We should be celebrating our food producers, not criticising them

It is concerning to see how New Zealand’s primary food producers are being treated at the moment, when they are so essential to a healthy New Zealand economy. The food coming off farms feeds the rural economy, which feeds the provincial economies, and ultimately means we can have our easy living in the cities. That’s just the money side of things. They also produce food envied the world over.

Things are coming to a head over water access and quality and the rural sector is fighting back as fingers are unfairly pointed at them as having the biggest impact on New Zealand’s water quality.

Construction and cities are also significant polluters of waterways. While a sub-set of city dwellers trespass onto farms and shout at people in supermarkets to share their views on food production, they ignore their own back yard. Their diets that have them visiting the bathroom frequently and lifestyles that necessitate several daily showers are reflected on their local beaches, that are unswimmable for much of the summer. On the farm, water management is a serious issue and if there is no rain, there’s often no water for those things the city dwellers take for granted. Our farmers are custodians of the land and they’ve been taking measures to protect waterways for as long as they have been on the land – some of them four and five generations.

If rural and provincial economies are going to take big economic hits that may well drive food producers out of business, we will all suffer with them. So, it is hoped that pragmatism will prevail when it comes to addressing the environmental issues facing us today.

Much of the people the RTF represents are out in those rural and provincial areas, and one of the best parts of my job is getting out to visit those people who carry the New Zealand economy.

Last week, I visited Invercargill and got to look at the operations of Southern Milk Transport, with Brett Hamilton and his team. They are part of the vital supply chain from the farm to the kitchen, transporting raw milk for processing by Open Country Dairy, both in Southland and to Open Country’s processing plant in Whanganui, in the North Island.

The team at Southern Milk Transport visit scores of farms in Southland and Otago every day – so they are in touch with dairy farmers who are bearing the brunt of environmental hostility at the moment.

I think it is important that those criticising get out and see and hear what good work is going on to promote sustainable, good businesses. That includes the government officials setting policy.

I was particularly impressed by Southern Milk Transport’s inclusive culture and commitment to diversity. More than 20 percent of their tanker drivers are women. Brett says they wouldn’t be able to meet their business requirements if they didn’t employ women and give young drivers a chance. I’m pictured, above, with just some of the women drivers from Southern Milk Transport.

Across the group nationwide, it is estimated that the average driver age is about 10 years below the industry average, which is 54.

Southern Milk Transport has also invested in health and safety with high quality equipment, tailored to include safety features.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I would urge people who think they know all there is to know about the environmental practices in primary food production to actually speak to people out there doing this work every day – not shout at them; speak to them.

We all need the rural economy. It is the bedrock of our high standard of living. The concerns our primary food producers have at the moment are seriously impacting their health and welfare. It’s important everyone considers that, in the spirit of kindness.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Embracing the changing face of road transport

Last night on Newstalk ZB, when Heather du Plessis Allan was promoting her guest, a truck driver who won the EROAD Young Driver of the Year at this week’s NZ Road Transport Industry Awards, she said “and they are not going to be what you’d expect”.

As she introduced the winner, she reiterated that she thought it was unusual to find a 27-year-old woman switching from being a barista to driving logging trucks.

Summer Thompson (pictured above, left) was a barista at Robert Harris in Tokoroa who chatted to the many truck drivers who came in for coffee and food daily. One day, she asked her now employer, Graham Sheldrake, if he taught young people to driving logging trucks.

Summer did a great interview on NewstalkZB. When asked if she got a hard time from the men, she said quite the opposite was true and everyone was incredibly supportive and helpful.

Graham Sheldrake took her on as a permanent employee and sent her out with the most experienced driver to do her training. She flew through the licences and now drives a Kenworth K200, that is a 50-max unit. As she explained to Heather, that’s a big truck.

In her acceptance speech at the awards Summer acknowledged her fellow finalist, Toni Tawhara (pictured above, right), from Talley’s Group Limited in Motueka, and showed the kind of inclusiveness and leadership we want to see coming through the industry. Toni is 25, and she is a very competent class 5 driver.

