, a Taranaki sharemilker, began her journey towards being a better farmer almost twenty years ago. But she hasn’t always known her way around a milking shed. She was a full-time teacher and townie when she met her now-husband Glen.
Glen started dairy farming in 2001 and together they set up their farming business in 2004. Since then Trish has slowly dialled down the teaching gig, eventually becoming full-time at home and on farm in 2014. And her passion for farming and the environment is only getting bigger and more ambitious.
“Every year I’ve got more and more involved not just in our own farming business but all these other passions, too – the environment, DairyNZ, helping develop waste reduction projects, working with AgRecovery… as I’ve found more gaps where I can help solve a problem, I’ve been happily developing them all,” Trish says.
A pivotal moment in Trish’s environmental consciousness came in 2015, when she and her family moved to Kohukohu in the far north. They found themselves running one of just three dairy farms in the area, dealing with more unknowns than they knew what to do with.
“I didn’t know about the soil or the grass species, we were on a really steep farm… everything was completely different,” says Trish.
“I wondered, what on earth does it look like to be a good farmer here?”
Trish got on the phone and soon had DairyNZ Catchment Engagement Leader Helen Moodie on her farm, helping her understand what it would take to look after the land properly. But Trish didn’t stop at her own farm. She was soon thinking about New Zealand farming practices in general, and how the industry can do better.
Trish firmly believes that part of looking after the land means striving towards a circular economy. As part of this, she’s developed a framework she calls the Porahita 10 (porahita meaning circular in te reo Māori) - involving ten things farmers need to enact if a circular economy is to be viable.
One of those Trish refers to is ‘regenerate’, which includes questioning what businesses farmers can support that act as environmental stewards for New Zealand.
“For example, with 100% renewable energy, that’s a reason why we use Meridian,” she says.
“What does it look like to be a better farmer? It looks like making a decision to support a company generating 100% renewable energy, with the flow on effect that it’s good for other people and the planet as well.”
For everything Trish learns, she finds more that she doesn’t know – a recurring pattern that means she and Glen are constantly improving farming practices.
“When you put your hand up and say ‘hey, I don’t know anything’, you get taught, and then you learn, then you have more questions,” she says.
“The move to Northland made us ask what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, whether it’s good for us, for our family, for our business, for our land, for waterways, for our consumers… it really made us look at how we shaped our business,” she says.
Trish says back then, she and Glen developed a vision called “4P+C”: people, profit, partnership with the land, pasture and cattle.
“We had this thing around finding really good synchronicity – how do we know that we’re doing a good job apart from just the milk in the vat?”
Nailing down what good looks like is a constant learning curve. But early on she knew she wanted to ensure what they’re doing is right for the land and animals, and leave a legacy for her children.
“We want them to take over a great farm that’s really well run and valued as part of the community,” she says.
“It’s about kaitiakitanga, looking after people and the land.”
The Rankins are doing everything they can on farm and in the industry to encourage movement towards a circular economy: minimising waste and regenerating natural systems. And the biggest principle in learning how to look after the land, says Trish, is measurement. It’s precision farming.
“If you don’t measure it, how can you make a decision around it?” she asks.
“Whether that’s your electricity use, water use, feed, the grass you’re growing every week… if you don’t measure, you’re playing a game of guess. And farmers don’t need to do that. There are tools, techniques and experts that can help you measure pretty much everything you need to on your farm.”
Trish says Simon McMillan, her Meridian Agribusiness account manager, is one of those experts who plays his part in helping them learn and measure their energy consumption. Simon visits a few times a year, and they catch up over lunch, as well as talking shop.
“Last time Simon came he gave us some awesome information on electricity costs per kilo of milk solids, broke it down, and talked us through our options in how to reduce some of that. He takes the time to explain everything and that’s what we really rely on.”
That kind of control and precision come into play when the going gets tough, says Trish.
"We’ve farmed through droughts and floods, and if you always control what you can year-round, things don’t feel like they’re getting out of control when it gets hard.”
And that’s especially important with new legislation that’ll come into force soon around climate change, waterways and farm waste.
“Getting in front of it means you can keep up with it.
“Knowledge is power. We need to combine learning and technology with a connection to the land and animals to be good farmers.”
Now, Trish can be described as a trailblazer in the industry. She’s a New Zealand Dairy Action for Climate Change ambassador, a New Zealand Dairy Environment Leader, and Kellogg Rural Leadership programme alumni. Naturally, such success is the fruits of years of hard work and dedication in her field. But being a better farmer, she told us, also includes having the best possible team around you.
It’s pretty simple, really.
“If you don’t give me good service then we don’t use you,” she says. “I want you to buy in to helping me be a good farmer.”
Power company included.
“I think that’s genuinely what Meridian does, rather than just sending me a bill,” says Trish.
“They’ve got a really good relationship with farmers through the Dairy Awards, and they’re always at the end of the phone when we need them.”
“It’s the familiarity with someone who knows your business, your goals, and sits down and talks through what you want.
“It makes a difference.”