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Federated Farmers' Katie Milne opens up about the changing times

Katie Milne. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

After breaking a 118-year history of male leadership of Federated Farmers, Katie Milne wants to convince townies that rural folk are the same at heart.

When you take the head of Federated Farmers, Katie Milne, out for lunch, it’s redundant to ask if we’re going to eat meat.

“Ha! Yeah. You know what I saw on there,” she says, gesturing at the menu, “and wanted to have a go at and share? That crackling.” Have a go at! She’s a West Coast sheila through and through. I ordered the crackling. She had the beef and bacon burger and chips; I had black pudding and spuds. We were having a health lunch. “We are. We are,” she says. “It’s Friday. It’s a mental health day when you’re eating great stuff like this, isn’t it?” We cracked into the crackling.

She was wearing mufti. “Today is civvy Friday. I’ve got on a pair of chinos and a pair of leather sneakers, ’cos they’re comfy as, and a linen shirt. But the rest of the week I was in a suit with a nice blouse underneath. A girly blouse, flowery. I’ve got high heels at home, but I’ve given them up. It’s too hard. Look, I’ve been in gumboots too long.”

She has never been a “girly girl”. She had had her photograph taken before our lunch; she hadn’t bothered with make-up. She does have her make-up done for telly appearances, “because those years out in the sun, you’re just going to be one big ultraviolet-exposed block of blotches. But I wash it off pretty quick.”

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Does it matter what image she projects? It does for two reasons: because she is a modern farmer, and part of her job is to change the image of farmers, and to sell them to urban folk as the good guys and girls. So, image counts. She is, at 48, the first female head of Federated Farmers in its 118 years. She is five months into the three-year term. In Wellington, where she’s based, she lives in a hotel, which she says is “fairly hideous”. She means living in a hotel instead of on the farm. She’d be severely homesick if she wasn’t so busy, and if she let herself think too much about it. When she does get home to the farm, she “can let my hair down and be naughty and have a few drinks. There’s the odd person at home who goes: ‘Oh, that Katie Milne’s quite serious, isn’t she? Is it the same Katie Milne? Have you got a double up there?’”

She has never actively sought leadership roles or thought of herself as ambitious – “I just wanted a fair deal for farmers” – but as a young farmer she got involved in rural issues where she would be the only woman in the room, and the youngest by some way. Which led to Fed Farmers and being on the board. “Then people started saying, ‘Hey, why don’t you offer some choice? Why don’t you put your hand up? We like your style.’”

Milne: seeking “a fair deal” for farmers. Photo/Milne family collection

What is her style? “I don’t really know. I’m pretty earthy and organic, I guess. More just matter of fact and I say it how it is. But I think outside the square a lot. I like to challenge people in their thinking and make them aware of other ideas or things that may be an opportunity or a threat coming down the line at farmers.”

She says: “Times have changed. ‘She’ll be right’ ain’t she’ll be right any more.” And now there’s a woman in the job. “That’s right. It’s a bit of a different look, isn’t it?” It is. But does it matter? “Yes and no. Because it’s about the skill set, being able to communicate well and being able to understand the issues and do a good job. So, that part doesn’t matter that I’m a woman.”

Except that the fact that she is in the job at all represents progress, indicating that Federated Farmers is a progressive institution, which matters keenly to her. As does reminding people that farmers are good jokers. “Part of this role for me is I’ve just been trying to remind people that farmers are producing food and they’re good Kiwis and they have the same things at heart that everyone does. I like to get people to think openly.”

She was waving her knife while saying this, so she can be persuasive. I ask if she shoots. She snorts, and gives me a withering look. Of course she shoots and of course she’s a bloody good shot. As a joke, I ask whether she has mounted animal heads in her house, and of course she does.

So, yes, she is persuasive, but are ­townies going to get her message? Perhaps it is a failure of Federated Farmers that farmers are misunderstood. “It’s not a failure of Federated Farmers, it’s an aspect of the fact that people don’t go out on the land as much as they once did, so there’s a natural disconnect. It happens all over the world where people are moving from rural areas to cities for jobs. So, it’s a feature of society changing … and heightened awareness of different things.”

With daughter Andi. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

Shall we do cows? How can she ­persuade people to think openly about cows? Many people, at least townies, think that we’ve got too many cows and that they are the devil’s spawn. “It’s an interesting thing. I’ve coined a phrase cow phobia, and I feel there’s a fair bit of cow phobia around irrigation. If we knew what we know now 15, 20 years ago, there are some places in New Zealand or some catchments where you might not have put cows, or you wouldn’t have put so many.”

We are, she says, “at peak cow for the systems we’ve got. That might change with technology, but we can get more production out of the cows we’ve got by feeding them differently and being more efficient.”

What about irrigation? “It gets a bad rap at the moment and it misses some of the point about food production: it gives you security that your crops aren’t going to fail. Back in Roman times, they figured out how to get water to crops so that everyone wouldn’t starve.”

