3 Nov 2017

Urban rural divide a myth - Fonterra chairman

8:29 pm on 3 November 2017

Fonterra chairman John Wilson has denied there is a urban rural divide, saying farmers, like everyone else, want swimmable rivers.

Fonterra chairman John Wilson says farmers want swimmable rivers too.

Fonterra chairman John Wilson says farmers want swimmable rivers too. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Mr Wilson told about 300 shareholders at the milk giant's AGM that it was disappointing to see farming politicised during the election.

He told farmers gathered in a specially-remodelled product storeroom at the Whareroa plant in Hāwera that he had expected the worst in the run up to the election.

"Being an election year, water rights and the quality of our nation's waterways were always going to be part of the national conversation.

"While it was disappointing to read and hear about a supposed rural urban divide being leveraged for political gain, it did galvanise our rural communities and the wider agricultural industry."

Mr Wilson said divide was a myth.

"There is no rural urban divide when it comes to water quality. We all want swimmable waterways everywhere across New Zealand. Every dairy farmer wants to pass on their land to the next generation in a better condition than they found it."

Kevin O'Sullivan said many townies have no idea where milk comes from.

Kevin O'Sullivan said many townies have no idea where milk comes from. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

However, South Taranaki farmer Kevin O'Sullivan saw it differently - and he was not alone.

"Well I think there is a big divide between rural and urban.

"Years ago everyone knew somebody who was on a farm, but today they don't. A lot of people don't know where their milk comes from or where they get an egg."

Mr Wilson said dairy farming could continue to produce healthy economic returns without costing the environment and it was vital the government worked with Fonterra to achieve this.

Inglewood farmer Victor McIntyre said he was not ready to make a call on the Labour-led Government.

"It's just too early to tell actually. I think there'll be a big difference between the rhetoric in the election campaign and actually what's going to be delivered.

"So we've just got to wait and see really."

Inglewood farmer Thomas McIntyre was taking a wait and see approach on the Labour-led Government.

Thomas McIntyre was optimistic about the new government. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Mr McIntyre said it had not been a good look to use farmers as a political football.

"It's disappointing for a start because it doesn't actually represent ... what's happening in the rural community as far as [the] environmental effort that goes in.

"And certainly in Taranaki, here you can see just the amazing progress that's been made."

Fellow farmer Thomas McIntyre was more optimistic about the new government.

"I don't have a problem with the new government, they will do what their election manifesto says ... and we will meet their needs.

"But we're already achieving well ahead of that in most cases anyway."

But former National MP and coastal Taranaki farmer Shane Ardern was less forgiving.

"Well I think it is a mistake, I've described it as a coalition of the losers, but that's the system we've got and that's the government we've got so we'll work closely with them.

"[I've] obviously worked with a lot of those people personally and I'm now related to the Prime Minister so there you go."

Fonterra chief executive Theo Spierings, using Uber as an example, warned shareholders the company needed to be prepared for the changes technology was poised to bring to the food industry.

"We need to have that on our radar because people who connect the dots the best, and who are going to unlock value here, they are going to disrupt and they're going to win.

"And it has not happened yet in food but it's my opinion and it's John's opinion that in the next three-to-five years significant things are going to happen."

Fonterra chief executive Theo Spierings.

Fonterra chief executive Theo Spierings. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

That kind of vision was enough for Kerikeri farmer Terence Brocx to justify Mr Spierings' $8 million remuneration package.

"When you look at the performance of the company and the contribution he makes to this economy in New Zealand, I think bring it on.

"The sad thing is there are a lot of other CEOs who get paid very large amounts and the question should be asked is what do they contribute to this economy."

Milk production for the co-operative for the year was down 3 percent, but despite this the 2017 payout was $6.52 cent - up more than 50 percent on the year before.

Fonterra is predicting a $6.75 cent payout in 2018.

Shareholders ask questions of the board.

Shareholders ask questions of the board. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

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