Irrigation Leader
Group photo in warehouse in front of tractor
District Profile,  Interview

Changing the Status Quo A Conversation With MHV Water Chief Executive Mel Brooks

MHV Water is a large-scale irrigation district—a "scheme," in New Zealand parlance—in the Canterbury region of New Zealand, which delivers water and manages environmental compliance for approximately 140,000 acres of highly productive farmland. MHV operates in the Hinds Plains region of Mid Canterbury, a fertile area that is well suited to open-pasture dairy farming. MHV, a farmer-owned cooperative, was formed in June 2017, when Mayfield Hinds Irrigation and Valetta Irrigation merged to unlock efficiencies of scale for their shareholders and amplify their voices by speaking together. Mayfield Hinds Irrigation and Valetta Irrigation began as public works projects in the 1940s and have continually delivered water since 1947. Privatized in 1990, the combined schemes have successfully delivered water while investing heavily in infrastructure and technological improvements. MHV is always looking for new ideas and innovations to enhance its operations. Recently, MHV leadership and shareholders traveled to Nebraska for a tour of the state and its groundwater and surface water irrigation operations.

Kris Polly, editor-in-chief of Irrigation Leader, recently spoke with Mel Brooks, chief executive of MHV Water, about the structure of the scheme, her insights on the irrigation industry, MHV’s role in Canterbury irrigation, and the recent trip to Nebraska.

Kris Polly: How long you have been with MHV Water, and what is your professional background?

Mel Brooks: I have been with MHV for a little under 18 months. When I joined, the company was being formed out of a merger of two irrigation schemes, and I was tasked with bringing that merger to fruition, building a strong culture, and delivering sustainable solutions for our shareholders and the wider community. My background is predominantly in banking and finance; I have held analytical, relationshipmanagement, and leadership roles within the Bank of New Zealand.

I was educated at the University of Otago, where I studied finance and quantitative analysis, and after graduation, I went to London for 5 years and worked in the finance sector and private banking. I returned to New Zealand to be closer to home and to get into business banking. I thoroughly enjoyed that: Business banking is one of those areas in which you get to meet some phenomenal people who are passionate about what they do and how they do it. You get to see the best and worst of people and lift the lid on a variety of different industries and learn what drives them and how they all work together. My last role while I was at the Bank of New Zealand was as a corporate finance partner. In that role, I looked after all the irrigation scheme exposures, which gave me some understanding of the industry. So, although the transition and learning curve were considerable, there was some base knowledge to help me on my way. A number of my strengths were also transferable and have been hugely valuable, including the ability to build a strong culture, to collaborate internally and externally, and to communicate.

Kris Polly: Please tell our readers about MHV Water. How large is your operation, how many farmers do you work with, and what types of crops are grown?

Mel Brooks: MHV Water irrigates approximately 140,000 acres, and we have 206 farmer shareholders. We were formed in the 1940s when the government looked to invest in large infrastructure projects to get people working and out of the Great Depression. They saw that we had plenty of water—it just wasn’t always in the right places at the right times. With the geography of our region, water could be diverted, under gravity, from one of the large braided alpine-fed rivers and across the plains to be distributed to the farmlands. That foresight stimulated growth in the region and transformed land that was historically referred to as the Trans-Rakaia Desert into the highly productive farmland it is today.

In 1990, the government decided that being a ministry works scheme, that is, government-owned, was not working, and the scheme was sold to the farmers who used it. Since then, we have gone from strength to strength, and we have continued to invest in technological improvements, new infrastructure, and storage. Not only do we deliver water to our shareholders’ gates, we also manage and oversee their environmental compliance. We hold their environmental permit to farm the land, and we hold the land use and nutrient discharge consent. The environmental management is a considerable workstream, as we help our shareholders achieve the triple bottom line of environmental, economic, and social sustainability. We have innovative shareholders who are leading the world in their farming practices, and I’m proud to be part of that.

We predominantly grow pasture across our scheme for dairy farming with some smaller sheep, beef, and pig operations. Cut-and-carry systems are not common in New Zealand; the animals graze the pasture. Arable farming is a smaller component and includes wheat, kale, fodder, and beets; in our region, we also have a successful seed production industry, which includes radish, carrot, mustard, and hemp seeds, to name a few.

Kris Polly: What is the predominant method of irrigation used?

Mel Brooks: It is predominantly spray, with pivots. Less than 5 percent of our farmers use border dyke (or surface flood) irrigation. Any border dyke irrigation that remains is reasonably advanced now, compared with the early days when it would just get flooded out over the paddocks. Those borders have been shortened up and laser leveled so farmers can apply water in a more efficient manner. The majority of the efficiencies that have been made on farms have been driven by the farmers looking to boost profitability, and now we have the added environmental benefit of being able to apply little and often.

Kris Polly: What is the source of your water?

Mel Brooks: We use all surface water. The water comes from the alpine-fed Rangitata River and the Ashburton River. The Rangitata River is one of the largest rivers in New Zealand, and our take of water is regulated by a water conservation order, which ensures that it is sustainable and maintains a suitable level of flow for recreation, mahinga kai (the protection of the natural resource), and the overall ecology of the river. During spring, the Rangitata River is fed by snow melt, and over the summer, the hydrology is dominated by our prevailing wind, the Nor-West. With our geography, the Nor-West hits the mountains and creates considerable rainstorms in the headwaters that swell the river. Those same Nor-West winds are hot and dry by the time they hit the plains, so they increase our demand for water at a time when they are also feeding the river. So, although we will have some restrictions on our take over the course of the season, the Rangitata typically holds up well when we need that water the most. We are mindful about ensuring that the Rangitata and Ashburton Rivers remain strong, and we work closely with our community to achieve this.

Kris Polly: How many employees does your scheme have?

Mel Brooks: Well, we only have nine employees, and these are mostly in our operations team. We have a groundwater hydrologist, which reflects the importance for us of understanding the groundwater quality and quantities and our impact on those. We run a pretty skinny operation. We are a shareholder in a shared services team that undertakes environmental, administration, and finance functions for us and for three other irrigation schemes. That allows us to benefit from economies of scale across a number of schemes and get some great people on board.

Kris Polly: How many other contractors do you use?

Mel Brooks: That varies based on what we are doing. Recently, we have been doing a lot of work on our infrastructure, and we have engaged with around 10 different contractors and their companies at any given time. Really, it is built around what demand looks like for us; we want to be able to use people who are the best at what they do, but we don’t need them all year round. If we can get them when we need them, and it is cost effective, then we are going to do that. We also have a lot of environmental contractors who help prepare nutrient budgets for our farmers. The use of contractors can work incredibly well and provides us with flexibility.

Kris Polly: What are the top issues facing MHV Water?

Mel Brooks: Our strategy, which is ultimately to deliver sustainable solutions to our shareholders and the community, has four pillars: environmental and economic sustainability; optimizing our infrastructure; enabling innovation; and our internal measure, which is “stay strong”—it applies to our people, culture, and values. At present, my key focuses are environmental sustainability and infrastructure optimization. In our scheme, we have over 320 kilometers (approximately 200 miles) of open race or channels and about 100 kilometers (approximately 62 miles) of piped infrastructure. Within that, we are looking to make sure that we are using that water, that precious resource, in the most effective way that we can while still meeting our environmental targets. In our region, we have community-established targets to achieve groundwater quality outcomes that were agreed to by all stakeholders—farming industry groups, government, the Iwi (Māori group), recreational groups, and regional councils. These are stretch targets, and they reflect our commitment to lead and pursue sustainable environmental farming practices. Accordingly, we have agreed to reduce our nutrient leaching by 36 percent by 2035. This will include a number of different on-farm and community actions, including managed aquifer recharge, targeted stream augmentation, and other science-led initiatives.

Kris Polly: Has there been a time when your background in banking and finance was helpful with your current duties at MHV Water?

Mel Brooks: Absolutely. Understanding the underlying bank pricing models, base rates, and risk assessments has enabled me to challenge our pricing and ensure that our shareholders are getting the best deal possible. There are also a number of other elements, for example, hedging profiles, systems, covenant compliance, swap rates, and loan tenors, where my background has proven very useful. So often we tend to pigeonhole people, but the reality is that the majority of skills in banking and finance—and other industries for that matter—are hugely transferable.

Kris Polly: You recently toured irrigation districts in Nebraska. What was your motivation for participating in the tour, and what did you hope to learn?

Mel Brooks: We are looking to challenge the status quo in our scheme. We can’t continue to do the same thing over and over and expect a different result. We need to demand better water quality outcomes; we need to ensure that we are meeting our social license to operate; and because we don’t have a monopoly on good ideas, we need to go out and see what other people are doing. Coming to Nebraska was an awesome opportunity for me to see a little bit more about what is going on and to meet people who are experts in their fields and to get their insights. So often we get immersed in what is happening in our own neck of the woods and get tunnel vision: We don’t see what is possible around us. It is really just about opening up the mind and seeing what is possible.

Kris Polly: Did you see or learn anything in Nebraska that will be helpful to your scheme?

Mel Brooks: Definitely. I really liked what is being done with the idea of using the irrigator as an applicator, not just for water but for fertilizer and chemicals. We don’t do so much of that here. With our dairy farms, we typically spread effluent through pivot specifically, but there is not a lot else that goes on. There is a really good opportunity there to be able to apply fertilizer more frequently and in smaller amounts, which would lead to fewer opportunities for the leaching of nutrients through the soil profile into the aquifer during rainfall events. I really liked some of the education programs that are being done, especially in the universities, and also the way that younger children are being engaged in the 4H program in schools and being taught the science associated with agriculture. I also really appreciated that some of the natural resources districts collaborate to look at how they can use the resources they have, effectively retire highly intensive farmland, and look to subsidize or augment stream flows. I believe collaboration is one of the keys to long-term success, and it was great to see the natural resources districts’ role modeling this.

Kris Polly: How would you describe the Nebraskans?

Mel Brooks: I really enjoyed meeting the people. I am a people person, and I think that the way to really understand a region is by getting to know the people, what drives them, and what they get out of bed for each morning. There is a Māori saying: “What is the most important thing in the world? It is the people, the people, the people.” I thoroughly enjoyed getting the opportunity to meet Nebraskans in their own environment. Everyone I met was genuine, open for discussions, and curious. Kris Polly: What is the most helpful thing that you have learned in your time with MHV, and what advice would you give other irrigation district managers? Mel Brooks: I think that coming into my role, the big challenge was that we were merging two irrigation schemes, and it was a time of real change. In fact, we are continuing on that change journey, especially around our environmental management. I think the main piece of advice I would give is that people need to listen more with their ears and not their mouths. Taking the opportunity to explore what is motivating people, what they are concerned about, and how you can work with them to achieve a common goal is hugely powerful. If you give people a platform to share their views and opinions, and you understand one another, it really opens up a trajectory for your journey together.

Mel Brooks is the chief executive of MHV Water. She can be reached at mel@mhvwater.nz.