Mavis Mullins’ life epitomises the meaning of turangawaewae – the Maori term for knowing and being strongly connected to one’s place of origin. Mavis has always lived on family land; and alongside her husband Koro Mullins has been a director for Paewai Mullins Shearing, a fourth generation family shearing business. She’s also an active business woman and corporate governor. Mavis Mullins is a negotiator for the Rangitane Treaty Settlement, and she lives each day embraced by the spirit of her ancestors, whanau and mokopuna.
Viv Stone from The Wool Lover (TWL) was lucky enough to go on a 3 hour roadtrip with Mavis Mullins (MM) from her home on the outskirts of Dannevirke, to Herbertville on the East Coast. As we drove we had a chat about wool, land, life and her hopes for the Rangitane settlement in terms of regenerating the culture, health and economy of the people.
TWL: Is this your mum’s or your dad’s land?
MM: My dad’s. So this tupuna (ancestral) land connection comes through my dad Punga Paewai, through his mother, Mavis Barclay and then her kuia Paraneha Hori, a daughter of Hori Herehere, the first son of Paora Rangiwhakaewa, great grandson of our eponymous ancestor Rangitane. There’s a whole lot of interesting whakapapa stories, whether you want to call them complex, complicated or interesting, it’s all of that.
So this land has come through my dad and my nan. Growing up she also spent a lot of time in the shearing sheds. Because that’s what they had to do, to own land wasn’t an indicator of economic wealth back in those days. For Maori, land was just part of who you were, where it could provide sustenance, wellbeing and health, but for economic requirements there was a need to supplement your living through other means. And for our families around here supplementing income often meant farm labour work.
Actually my mum also has whakapapa to this land through her maternal grandfather Pohau Wiremu Tamihana. But that’s another story, for another time.
It’s interesting when you think back, Maori originally owned the land but were the labourers on the land for the leaseholders. So one of the aspirations that has been front of mind for many of us is, ‘how do we move from being the labourers, to the owners, to the global business owners that have a different perspective and influence over these assets?’
It feels a little like shifting sands. And that makes you a lot more appreciative of what having a long view means. For example this land will never be sold. Never. It was one of the reasons that inevitably it was left to me, because there was absolute faith from my parents that I understood that it should never be sold. And probably just as important that Koro and I could cope with the material cost of that. And so that’s my responsibility to our children and the grandchildren to make sure they understand that this land must never leave this family. Our challenge is to ensure it doesn’t become a burdensome liability. That is the challenge, we have to position this land so that it remains the taonga or treasure our tipuna envisaged and knew it to be. To make sure we always have the glass half full, and not the glass half empty - which farming families are often faced with.
Fortunately, Koro and I both strongly share these views. Of course our experience is one that comes from the shearing sheds and is founded on shared values around a valuable work ethic, Maori cultural values and rural community kinship. It’s part of a relationship legacy that goes back generations actually.
My step grandfather Lui Paewai’s first marriage was to a woman from Te Arawa - Ngati Pikiao. During the busy season of shearing he would go back to his Rotorua family and pick up family members, put them on the back of a truck and bring them here, to live and work for the shearing season. At the same time, this was happening with my dad, where he would go up the Whanganui River to Kaiwhaiki, my mum’s marae, and bring her family members to work for the shearing season. So what you had was people coming from Rotorua and Whanganui to Dannevirke to work in the shearing sheds. There’s a beautiful history of love stories between the three regions – Dannevirke, Rotorua and Whanganui.
Koro’s sisters and brothers used to come down from Rotorua to work. They ended up making Dannevirke their home, so he used to come as a kid and have holidays with them. The kids would get taken out to the sheds, and of course he learnt to work and shear. I came back from university one year during holiday break (and when we came home, we all had to work too), and there he was in the wool shed, young and buff, glistening with sweat, bulging muscles, and that’s how it went. The interesting thing is, his brother married one of my mother’s cousins from up the Whanganui River … so again, there’s just this wonderful triangular thing between Ngati Pikiao (Rotorua), Kaiwhaiki (Whanganui River) and Kaitoki (Dannevirke).