Both these young women are impressive and the line-up of finalists for the awards showed there is diversity in the industry and we need to encourage it. Of the five awards, three went to women who are showing skills and leadership, and two went to stalwarts who are still as passionate about the industry as they were when they entered. We definitely believe the young have plenty to learn from the more experienced in the industry. (You can read about all the award winners here.)

But how they learn and what they want from their career has changed and our industry needs to understand this. At the RTF Annual Conference this week, we had speakers that challenged the industry to get on board with the changing face of the workforce and to think about how they can retain good staff by being flexible to their needs.

Melanie Boyle, founder of Women Step Forward, and Margaret Kouvelis, CEO of Talent Central, talked about the opportunities that employing a diverse workforce, including women and Millennials, can bring. They encouraged a change in mindset, particularly when it comes to entrenched ideas about young people not being as hardworking as their parents.

We also presented a strong focus on health and wellbeing. Our keynote speaker Craig Membrey, from Australia, was on TVNZ Breakfast and One News on the eve of the conference and confronted the devastating issue of depression and suicide. He touched a nerve with many people and it was humbling to see him share his very personal experiences with such emotion.

Dr Tom Mulholland and Dr Lucia Kelleher covered how physical and mental health are linked and the dangers of not paying attention to both when it comes to road safety.

Employers have a responsibility to ensure the workplace meets health and safety law and for our industry, it is critical that attention is paid to this as we share the road with the public. A moment’s distraction can cost lives. At the same time, an instinctive decision borne of years of experience can save lives, as we saw in the story of our Castrol Truck Driver Hero award winner Rex Temm, from Riordan & West in Te Awamutu. His quick thinking and knowledge of how to manoeuvre his truck saved a lone toddler from wandering onto a busy State Highway One, near Tokoroa, into the path of a heavily laden logging truck.

The annual conference was two days of making connections, hearing new things, making new friends and catching up with old ones, and generally showing an industry that has challenges, but is meeting them with pragmatism.

Thanks to the organisers and to everyone who attended.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Diversity the key to future proofing our workforce

I hear a lot about a shortage of drivers in the road freight industry and the Road Transport Forum is looking to nail down where those shortages are, and what future projections are, so we can work on a sustainable workforce.

We also want to ensure our industry’s workforce is ready for whatever the future might bring.

While there is a lot of talk of driverless trucks, we need to focus on the needs for the next five years, as well as the next 20. New Zealand’s roading network is such that it may be some time before a truck can self-guide from Kerikeri to Bluff; but that’s not to say it won’t happen.

Roads have been used to trade goods since the beginning of civilisation, so it is likely there will be some form of road freight transport for some time yet.

Some immediate steps that can be taken to build a better workforce include thinking outside the square and looking at the diverse willing workers available and giving them a chance. Another way to attract workers, and I have seen evidence of this in the industry, is to offer good wages so people can establish a “career” and feel secure.

At our conference on 24 and 25 September, at Wairakei Resort, near Taupo, we have some speakers who might challenge freight operators in their workforce thinking. That’s not to say we don’t have a diverse workforce, but we possibly don’t promote that aspect of the industry well and there’s always room to grow and change.

It is interesting that despite perceptions, many women work in road transport in New Zealand. I enjoyed meeting some from Otago and Southland last Friday night in Cromwell – pictured above. These women are company directors, dispatchers, shareholders, drivers and CEOs.

They see the value of being part of a workforce that underpins the economy. New Zealand is a trading nation and all day, every day, goods are making their way to markets, firstly by truck.

Then there are the essentials of life we need in New Zealand – food, medicines, and all those packages we order on line – they all get delivered by a truck, some direct to your door.

Some of the operators I’ve spoken to are keen to employ women drivers; they think they are careful and secure employees. They’ve had one woman come through the door, and others have followed and they’ve been happy about that.

So, let’s make sure we have the facilities and the culture that make it easy for women, young people, and people from the range of cultures that make up New Zealand, to be part of our industry.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum