Bob Edlin

Reflecting on the challenges she met as dairy policy adviser at Federated Farmers, Ann Thompson ventured: “Yes, I have been working on the DIRA all my life … ”

Not really. It just seems that way.

Actually, she didn’t know what the DIRA was when she began work with the federation in 2007. She soon learned and has helped prepare submissions for several subsequent reviews of the legislation and accompanying regulations.

Thompson – who will retire on July 12 – applied for the job after making a mid-life decision in 2006 after raising twins and a med lab science career, to study for a Master of Public Policy at Wellington’s Victoria University.

“It was my dream job, really,” she said.

She had always been interested in rural things.

Her grandfather had a herd of cows at Raglan and as a child living in the Wellington suburb of Wilton she would look over Wilton Bush to a sheep and beef farm on the other side of the valley.

She read her mother’s agricultural journals and listened to Rural Report where she regularly heard about Federated Farmers “and when I saw this job advertised I knew I had to get it”.

‘We wanted to make sure the farmers who wanted it could still drink their raw milk but a survey to find out who drank raw milk – to the surprise of me and the ministry – established there was a big market for it.’

An interest in policy work had been whetted by her Public Policy studies at Victoria. Her fellow students were mostly senior public servants and public servants on the way up and she came to appreciate that the civil service is staffed by people “who are true servants of the public – they want to get it right and get the best outcome for the public”.

It is much easier to complain about policy than to write it, she says. Trying to work out the unintended consequences and have a policy and achieve what is intended is difficult.

She didn’t know a great deal about dairying, she concedes.

But she learned from the magazines to which the federation subscribed “and I was helped by a great Dairy executive who didn’t mind answering all my questions and setting me straight.”

Her dairy chairs have been Frank Brenmuhl, Lachlan McKenzie, Willy Leferink, Andrew Hoggard, and Chris Lewis. “They’ve all been wonderful.”

In 2008 she organised a three-day tour to the West Coast for the Dairy Council and an Australian Dairy Farmers team.

Sitting on the bus with Brenmuhl, her first chairman, she questioned him about what they saw. Border dyke irrigation while crossing the Canterbury Plains, for example (modern systems are much more efficient).

To her dismay it rained in Hanmer. The Australians, in the middle of a drought back home, thought it was wonderful.

Humping, hollowing and flipping was inspected at a Landcorp farm at Cape Foulwind on the West Coast.

“Amazing – it’s impressive work. Apparently, women do it better because they are kinder on the machines.”

Back in Canterbury, the party talked with Synlait chief executive John Penno on the site where his company was building its processing plant.

Thompson manages the Dairy Council, Sharemilkers’ Section and Sharemilker Farm Owners’ Sections and organises their meetings – two a year for the Dairy Council, annual general meetings for the dairy sections and regular executive meetings.

She works, too, for Federated Farmers more generally. Because of her scientific background she has worked on the Agricultural Compounds and Veterinary Medicines Advisory Council and she sits on the Dairy Products Safety Advisory Council which deals with government food safety regulations and associated market access issues.

The federation considered her best equipped to be involved in the dairy sector response to the spread of Theileria and Mycoplasma bovis, which have had a significant and on-going impact on dairy and beef farmers.

Animal welfare regulations, data protection and immigration skill shortages have been among other big issues she has tackled.

“That’s one thing about working for Federated Farmers – the huge variety of the challenges.”

This includes some work on the genetic data base (an ongoing issue) and she submitted to the Environmental Protection Authority on the introduction of fruit-feeding weevils to combat the spread of Darwins barberry, a pretty plant but an invasive pest.

Thompson arrived at the federation just after the industry-good review which led to Dairy InSight and Dexcel being merged to form DairyNZ.

She was soon involved in a review of organic phosphates and carbonates, chemicals that are used on farms for parasites and so on.

“Some of these chemicals are clever but they are also toxic,” she says.

“We have to manage the toxicity by making sure the contractors who use them use the right PPEs (personal protection equipment) and make it up in the right quantities and spread it in the right manner so it is most efficient and effective.”

