Sustaining generations

Murray Hemi can trace his involvement in Wairarapa Moana Incorporation (WMI) to the day he was born. On his birth, his grandmother gifted him shares in land the incorporation owns near Mangakino, in the central North Island.

“Whenever there was an AGM, for whatever reason, she would pick me up and take me there. I was the one running around the back while she was at the AGM,” he recalls.

Now a WMI Board member, Murray understands his early exposure to these meetings was all part of succession planning – preparing the next generation to protect the land for the generations to follow.

“I spent a year and a half as a junior member of the Board – my first term was in my late 20s, in the early 2000s,” he says. “This is my second term. I’ve been back on the Board for about 5 years now.”

So how did Wairarapa Moana Incorporation, with its office in Masterton, end up with a long-standing investment in the central North Island?

“In 1853, the Crown set its sights on purchasing as much land as possible in the Wairarapa, purchasing 90 percent of the land in 12–18 months,” Murray says.

“With that came a lot of land surrounding the Wairarapa lake that was an important food resource for the southern Wairarapa Māori community. Māori still owned the lakebed – and the Crown had purchased the land around the lake.”

After a 20-year legal battle, a compromise was reached. Local Māori would gift the lake to the Crown, in return for equivalent land somewhere else. The assumption was that this land would be somewhere else in Wairarapa.

“The land in Wairarapa had become increasingly valuable and the Crown wasn’t prepared to spend on that scale,” Murray says. “They did however have a whole lot of derelict land in the centre of the North Island. It was the only serious offer that was available to Wairarapa Māori so after a period of time there was an acceptance of that land.”

The journey to farming was still some time away for WMI. While they owned land, there was no infrastructure to reach it. The land remained unoccupied for close to 40 years, until the Ministry of Public Works decided some of that land would be ideal for a new hydroelectric scheme.

“We gained access in 1948 and the land was put under the stewardship of the Māori Affairs Department,” Murray says.

“The farm was positioned to be the poster project – a model demonstration of the Māori land development programme. “However it never really reached the heights expected of it. In the end the Wairarapa Moana landowners decided they didn’t want the department looking after it and got it back in 1983.” What followed was what Murray terms “becoming determiners of our own destiny”. This meant taking lessons learned from generations past and incorporating them into practice on-farm – ironically the same concepts that have forced their way into the primary sector consciousness in recent times.

“Māori farms and Māori agribusinesses have been around for a long, long time. Other cultures and societies can be invisible to those not in that world and in some ways, Māori agribusiness has been growing on its own, in its own little circle,” he says.

“It’s been a bit like the hare and the tortoise. Māori agribusiness has been slowly but steadily growing, to the point it is now more visible to other mainstream business.

“We’ve been slow, quiet achievers.”
 
The achievements have been built on finding the balance between business profit and growth and protecting the land and its resources for the generations to come. The environment – and the community – factor into every business decision.

“In the last 10 years there has been an increasing focus generally on our environment, stewardship and giving back to the natural resources in the land. Māori have come to the fore with that thinking and kaitiaki dynamic – it has become increasingly relevant in modern business,” Murray says. “The other thing that is really interesting, particularly in dairy, is the need for social licence. Māori business knows how to take the community with them – when they don’t bring their whānau along, business becomes hard for them.

“There is a need for credibility and consistency in the things that Māori businesses do, because of the focus on their own communities. Often if I look at the way Māri businesses report back, the financial returns are nice but you have shareholders and shareholder whānau wanting to know about the environment and the community, they want to know what is happening there too. It’s never just the financials – that’s often a poor third. It’s all about the environment and the social/ community development first.

“Māori agribusiness continues to focus on those two things, along with being successful, profitable businesses. That dynamic is entirely relevant these days in terms of modern, mainstream business.”

Farming a Vision
Like Murray, Chairman Kingi Smiler can trace his involvement in Wairarapa Moana Incorporation back to his formative years. He attended his first meeting in 1975 and aside from a stint living overseas in Canada, has been a regular attendee. “My mother would take me to meetings. She would ask me to read financials and if she had any questions, I would ask on er behalf.”

Family ties run strong for Kingi – in addition to being Chairman f WMI, he is also a trustee of Wi Pere Trust through his father’s side. A chartered accountant by trade, Kingi’s time at the Board able has coincided with a time of change and growth.

“The first thing we did was put together a new strategy and usiness plan for the Incorporation and whānau lands. We articulated what our vision was and what values were related o Wairarapa Moana Incorporation,” he says.

“The overarching philosophy of WMI is kaitiakitanga. We talked about being a good kaitiaki, or steward, that is going to nurture the lands and our people for future generations.”

Kingi explains that there are legal structures under Te Ture Whenua Māori which govern Māori freehold land to ensure that the land is held for future generations and not sold. Given the complexities of ownership across multiple generations, it is “virtually impossible” to sell that land. This drives the urgency to protect the land for future generations, requiring strategies to achieve this.

“Fundamentally – and intrinsically – all of our committee understand and acknowledge that. When we adapt our strategies, that is always at the forefront of our mind. “It is something unique to us in some ways – certainly from an international perspective – but is something we are able to adapt and accept without having commercial considerations being so pervasive.”

WMI identified five key goals for their journey: to grow and protect the existing land holding, become an industry leader in their primary sector interests, look beyond the farm gate to grow their holdings, create shareholder pride and give back to the current generation. It was a great achievement for the whānau to win the prestigious Ahuwhenua Trophy in 2005.

“We have certainly lifted productivity and profitability, as well as developed how we use nutrients on our farm,” Kingi explains. “We have involved AgResearch and have run a number of trials on what the impact of nutrient use was and how we might do that better.

“From an owner’s perspective, we were 100 percent sharemilkers in 2000 and progressively over time we have put our own managers on-farm. That has given more opportunities for our whānau to develop and it’s allowed us to have a more direct impact and substantially improve our return on asset.”

It was during this time that WMI transitioned away from sheep  and beef and focused primarily on their dairy operations.

“We have a contiguous property of 11,000ha, 4,000ha is in dairy and dairy support, with the remainder being forestry that surrounds the property. These significant forestry holdings position the Incorporation well for climate change and rules relating to CO2 emissions,” Kingi says.

“We wanted to not just be farmers. We wanted to take our product direct to consumers. This led to the creation of Miraka, which opened in 2011.”

The tagline of Miraka is “nurturing our world”. The business exports milk products to every continent apart from Europe and Antarctica, utilising a network of farms all within an 85km radius of its Mokai plant.

Kingi, who is also Chairman of Miraka in addition to his WMI role, says the question asked of WMI and the other shareholders was how to grow and sustain people over time, while taking their locally grown approach to the world.
 
“The story of the Miraka brand articulates the importance of our Ma¯ori values. At the forefront is our value of kaitiakitanga. The spirals which represent the forms of Ranginui (the sky father) and Papatuanuku (the earth mother) tell our story of creation, their children who created the natural world and the connected relationships we have with one another. The face of the kaitiaki symbolises the strong emphasis Miraka places on its responsibility as kaitiaki of our people and our environment for future generations. This philosophy is what drives Miraka,” Kingi says.

Incentivising Change
GM of Wairarapa Moana Farms, Trevor Hamilton had plenty on his plate before he took up the role with WMI. As owner of TH Enterprises, Trevor already has his own 8,000 cow operation with farms in Canterbury, Central Hawke’s Bay and the Central Plateau. Having been on WMI’s business advisory group for close to a decade, Trevor says giving back to the industry
drove him to accept an offer from Kingi Smiler. 

“It’s a challenge for me – and I like to be challenged,” he says. “I’m now challenging myself and WMI to optimise farm systems and planning.”

As a supplier to Miraka in his own right, Trevor has first-hand knowledge of Miraka’s farm excellence programme, Te Ara Miraka. The programme defines a clear social responsibility as an organisation, focusing on people, environment, prosperity of business, health and wellbeing of cows and the quality of the milk produced.

“Te Ara Miraka is streets above what other processors out there are doing because it is staged,” Trevor says. “It is incentivised and as you go through it, you can earn up to an additional 20c per kg of milksolids. What it does is it gets managers to fulfil opportunities you wanted them to fulfil anyway, such as looking at environment, animal welfare, human resources, effluent and everything around that, milk quality and production.

“Everything is tied into that and people can step it up accordingly.”

Trevor’s experience with his own farms shaped his opinion. Installing an additional pond added an extra 3c per kg to his pay-out, allowing him to see a tangible return on investment.

“The whole Miraka staged system will eventually see the suppliers to Miraka have higher standards. Miraka paid 2c less than the Fonterra farm gate milk price at the last pay-out but both WMI and my own business picked up 16c through Te Ara Miraka. The overall net effect was 14c above the farm gate price.

“To me – and for a business of WMI’s size – that’s a significant bonus for completing those things.”

Trevor says in the short time he has been with WMI change has been constant. They have removed cropping from rotation and have shifted to an exclusively pasture-based system. They have reviewed their animal health approach and have optimised a new programme to drive profitability.

Trevor feels WMI has achieved its objective to be a leader in its field, by stepping out in front and lifting the bar.

“They are forever lifting the bar. While we are chasing Te Ara Miraka points, they are lifting the bar on sustainability, human resources and wellbeing as well. There are around 75 staff at WMI and there is a clear goal to be a good employer as well. And all of this is independently audited, so you can’t fudge it.”

From land disputes, isolation and derelict land has grown a sustainable roadmap for future generations, as was foreseen by Wairarapa Moana Incorporation’s forebears 165 years ago. While Trevor is a late arrival, he sees a distinct value in adopting some traditional concepts in the modern pressure cooker of social licence.

“Although it’s a Māori incorporation, it comes back to ‘NZ Inc.’ as well,” he says. “It’s easy to work for a company when you believe in the culture. I believe in the culture of both WMI and Miraka.”