Ask an Ag Minister: New Zealand's Nathan Guy - Modern Farmer

Ask an Ag Minister: New Zealand’s Nathan Guy

New Zealand's ag minister Nathan Guy chats with us about climate change, China and, yes, sheep.

Nathan Guy, New Zealand’s agriculture minister, fears there are a few misconceptions about his home country. “I’d like to think New Zealand is known overseas for more than just sheep!” he laughs. “We’ve got so many global high achievers in all fields now, like Lorde, Peter Jackson, the America’s Cup – the list goes on.”

Guy is good-natured about it, but he’s hit on something: Around the globe, the popular conception of New Zealand agriculture is sheep, sheep and more sheep. A widely circulated figure – that sheep outnumber humans there by 20-to-1 – has helped bolster this legend. Australia is notorious for making risque jokes about New Zealand farmers and their sheep. Then there’s Shrek, New Zealand’s celebrity sheep, who lived in a cave for seven years, growing out a mind-bogglingly thick wool coat. And let’s not forget New Zealand’s sumptuous Merino wool, widely viewed as the finest in the world.

But much like the country’s cultural exports, New Zealand is becoming known globally for an increasing’array of agricultural products. Dairy certainly tops the list (New Zealand is the eighth-largest milk producer in the world) but the island nation also exports large quantities of beef, stone fruit, wine and (of course) kiwis.

Guy is a career politician, formerly serving as minister of internal affairs and minister of immigration, racing and veterans’ affairs. But lest you doubt his ag cred: The man grew up on a sheep farm and got his undergrad degree in agriculture. Guy took over his role (the official title is “minister for primary industries”) last January, and he’s been running full tilt ever since. Between meeting with domestic farmers and traveling the world to strengthen trade-partner ties, Guy rarely finds himself with a free moment.

He took a moment out of his whirlwind schedule to talk with us about climate change, China and, yes, sheep.

Modern Farmer: What is your background in farming?

Nathan Guy: Agriculture is in my blood. My family has farmed for generations near Levin, about an hour and a half’s drive north of Wellington – New Zealand’s capital city.

Originally this was a sheep and small dairy farm. Then it became a bull-beef fattening operation, with much of the beef destined for the grinding market in your country. About 10 years ago, we replaced the beef operation with more dairy cows.

MF: How does farming compare to politics? Do you ever wish you were working with the land?’

NG: Well, they are both time-consuming careers that take a lot of dedication and hard work, often with early-morning starts. Sometimes when I’m sitting in Parliament I think about the farm, but I’m lucky enough to get out there most weekends.

I also travel around New Zealand a lot to visit farmers and producers. I could easily sit in my office reading reports all day, but it’s very important to get the gum boots on and see things firsthand.

MF: What do you think the most pressing agricultural issue is for New Zealand right now?’

NG: Biosecurity is my No. 1 priority as minister. New Zealand is an isolated country, which means we don’t have a lot of the pests and diseases that other nations do. We have to be extremely vigilant at the border, because if something slips through it could do enormous damage to our economy.

MF: What effects are New Zealand farmers seeing from climate change? How are they coping?’

NG: We’ve had some punishing dry spells recently. This time last year the entire North Island and parts of the South Island were officially in drought. Right now some parts of the country are again very dry.

At the moment, we only capture’and store about 2 percent of our rainfall. This isn’t good enough. We don’t have a shortage of water in this country – we have a lack of water-storage facilities. To cope with this we’re investing in irrigation and water-storage projects. As a government, we are investing $80 million [New Zealand dollars] into kick-starting these projects across the country.

MF: Chinese dairies are using a lot of New Zealand milk. Can you explain this situation?’

NG: There is a huge demand in China for New Zealand milk powder. We have a reputation for producing safe, topquality products, which is very important to consumers – especially parents of young children.

New Zealand was the first country to sign a free-trade agreement with China in 2008, and the results have been spectacular. Trade has exploded, particularly in dairy, which is a third of our exports to China. China is now our biggest trading partner – a big shift. Historically, countries like the U.K., Australia and the U.S. have been our biggest markets.

MF: We used to always hear that there were 20 sheep for every person in New Zealand. Now that ratio has dropped to 7-to-1. What’s the shift about?

NG: Partly, the great success of dairy has encouraged some farmers to shift, like in my own family. But a big part is also technology and productivity. For example, we now produce the same amount of sheep meat we did in the 1980s, but with half the number of sheep. New Zealanders have always been extremely innovative and quick to find new ways of doing things.

MF: How significant are sheep to New Zealand’s economy? What about its sense of national pride?’

NG: People used to say that New Zealand was built on the sheep’s back, and they have played a huge part in our national identity. But it’s fair to say our economy – and culture – is a bit more diverse now. Dairying is obviously big for us, but we also have world-class wine, seafood and agritechnology.

MF: Would you say there’s a conflict between New Zealand’s dairy-farming and ecotourism industries?’

NG: Balancing economic growth with environmental sustainability is always going to be a major issue. We’re doing a lot of work on improving water quality in our lakes and rivers and getting community consensus around this.

If anything, farming has become its own tourist attraction. In Rotorua we have busloads of Japanese and Chinese tourists lining up to see sheep-shearing demonstrations, and there are lots of farm-stay accommodations across the country.

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