Diazinon, which deals with grassgrub, is of particular concern.

“We allowed its continued use but it’s going to come off registration and will be reviewed again in a couple of years and unless we have something in place to manage grassgrubs – resistant grasses or some parasite – this could make things difficult for New Zealand pastures.”

Thompson has done a lot of work on the animal welfare regulations (that have recently been reviewed) and bobby calf regulations.

She was a member of the stock effluent working group, charged with ensuring stock are transported comfortably and addressing the problem of effluent being spilled on to roads.

Trucks now have effluent holding tanks and regional authorities and meat companies have effluent dump sites.

There’s a biosecurity risk onfarm, she points out – “if a truck arrives to take your stock but it has full effluent tanks, you don’t want the effluent emptied on your farm.”

Thompson would welcome more dump sites around the country and the companies agreeing to share their facilities.

Shaping raw drinking milk regulations was another challenge.

Farmers’ entitlement to keep five litres of drinking milk for their families and sharemilkers became an anomaly in a review of the Food Act.

“We wanted to make sure the farmers who wanted it could still drink their raw milk but a survey to find out who drank raw milk – to the surprise of me and the ministry – established there was a big market for it,” she says.

“So they had to have special regulations.”

Thompson nevertheless recognises that raw milk poses health risks.

“Some bacteria in dairy products can be horrific – like listeria and campylobacter.”

People forget that pasteurisation has rendered milk safe and that dairy sheds nowadays are meeting high standards of cleanliness. “But we have to keep on top of it.”

Everything to do with dairy is regulated, Thompson says.

The Code of Practice for Farm Dairies – now being reviewed again – imposes a raft of requirements, such as how far away an effluent pump must be from the dairy shed “and farmers have got to get it right – but it has to be doable for farmers, so we stand in the middle”.

The federation has developed several codes of practice, one of which addresses farm dairy effluence standards.

When research cast doubt on the effectiveness of three-pond systems for managing effluent and the government-proposed plans for building and managing one effluent pond, the dairy executive helped make it farmer-focused so that farmers could install and manage an effluent pond or hire someone who knew what was needed.

Federated Farmers writes many contracts and another part of Thompson’s job has been managing sharemilking, variable order and the herd-owning contracts.

She has had to work with he sharemilkers and sharemilker farm owners’ executives on this because those two sections must manage sharemilking agreements under the Sharemilking Agreement Act 1937.

The variable order, reviewed in 2011, is being looked at again.

Milk price volatility has made contract milking more popular, resulting in the development of the contract milking agreement in 2012. The federation is now considering incorporating this within the variable order, a challenging task because of the legislation’s requirements.

“There will be more out on this later this year.”

Thompson also developed the federation’s grazing agreement.

She describes this as “a mind-blowingly difficult agreement” because different rates apply as calves get older and responsibilities change.

“And Federated Farmers never agrees to having an agreement done on a handshake. We require that they sign a good contract, and we provide excellent contracts.”

What does she expect will be the big issues for her successor?

The legislative process dealing with DIRA will be important, she says.

The next tranche of animal welfare regulations is coming through.

The variable order review is going to take more time.

But environmental issues such as water quality and greenhouse gases are now handled by specialist staff.

This has been among the big changes in Thompson’s time with the feds – specialist staff increasingly have been employed to deal with highly technical environmental issues.

But more farmers are becoming involved in these issues, too, as the Clean Streams Accord has morphed into the Sustainable Dairying: Water Accord.

“Things have become more proscribed for farmers, but this has happened as farms have got bigger.

“You’ve now got rising plate meters and ways of measuring things from a distance so you can support it for your Queen Street farmer.”

And what will she do in retirement?

She is headed for Golden Bay where she will maintain contact with dairy farming and with local Federated Farmers. She will be doing a lot of walking (the Heaphy Track is on her agenda), she hopes to find somewhere to continue the choral singing she enjoys and – in short – she intends “to have fun”.