Looking for Opportunities on the Farm with Ben Anderson

Ben Anderson is a man who wears many hats. Growing up on a sheep and beef farm in the remote King Country, Ben developed a love for the land and all that it had to offer. After leaving school he joined the Army, going through the military system as a solider and an officer, after which he served independently in Afghanistan working in the security, risk and crisis management space. Eventually Ben and his wife decided it was time to come home, which coincided well with having enough equity to buy their first farm. Today, Ben lives in central Hawke’s Bay where he is currently a velvet producer, tree farmer and a dairy farmer. In 2021 Ben also completed a Nuffield Scholarship with his report on ‘Economic and Environmental Sustainability in the New Zealand Deer Industry and the Case for Change’. 

Ben’s take on sustainability

For Ben, sustainability has two components: the environmental and the economic. 

“… ultimately you have to be able to do both. I think that’s probably the critical underpinning of the whole lot. Nothing will stand independently. So, for me it means having a farm holding that is sustainable from an environmental perspective, both from a biodiversity and ecological perspective, I need it to be there, and I need to be able to walk away once I’ve finished here knowing that this operation is none-the-worse and ideally a lot better than what it was.”

“And I overlay all that with the economic bit …it has to be there. One of the things I know is that you can’t just keep selling commodities as a business model and expect to do really good environmental stuff out there. Because the problem with commodity dependence is that it’s directly linked with environmental degradation, which is why the UN talks specifically about that and tries to shift countries off commodity dependence for that specific reason. In that respect, when we think about economic sustainability, what it looks like to me in the future is a space where we’re extracting good value and the maximum potential value out of what we make, rather than just trying to make money out of producing as much stuff as we possibly can because the land can only withstand so much, and then you go beyond what your land can actually sustain and support. For me, that whole value chain is one of the most critical pieces right now that we actually really need to get a grip on because we want to be able to create an economically sustainable future for our children if we want them to stay on the land because we can’t just keep on working on a capital gains model. It doesn’t work.”

The importance of the economic and environmental conversation is something that Ben is very passionate about, particularly when looking at where the food and fibre sector is headed. Commodity dependence is of great concern to Ben, and he emphasizes the need to get further down the supply chain in order to extract more value from our products for the farmers who are producing these products in the first place. One challenge that Ben sees is the lack of a collective vision for what ‘good’ looks like for the future of the sector. 

“All I can do is just take my perspective and different experiences I’ve heard in different industries and apply it to where we’re at right now. But I do think though, that it’s critical that there are enough voices out there saying the same thing from what it was, whatever perspective, and we also agree on what an end state or an intent might look like for our sector, because I think regardless of what our specific take is  on what sustainability is, we all need to at least agree or have a vision in terms of what good would look like and not letting excellent be the enemy of good but we need to understand what good would look like for our sector right now and ultimately it is, it’s environmentally and economically sustainable for future generations.”

The importance of carrying a buffer in your system 

The low hanging fruit for sustainability in Ben’s farm businesses has been ensuring that he isn’t ‘running it on the rim the whole time and stepping back to have a real buffer in your system”. 

“Let your covers run a little bit longer. Don’t try and stop as intensely, you know that’s probably important risk management tool. I mean, I think you know when returns are a bit lean, you’re trying to maximise every specific opportunity you might get from a season or a trading opportunity, but in my very limited and humble experience, just being prepared to let it dial back a bit and run it with a bit more flex in your system is never a bad thing to do. And that has strong environmental benefits too, I think from soil health to a whole range of things depending on how you take advantage of it.”

One other way Ben has been able to address his sustainability goals is through the integration of planting of pine trees on farm. There’s no doubt that pine trees and exotic afforestation are contentious topics in the food and fibre sector right now, but we mustn’t let the noise stop us from being able to listen and take on different viewpoints. There is a fundamental difference between blanket farm conversions to pine forestry and a balanced approach in certain areas of a farm business to provide a buffer to the system and build resiliency into the farm system and business. For Ben, his farm is in a priority catchment where reducing nutrient runoff on farm is of critical importance. The integration of pine trees has allowed him to address this. While carbon credits are not the reason he plants trees, Ben states that it is a fringe benefit which sees as ‘cream’ that he would never be able to make out of dry stock alone. 

“I just think you need to look laterally and objectively into every situation, right? I would be the last person to say that we want our country to be just a monoculture of pine trees. We don’t want that, but we should think about their integration, absolutely. And then I think the next thing we need to be doing because your original question was in relation to what’s the low hanging fruit and the second bit is what we do with our royal commodity product from this point forward, and how we process it, add value to it and sell it, which is not the low hanging fruit but it’s 100% what we need to be addressing. Because if we don’t do that, we will be a monoculture of pine trees. So my argument would be to Beef and Lamb and people that tried and put impediments in there. I said if you’re angry about pine trees, brilliant. Be angry. I think it’s really positive. But don’t just try and restrict people from planting trees. You need to create a framework where dry stock, for example, is equally as valuable as. Because you can’t just prevent people from doing what is economically sensible on their land. You need to present a compelling reason why you should. And I think that’s the point that perhaps the industry bodies could also take on board.”

Going beyond the commodity model 

When it comes to the sustainability of the food and fibre sector, a key concern for Ben is the efforts and strategy being put into generating further value from the products we produce, rather than continuing to rely on a commodity-based system. Farmers are doing more work to tell their stories and provide their data; however, this isn’t being reflected at all in the prices that they are receiving for their products. 

“As I said to you earlier, if we want to be environmentally sustainable, we must go further down that value chain in order to do that and the big question is that whenever I talk to any farmer about that, they will go, yeah, we agree. We agree that we’ve got to change, but we don’t know what that is. We don’t know what we’re heading towards. It’s just too hard. We’ve tried it. We’ve done all acquisition, we’ve done this. We’ve tried that, hasn’t worked, and they’re right. We have tried a lot of things, but I think that we’re getting to the point now is that the world is also changing, and we’ve got to point we actually do really need to change now. So, we’ve got more asset than we ever used to have in the past perhaps. But we also have things such as technology, which it now is at a point where we never really had before, had the ability to reach out and communicate with their own consumers like we do. Yeah, yeah, much like what you’re doing with your podcast. You know, whole range of tools that we can utilise as we create and market and sell our products to ultimately what we want to be a much further points down that value chain. And that’s just one example. There’s just so much opportunity in that area and we really need to have a really meaningful conversation about where we want to be and how we get there. And that’s probably my biggest thing right now.”

No farmer would disagree that we need to add more value to our products, but how do we get there? Ben doesn’t believe that companies and industry bodies are doing enough in this space to create resiliency for their farmers and helping them to get a bigger slice of the profits from the product they are producing. As Ben rightly points out, we are focusing on increasing volume into our markets but not on increasing returns at the farm gate.

“As a case study, within velvet, due to a value spread analysis, we take 3% of the end value of our velvet. So, you imagine if we could double that, we could double our income. That’s only 6%. Look, I know that there’s money that goes into marketing and branding. And I get all of that. But I don’t believe, I cannot believe that we cannot take a bigger slice. You know, we’re not smart enough to do it. Do we not have any ability? Of course we do. But what we do is we just, we get told that this is the way we should be selling this stuff and that’s what we do. And what I see is a lot of industry effort in terms of maintaining the status quo and reaching out and increasing those markets, so we’re selling more stuff potentially, but we’re not getting a better return at the farm gate. And that is ultimately the tragedy of it. So, with beef we get 12 cents out of every dollar. If you look at the value spread analysis, I think the Americans get 15 cents. You know, there’s so much more money to be had. It’s not easy, I get that, but we’ve just got to stop focusing on getting more kgs out the door and thinking about either a.) how we can add more value ourselves, what is our potential to add value to the commodities that we produce. And if we find that we have problems in terms of adding value to a commodity well then, my question to you would be, should we actually be doubling down on that commodity in the first place? If we can’t add value to it and we can’t make a better proposition for our farmers, why persevere? Why not look at another commodity type where you can? So, you know there’s some bigger questions there. But yeah, and as you asked your question, no. I absolutely don’t think their industries are doing enough.”

Small actions add up 

Recognising that small actions add up is a key sustainability tip that Ben gives our listeners, and he couldn’t be more on the mark with that. It doesn’t matter how big nor small an action is. 

“Sometimes things can be overwhelming whether it’s putting in planting or improving your fencing, whatever it happens to be and whether that’s from an environmental sustainability perspective or financial sustainability perspective, all those small actions add up. And I think it’s about trusting your intent, being clear in your intent, and just making small steps. First steps count. Sometimes the first steps the hardest one right, and then it’s just incremental steps after that. Don’t be put off by the size of the job. it’s very easy to do right things can seem overwhelming, but constant incremental improvement and actions lead up to the results.”

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

Ben’s Farming Business and the Sustainable Development Goals 

When looking at how the SDGs are integrated through Ben’s farming business, there were so many integrations. 

Goal #8: Decent Work and Economic Growth 
  • Economic growth is something that is front of mind for Ben. His Nuffield scholarship completed in 2021 focused on producing a report on ‘Economic and Environmental Sustainability in the New Zealand Deer Industry, and the Case for Change’. This paper initially set out to determine whether it was possible to better monetize sustainability within the New Zealand Deer Industry, and in addition to understand why New Zealand deer farmers see to achieve such poor returns in comparison to both the end vale of their products and the level of risk they accepted in producing them. It also covers whether conventional industry supply chains were going to be fit for purpose in a rapidly changing world. 
Goal #9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
  • A large portion of the podcast conversation was focused on this goal and the idea of innovation of the food and fibre industry into the future. 
  • A specific target under this goal (9B) speaks to the need to support domestic technology development, research, and innovation, including ensuring a conducive policy environment for industrial diversification and value addition to commodities, among other things. 
  • The continued mismanagement of the commodity sector could make the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals difficult due to environmental degradation, displacement of populations, worsening economic and social inequity, civil unrest, tax evasion and corruption. In addition, poor results in terms of curbing the utilization of polluting sources of energy, i.e. fossil fuels, could dramatically impact other efforts made to reinforce food security and adapt to climate change.

The interactions between developments in the commodity sector and the SDGs are multiple and complex. They involve a dynamic process of transformation, creating opportunities to build sustainable and innovative economies while preserving the natural resource base and environment for future generations. Of particular importance for this are the following goals: 

  • Goal #12: Responsible Consumption and Production 
  • Goal #14: Life Below Water 
  • Goal #15: Life on Land 

 

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