On the Canterbury Plains, she says, the landscape has changed with the removal of shelter belts to make way for big irrigation systems. Change can be heartbreaking. “It’s more efficient, but at the same time I know what those farmers went through. Those farms have been in their families for generations. Their great-grandparents planted those trees and I know guys who sat at the kitchen table with a whisky bottle, gutted, and probably a few tears were shed.”

This is a story about empathy; any townie who has lost a tree can understand. But change is good. “Now that that’s been done, I start to see the potential. So, instead of having a macrocarpa shelter belt, you’ve now got water, you’re going to be able to have flax, toetoe and manuka … which all add biodiversity and will bring the birds back to the plains. Macrocarpa’s no good for tui.” She says: “Don’t you pull the flax flowers off at Christmas and suck out the nectar?”

I tell her I was at a lunch recently with an organic vegetable farmer who thought she may have the right ideas, or better ideas, but that she was in the minority. I paraphrased: she is a sort of freak farmer.

Milne in advocacy mode.

“Ha, ha. Well, that’s an interesting position and, yes, we have ageing farmers who are used to doing it the way they’ve done it. But there’s been a big shift and we’ve got a lot of younger farmers coming through who embrace changing and doing things differently.”

She says one thing townies forget, or don’t know, about farmers is that they farm because they love their land and their animals. Bad-news stories, as she knows, are news. But she says a lot of older farmers have quietly “led this charge too and quietly chipped away doing good things, but haven’t put their head up above the parapet. Why would you, say, if you’ve got a lot of bush on your farm that you’ve chosen to leave, and a lot of farms do, where generations have left it because they like it? I know guys who don’t want to put their hand up and celebrate it because they’re frightened someone will come along and regulate it. ‘Because we’ve got to protect that, because you’re a farmer and we can’t trust you.’”

She says she is a conservationist, but not a protectionist. She and her partner, Ian Whitmore, have 125ha, of which 29 are in native bush. They like it and they like the birdlife and they look after it, as did the generations before them.

Ask what she thinks is the stereotype of farmers and she says, “Well, it’s a bit of the Fred Dagg thing, isn’t it?” A Fred Dagg who now uses emojis. The head of Federated Farmers is fond of the thumbs-up one. She has videos of her foxie-cross, George, on her phone. George, she says, has a bigger Twitter following than she does.

Still, it would come as no surprise to learn that she had baby gumboots instead of booties. Her grandparents were farmers, her mother is a farmer. She lives with Whitmore on the West Coast, near Lake Brunner, on the family farm they bought from his parents. Their daughter, Andi, has recently returned to the farm with her husband. The odd one out in this farming family is Milne’s father, who is an accountant and went to work every day in a suit and tie.

With a calf.

“My whole life he was in a suit … and at the ­weekends he gets his overalls on. He gets stuck in. He loves it and you would swear he ­deliberately found the biggest shit hole or filth hole to get in. He just loved it and he was as much of a hindrance as a help for Mum, because she had all her systems in place … You couldn’t fault the enthusiasm, but if there was someone who was going to stand in the wrong place, it would be Dad!”

She had what sounds like an idyllic childhood for “a tomboy” – she has two brothers either side of her – mucking about on the farm, “in the scrub or the bush or running around the creek doing our own thing”.

On Christmas holidays they would go to her maternal grandparents’ farm in South Westland and play 500 by candlelight “after the generator was turned off. That’s where my social skills – or lack of, depending on your viewpoint – came from. Grandad would take us up the side creeks of the Mahitahi River and Flagstaff Creek to rescue native fish stranded in pools.”

She met Ian at “the lake” when she was about 15 and he was 19. They have never married. That would involve a frock, heels and the dreaded make-up. She had Andi when she was 18. She was supposed to be a good Catholic girl. Did her parents mind? “They were as shocked as hell!” Was she? “It wasn’t what I’d planned, put it that way.”

I ask “Is Ian lovely?”, and she snorts like mad. “Ha, ha, ha. He’s hardly someone you’d describe as lovely. Well, he’s my soulmate. It’s why it’s worked, I suppose. There’s things he does that piss me off. Oh, just normal man shit that they do at times, and then there’s things he’ll do out of left field, and I’ll think: ‘How the hell did that fellow think of that?’”

She means romantic things. “It depends on what you think is romantic, doesn’t it?” What would she think of as romantic? “Ha. Let’s not even go there. No, he’s bought me the odd bouquet of flowers.”

I thought she might prefer a new tyre for the tractor. So, does she like to get a bouquet of flowers? “I really did like it. He’d been away on a tahr-hunting trip for 10 days and on the way home he thought, ‘I’ve had some fun. Better look after the old lady a bit.’” That is very sweet. “Yeah. That’s not your stereotypical West Coast farming bloke, is it?”

And she is not your stereotypical West Coast farming sheila. She is a volunteer firefighter, she shoots but also schmoozes. Is she any good at schmoozing? “I’m a West Coaster. I can do anything. And I’m a girl. I can do anything.”

This article was first published in the December 23, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.