I’ve got 7 brothers and sisters. A young brother, Joe, who passed quite early, was an amazingly talented shearer. He was a specialist merino shearer, those beautiful fine woolled sheep. Shore right through Australia, he’s probably reasonably well known to most of the fine wool growers of NZ, represented NZ in several national Merino championships, and at the age of blinkin’ 45, on a shearing demonstration with Koro and David Fagan up the East Coast, had a heart attack and passed. It still feels very surreal. So there’s 6 of us left. I think there’s only two of us that have stayed with the agri-shearing-wool-primary sector. The rest have all gone out – builders, fishers, miners.
TWL: Where do you come in the line up of the seven children?
MM: I’m the first one. So I’m the eldest, and I was also lucky enough to be the eldest grandchild. Really lucky to have been able to spend a lot of time with my paternal grandmother, Mavis Barclay Paewai.
TWL: So ever since you can remember were you hanging out in woolsheds? Playing in them as a little girl, and then working in them as a young woman?
MM: Yes. That’s the memory. Seven siblings, and none of us were exempt from playing our part in the family workforce. I can remember, perhaps because I was the eldest, going with dad a lot, shearing. He’d be packed up and I’d go with him. Even when we went on stay out. Yeah it was cool. I grew up with a lot of the sons and daughters of these farmers. I can remember playing in the hallways of their beautiful big homes and helping in the shearing sheds, trying to be helpful. When Dad did less shearing and more management, he’d be on the road every day doing farm visits, or delivering groceries, so I’d be sitting in the truck or the car with him. I was very lucky.
TWL: Do you still have clients who are the children of the farmers that you grew up with?
MM: Yes, so that homestead, where I said, if we’ve got time, we’ll call in. They’re the Crosses, they are a very old family around here. The relationship started with Dad I think, and now our kids of course have all grown up and often schooled together. I’m trying to think if there’s any properties that we still do that my grandfather had. And I think there are a couple of those. So that’s going right back, 4 generations back. But it’s a cool kind of thing, we’ve known these people - we’ve been to their funerals and weddings, they’ve been to ours. When there have been tangi, these are the ones who will leave a mutton on your doorstep, a koha. You think - how lovely, how thoughtful. So it becomes more than a transactional relationship that you have, it becomes deeper. You’re all part of a community.
TWL: Your successes and sorrows and joys are
TWL: they all impact each other.
MM: Yes that’s right, it’s one of the things l love about rural communities.
TWL: Yeah there is still such a strong knowledge of that community. How important everyone is in the community as opposed to the individualism of the city. I was going to ask you, did you see the film Mahana, based on Witi Ihimaera’s wonderful book Bulibasha?
MM: It is my all time favourite book. I lived it. It’s almost like Witi was sitting at our table when he wrote that book. I’m just the biggest Witi fan. I’ve bought that book 3 times, ‘cos I forget who I’ve lent it to and they don’t give it back. I recognised the characters, the whanau relationships and obligations, the competitive nature of the people, the skill, art and romance of shearing life, the introduction of foreign workers who quickly become whanau. A story that highlighted the good and the not so good.
TWL: In the 1990s Hone Kouka a playwright, wrote a play called Waiora. Nancy Brunning was the lead female and Rawiri Paratene the lead male. I toured it in the UK. It’s another exquisite story like Bulibasha. The story of Hone’s family leaving their marae, and going into town to get work. And the kids going to school in the 70s and being told off for speaking Maori and the whole displacement and loss of culture and confidence. And it’s a beautiful piece of theatre. … It was such a success. It’s a universal story. It might be specific to Maori, but it’s a universal story
MM: I’ve done a couple of trips up to China on business delegations. One such trip was a Maori business delegation in 2010 with Minister Pita Sharples. We were in the middle of heartland China. We met with the council members of the prefecture there. These are like the local and regional council. It’s always difficult when there are translators you’re never quite sure if you are getting your story across. We’d just been out to a place called Kali City, where they’d built this city for 4 million rural people. They were bringing the people off the land, (they were all subsistence farmers) and rehousing them into the city, a readymade city, and paying them enough land rental so that they could afford to live in the city. The real objective was to collectivise the farm land to then drive bigger better efficiencies in food production. The growing need to feed a billion mouths is very real.
As New Zealanders not only had we seen this, as Maori we had lived it. We were able to share with those town fathers, what Maori went through nearly 100 years ago. I guess it had to be that way for our NZ evolution. But what we do now know is that total dislocation from your land, and the stories and the culture of it, has resulted in social complications and dysfunction that we are still dealing with today. It is not good, they are unhappy complications. And if there was one consideration that they might take into account, is that what they are doing is the right thing for them. But ensure that the people still have that connection somehow to their lands, their culture, their language. You don’t just relocate people and hope it works because if you do that, then you cut off something that kills the spirit of the people. And then you’ve got another whole problem. So that piece of theatre Waiora, I would have thought would probably be useful for some of the challenges that China is going through. But they are on such a pathway of evolution in terms of how they feed their billion people. They are doing things that they have to do. But there are good ways and better ways. I felt really pleased we were able to share something. Whether or not it is taken up or not, but good just being able to share that.
MM: Witi’s Dad was an old shearer, Tom Smiler. I knew him quite well. He was an old shearer, and he’d go to the local Gisborne shearing show, he’d be by himself watching, so I’d go over and just sit and chat. He also went to the FoMA (Federation of Maori Authorities) conference when it was held in Gisborne, it was always nice to see him, I had no idea he was Witi’s dad.
TWL: So you’d go to those too?
MM: Yes. I have chaired a couple of the Maori incorporations. So FoMA is almost like the brown Federated Farmers. Although the membership has now evolved, it’s not just about farming anymore, it’s about fish and iwi and general Maori entities, business and not for profit. When I first got involved it was really about the Maori land based assets, multiple owned land blocks, usually quite sizeable. These entities are required to be compliant to the Te Ture Whenua Maori Land Act, put in place as a safeguard for Maori land ownership. It’s a complicated piece of legislation and although there to be a protection mechanism, can now be confining and limiting.
FoMA used to do some great advocacy work. The annual conference would be a huge event where all the non equity, non-parity issues were discussed, strategized and then advocated for in Wellington. Some great advances were achieved from taxation to producer board reform to the acknowledgement of charitable status for entities distributing education grants etc. This was my introduction to the strength of Maori political advocacy
TWL: So that’s where you started all of the governance work, through FoMA?
MM: Probably, I just didn’t realise at the time, that’s what I was doing!
TWL: Were your parents or grandparents involved in FoMA? You just started doing it yourself?
MM: No they weren’t, although my dad was politically minded, and wasn’t afraid to get involved. He spoke at the first Hui Taumata where the future of Maori economic and cultural aspirations were discussed. I was encouraged at a reasonably young age to be involved in those meetings. “You’re clever. Go to those land meetings. See what’s going on. Come back and tell us what is happening”. I got encouraged to take more of an interest. I enjoyed it. It was so interesting how a group of people could get together, then make a difference, to change the world of the people at home through their desire to see the right things happen, their networks, their oratory and debating skills, their tenacity.
Things like the voting on the producer boards. Maori land was multiple owned, so quite significant in size, but the producer boards were about one man one vote. So Maori landholders farming 60,000 stock units had the same vote, as someone who owned an orchard with 10 sheep. It was of course terribly unfair and any attempt to bring Maori representation to the board table was always blocked even though we were a majority levy payer and producer. When this stranglehold couldn’t be broken the only other option was to break up the producer boards. This led to the producer board reforms, and the break up of a monopolistic regime. It shows that the power of the people can be expressed in a lot of ways, and to never under estimate the power of a dis-affected group.
I think the big thing with wool is to get our long game really clear in our minds. What does that long game look like? Once you’ve got that, regardless of the hills and valleys, there is clarity around the direction. I’ve been lucky enough to experience that in a number of different entities or ventures I’ve been involved in. I think about the 2 Degrees story. We started in 2000. It took us 9 years to get the legislation right to enable a fair competitive environment . So that’s just setting your boxing, before you pour your concrete, it’s not a 5 minute job. It’s like a painter, they say the best job is 70% preparation, 30% doing. We just have to get over that short term view, and say, this is the long game, and it’s going to take us 5 years to build the boxing, pour the concrete before we get to build the house. And once we understand that, it can be quite liberating.
TWL: One of the things that we love about wool, besides the fibre itself is that for us, wool represents everything that is the best about NZ. This should be our point of difference, and we can’t sit by and lose it completely. If we can rebuild a NZ wool brand, it’s not only good for the wool industry but it’s also good for NZ. It’s about everything that we’re passionate about and stand for. Natural, renewable, safe, resilient, warm.
MM: Wool has such a magical story, it’s a magical product, and it has a beautiful social history around it that does define New Zealand. That pioneering start ... “our country built off the sheeps back”. Whether it be a Maori history or a Pakeha history, we share it in a wool history. We’ve done some amazing things. We have been world leaders with wool, and we’ve just dropped the ball, right at the end bit, the try line.
TWL: Well we’ve never been very good at the end bit. With some noticeable exceptions like Icebreaker and now Allbirds, and there are others as well. But we’ve traditionally been the wool growers, not the product developers so we lose all the value don’t we?
MM: For a start you think about wool products. Who’s buying them? And it is predominantly woman. This was the same with the NZ Meat Board. A boardroom full of men. Did they buy meat for the family meals? Did they cook that meat? So you have this whole infrastructure, where the real consumer is locked out of the decision making, influencing process.
Women can become this overlooked voice every time. We never actually get to be part of the conversation or the imagination of these products. You are never invited, well, one or two might be. But you need the diversity to enable the whole picture. It continues to frustrate me. I keep looking at our wool product and think, we are the champagne of wool, wool is the champagne of fibre. What the hell is going on. There’s something just so powerfully wrong. And the only thing I can think of is that 50% of the population have been and are continually excluded from the thinking, the imagining, the planning, the decision making.
Again we are happy to be the price takers and not the price makers. Being about volume and not value.
TWL: In addition to your corporate governance work you are also actively involved in representing your iwi. You chair the local Rununga, and you are a negotiator for the Rangitane Treaty Settlement. How’s that going?
MM: With regards to our local Treaty settlement, we are through it, completed, and now resourced to a point where we can have a different conversation. I was recently with Margaret Mutu. Her latest piece of research is about the collateral damage of the Treaty settlement process. People think these settlements are a great thing. And they are, but they are also very complex. For instance these Treaty settlements have caused further ructions that will divide families again for the next century.
Following the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi when the land agents were covering the country purchasing huge tracts of Maori land, motivations and behaviours were appalling. In this area, Kaitoki, when the agents came enquiring who the land belonged to, all the people put their hands up, and there were 100’s who lived here. They were told only 10 people could be recorded as the landowners, so the people had to meet and select 10 people for the documentation of the sale agreement. That became an ill-defining time for Maori going forward, highlighting the lack of understanding of the difference between ownership and kaitiakitanga. The Treaty settlement is almost another repeat of that situation. It is again going to take time to heal.
TWL: What kind of families are the ones that get picked? Is it families who are more articulate, and have the resources to be in the negotiation process?
MM: I am not sure, possibly a bit of that and of course whakapapa (geneology) but what a fascinating experience it would’ve been listening to the families and elders deciding who should take those representative roles. Key word being “representative”, but of course we now know it was about ownership, a totally foreign concept. We could ask ourselves, “is this happening again through this settlement process? Are we selecting the 10 families for the next 100 years?’. For me this is about what have we learnt from the Treaty in the first place? What do we need to do better? When they signed the Treaty, Maori were in a place of power and control (almost, sort of). Whereas we are in a place now where we aren’t in a position of power. Our babies are dying, children don’t have homes, children don’t have fathers. Our education system doesn’t cater to our learning needs. Our mortality rate is still higher than the general population.
We start this time in a different position of understanding. And hopefully we’ve also learnt the lesson of interpretation. What does that mean? We’ve got a minister, Chris Finlayson whom I admire very much. He’s taken on the trickiest job and is really trying his hardest to be fair through it. Minister Finlayson is an historian. He loves history. So it’s meaningful to him and he’s inquisitive. He’s searching and seeking for the right solutions. So he understands what needs to happen, but he has Treasury who need these settlements to be as “cost effective” as possible. Impossible tensions, I say. All we want is a fair hearing and a fair settlement.
TWL: What’s does the Treaty negotiation involve?
MM: It is a process – from agreeing a Terms of Negotiation to Agreement in Principle, to Initialling a Deed of Settlement, to a first to third Reading in Parliament, then the Legislation. All the while continually seeking mandate and approval from the Iwi. Then of course there is the issue of Overlapping Claims and the ongoing negotiations to find agreement. Our third reading is next month, 10th August. And once that third reading is supported through parliament, it is then the mechanics of transfer of Crown lands and cash. The machinery of government has to enact the settlement agreements. It’s close, it’s not far away which is exciting.
I’ve not been involved in iwi politics before. I am not a fan, it’s not particularly nice. The Rangitane process began in the 1970’s and is only just coming close to resolution some forty five years later. That’s a long time. So you have a group of people who have been engaged for decades. The expectations are “this is going to fix the world” and unfortunately it isn’t. How do you manage these expectations? Our message is, “This isn’t the end, this is just the beginning. This is providing us with a platform to build a different future.”
And then for example with cultural redress, our people gave us in excess of 100 sites that have cultural significance to be returned, and the Crown says “you can only have 8.” We had to go back to the people and say “oh sorry uncle, we can only do 8 sites of cultural redress”. None of this has been easy. We have tried to rationalise this by encouraging the development of a 100 year plan. Let’s be smart. Let’s start with the ones that are absolutely not negotiable. Then what’s the priority, and the next and the next. So that every decade the PSGE (Post Settlement Governance Entity) have very clearly in front of them the expectation of the people about what we want back.”
TWL: That’s great!
MM: It is great, it works in theory, giving it truth is the next challenge. But then would we better off trying to lift education standards? or seeing how we can live healthier happier lives? it’s all a trade off. The people, the land, the environment, the list goes on.
It’s not just about land. And in fact we met with a banker the other day, and he said, “does Rangitane have a land strategy?” I said no, not right now. We have a total geographic overlap with Ngati Kahungungu. They have aspirations to be landowners. So why would we? Let’s just pick those properties or land that have absolutely high value, and leave the rest, let’s support them to achieve their aspiration, and let us focus on something else. Because with any luck once we are all settled, it will be how Maori can work together. Not just focusing on Iwi. I think I’m being quite naïve about it but I want to stay with that for a little longer. Until it gets squashed out of me.
We’ve done a State of the Rangitane Nation report through Ernst & Young. Where are we now? What do we look like? This will help us prioritise our strategies going forward. I think one of the things we understand is Ngai Tahu and Tainui were absolutely focused on building equity, they wanted to build wealth. And it’s taken them just under 20 years to get to that billion dollar magic number. And now it’s about circling back to the people. They’ve been doing that for the last 5 years – circling back to pick up the people. So for Rangitane – we’re nowhere near as grand or as capitalised. Our strategy is, we’re never anytime soon going to get to that billion dollar mark, we probably won’t get that for a 100 years if we’re lucky. So that’s not going to be a sensible target, but how do we grow wealth incrementally and invest in the people at the same time? A parallel strategy which sounds sensible but you‘ve got to have some real smarts in terms of that investment. How do we make that really rock? It not only needs to feed itself, but it needs to feed the people as well.
TWL: Can you have an advisor who’s not Rangitane, but who will act on your behalf?
TWL: Yes, we have - the PSGE. We have put out expressions of interest to populate our commercial arm. We don’t care if they’re black, white, red, gender, it matters not. We want the best people. The structure will enable Rangitanetanga, we need some specific business and investment skills and expertise. We have developed a SIPO (Statement of Investment Policy Objectives) as an initial guiding document, but this team will have to be free to do what they do best. Our job will be to ensure we have those skills at the table.
We have been able to build some internal expertise. When we signed our AIP (Agreement in Principle) which is nearly a year ago now we acquired a payment on account, which is approximately 10% of your agreed quantum. We were able to negotiate a $10m payment, in our management already. We have used a number of reputable fund managers.
TWL: Great. So you’ve got a sense of what returns you’re getting and whose a good communicator and stuff?
MM: I am fortunate enough to chair Potama Trust. We have a $35m capital fund. We manage the investment and all the interest is invested in working to enhance Maori business. Potama’s 28 years old, so we’ve been doing this for some time. We want people who can do it better than us. Then we look at the other assets we have, there are also some small parcels of land. We have Genesis shares which are doing well. It is about having a balanced portfolio to enable sensible management of risk.
It will be our job to have a communications strategy that keeps everyone informed. The cultural revitalisation component is important. It is about giving Rangitane the chance to be the Rangitane they desire to be.
TWL: What kind of size is Paewai Mullins shearing company?
MM: The business has always been about the people. At the moment, we have at least 10-12 shearers. 8-10 wool handlers, 4 wool pressers. 30 odd people say. That number would double from December through to March. It gets to be quite a big logistical operation. We cover almost coast to coast, south to Pahiatua and North to the Hawkes Bay. As we know sheep populations have gone from 70 million when we were in our heyday to something like just sub 30 million. So a real change in the demographic and in the use of the land. It’s weather dependent work, you can’t call it full time because if there is a couple of weeks of constant rain, there’s no sheep work that you can do.
It also depends on the seasonal farming cycle. There’s a lot of farmers who like to shear their sheep pre lamb, because it makes the sheep better mothers, the sheep will seek shelter to have their babies. If they are full woolled then they are less mindful to seek shelter. They’ll have a baby right out in the middle of an open paddock. Not all farmers will shear their ewes pre lamb, so all they may require is for the shearers to clean up the sheeps’ backsides, crutching. This means the farmer doesn’t have to look at them again until spring.
TWL: Is there as much competition amongst shearing companies as there’s always been?
MM: There is, there is. I think a lot of that is because when you’ve got the wool price as squeezed as it is, a farmer will change their shearing contractor to find a saving of 5 cents. And that’s another part of the puzzle, for those shearing contractors that want to invest in the sector by investing in people and training, safe vehicles and so on, there’s a cost to that, it is more about having a great and safe environment for staff. Often the returns are not financial and that is difficult when the margins are already small. If you are a new shearing contractor entering the sector, there are very few barriers to entry, meaning a great shearer may be approached to pick up some friends and come shear some sheep with no overhead costs and therefore no investment into the sector. It is challenging for those wishing to shift the dial in terms of perceptions and lifting levels of professionalism.
For a farmer a cheaper price can be attractive, I get that. But I keep thinking, if farmers don’t invest and support the industry and this sector for the long term, it could disintegrate. If you get a shearer who hasn’t been through the right kind of training, he is more likely to cut the sheep, he’ll cut the wool staple. If you’ve got wool handlers that don’t understand processing faults, you can get a work standard that devalues rather than adds value to the product. All of this represents a loss in value for the wool, the animal, the farmer, the economy. We are fast losing our skilled work force to offshore opportunities. When farmers negotiate down and erode the margins, this stops the investment in training, the investment in health and safety, the investment in being a sustainable business. You end up on this treadmill going nowhere. It takes you down, it doesn’t build the industry or the business. So that means, when and if things do come right we will not be ready. It’s like the building trade, when they stopped all those apprenticeships. And then we have an earthquake and need thousands of houses a month, and we’ve got no builders. That’s going to be part of the challenge for us, if we do start to build the value of wool again, I’m just not sure we’ve got the people anymore. For our business Paewai Mullins Shearing it’s a little bit different because we choose to train our people, but it is endless and can become overwhelming.
TWL: As a business woman you’re often away from home. How do you find going into the city and into board rooms? How many times a month would you be either in Auckland or wellington?
MM: I’m probably away from home two nights a week. I love what I do. I really enjoy governance. I enjoy the opportunity to think big, look big, and to try and have impact that can shift the dial for the better. There’s nothing more satisfying than dreaming big and then working to make it a reality. That is why New Zealand is so cool. We are a small, compact, connected country, it means ordinary people can have a big influence, have a big impact. If we lived in the States, even Australia, I doubt whether the same opportunities would be available to ordinary people.
TWL: You are happy in both environments?
MM: Yes, I’m very comfortable. It gives for a rich life. I enjoy the buzz and rigour of a boardroom, but love the simplicity of a rural lifestyle. It gives for a rich understanding of a broader range of things. I have been involved in policy and economic development, and that is in the bubble of Wellington, young smart policy writers. I feel confident I can put the lens of the little hairdresser from Dannevirke or the shearing contractor that’s driving these rural roads, to that policy. I can put a face to it, and say “that will never work”. It might work in the cities, but it won’t work out in the little towns of New Zealand. There is greater recognition that provincial NZ does have a big part to play. Everyone thought it was all in the cities, but the provinces are key. Even when you get to Auckland, those big corporates all have a primary sector base. It’s cool.
As these little mokopuna start getting bigger and get a little more time demanding, there will come a time where I need to reassess where I put my energy.
TWL: Well hopefully you’ll have some capital to develop business and employment and infrastucture for Rangitane that will keep you really busy do you think?
MM: I hope so. But I’m always very mindful that you can’t stay closeted in your environment. The value is when you go out, and then come back in. That’s when you get the sparks, the diamonds that can make a real difference.
TWL: How would you merge your passion for wool, and say your hopes and dreams and desires for the Rangitane iwi of what could come. How you could build a prosperous future. What does that look like for you?
MM:. That would really be around the fact that Maori are hard wired to the land. The next factor is that some lands are best suited for a whole number of reasons to sheep and beef. If it’s too steep, too fragile, too prone to landslip, these lands will always be where sheep make sense. Lighter footprint, less impact on land stability, lighter requirement for water. So while there are sheep, wool should always be a product of that animal.
Maybe we can engage in high end science to understand how we convert wool protein into nutraceutical foods or health products? So not just a premium fibre product but a protein product as well.
We’re heading out to Herbertville here. Getting closer to the beach.
We have to change the story of wool, we have to really understand what its role is for future consumers. We have to invest more in the R+D so that we are on top of new developments, new customer preferences. There’s got to be more uptake of technology to drive efficient farming. We’ve got to lift not just the story of wool, but the story of farming. It is the coolest life. Everyone thinks, and even careers advisors, farming is for those kids that can’t do anything else. It’s about how we retell that whole story, it’s not just the wool story it’s the land story it’s the agri story.
TWL: But farming to me also feels like it’s for those kids that are going to inherit land. That nobody else can afford to buy it.
MM: If only that were true. For many young farm raised people, they want to live and work in London or Europe. They don’t want to come home. It’s not worth having young people coming home to the family farm and hating it.
There are some long established legacy farming families who are selling.
TWL: They’re not doing a good job of it, because they are not skilled and don’t want to be there?
MM: They’re probably well skilled. These are probably young people who have been to varsity, they’ve got their B-Com plus their B-Ag. The everyday tasks of farming can be quite lonely. And it’s hard because very little is in your control. You can’t control foreign exchange, you can’t control commodity prices, you can’t control the weather. It can be quite oppressive when things don’t go right. Which is why we need more uptake of smart technologies and even AI (artificial intelligence).
The new technology will enable farming from your office, anywhere in the world, with electronic tags to track your livestock, sensors that tell you the dry matter in paddock A is below an optimum point, triggering automatic gate openers. Drone technology to check water troughs, sensors to enable fenceless farming. So it will be different, and it will appeal to young ones who are tech savvy.
It is also being more connected to your end consumer, where a relationship can be formed between the fibre you are wearing and the animal in its natural environment.
TWL: Which is what’s so clever about NZ Merino isn’t it? The fixed price contracting?
MM: It’s the fixed price, it’s the authenticity of the story and it’s the relationship with the value chain through to end consumer.
I’m just going to interrupt you. This is Tautane Station.
TWL: Isn’t it beautiful.
MM: It is. This was Maori land back in the day. But has been owned by an English family for many generations. Recently purchased back by Ngati Kahungungu. They recognised they don’t have capability to run properties like this. They have a management contract with Taratahi, an organisation I chair. We are an educational institute who uses farms as our classrooms to deliver skills training. This is a fabulous model Ngati Kahungungu, Taratahi, and Tautane Station. Training young people for the land, earning qualifications in a very practical way.
TWL: Taratahi is the name of the Trust?
MM: Yes. Taratahi Agricultural Centre, we have campuses in Wairarapa and Balclutha with satellite campus’ throughout the country often in partnership with a polytechnic. We use farms as the classroom.
TWL: And how many students do you have?
MM: In the vicinity of 2000 per year. We have just taken on Telford. A training farm just out of Balclutha, that used to belong to Lincoln.
TWL: Who set up Taratahi?
MM: Taratahi was gifted nearly 100 years ago now, by the Perry family of Masterton. The farm was left to train returned serviceman for farming. It has its own legislative act. It is now administered by a government appointed board.
TWL: Are the Perry family a Maori family?
MM: No. A Pakeha family. Well known in the Wairarapa. But it doesn’t matter who, it’s the fact that there is a family who left an amazing legacy, which has grown far beyond what they could ever have foreseen.
TWL: Taratahi training, is it an alternative to Massey and Lincoln?
M: Taratahi is more directed to skills, although the career pathway can lead to tertiary. We do deliver the Massey and Lincoln Diploma courses as an agri extension.
TWL: If a young person enrols in the Taratahi programme, how many years is it?
M: Normally a two year programme.
TWL: Going back to the korero you’re having with your mokopuna, as you’ve recognised, it’s only if you love the land that it will thrive. And so trying to instil an inherent love of the land in your mokopuna, is the only way you’re going to get a successful outcome really isn’t it?
MM: It is. You may have a love of the land, but you may not wish to be a land manager a land owner. And that’s ok too. It is more about recognising that the land is inherently tied to us as people. Healthy land, healthy people. Even though I’ve said our land will never be sold, I say that strongly but lightly. Sometimes it may be too much of a burden for one generation but then not for the next, it’s a matter of how we get through peaks and valleys.
It’s about having that bigger picture to get you over those humps. That’s one of the special assets about being Maori. If you take that long view, it can get you over some of those humps that you can often find un-navigable, that “oh my god I’m going to be broke for the rest of my life kind of stuff”. Well, it’s not about me.
TWL: When you have the long view you realise how the majority of business decisions are made in a very short term way. And the kind of criteria around the decision making is not very intelligent.
MM: No. Unhelpful. If you are making a decision based on a quarterly result with specific targets to meet it can skew the direction. You are making a decision grounded in the minute. In the second. Whereas with a Maori world view your decisions will be based on a 25, 50, 100 year timeframe. These become different decisions with different outcomes. First of all you are prepared to take the highs and lows of the business to get there. Versus always trying to amp up up up, without regard to the other aspects be it environmental and or social and or community. The things that actually make us who we are, as a community of people, part of a greater ecosystem.
This roadtrip and conversation occurred in July 2017. At the time the Rangitane Treaty settlement process was still ongoing, Chris Finlayson was the Treaty Negotiations Minister of the National Government. Since then Rangitane settled their Treaty claim at the end of 2017, and National lost the November 2017 elections to a coalition led by Labour. The following websites provide additional information to some of the themes and organisations discussed.