Elizabeth Soal is the CEO of Irrigation New Zealand, a member-founded industry organization committed to representing the interests of New Zealand’s irrigation sector and promoting best practices across the industry. In this interview, Ms. Soal tells Irrigation Leader how COVID‑19 has affected Irrigation New Zealand and describes the actions it has taken to protect its employees.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about yourself and about Irrigation New Zealand.
Elizabeth Soal: Irrigation New Zealand is the national leadership body that represents the interests of irrigation schemes, which are the same as irrigation districts, as well as farmer-irrigators and the irrigation service sector across New Zealand. Irrigation New Zealand has around 3,500 members across New Zealand, although the bulk of irrigation in New Zealand is in Canterbury and Otago on the South Island. Prior to taking on this role in early 2019, I worked for about 8 years with a group of irrigation districts in North Otago and South Canterbury. Irrigation schemes in New Zealand are generally privately owned companies with farmers as shareholders. Unlike U.S. irrigation districts, they usually don’t have any public officials involved in their governance.
Irrigation Leader: How has the COVID‑19 pandemic affected your operations and the operations of your irrigation schemes?
Elizabeth Soal: On March 21, the New Zealand government announced that the country would operate based on a system of four different alert levels governing people’s movements and what they could and couldn’t do. From March 25 to April 27, we were operating at alert level 4, which meant that anyone who could work from home had to do so. The only people who were allowed to work as usual were essential service providers, including healthcare workers, supermarket workers, and those providing services like emergency electrical work. Critically, it also included people working in the food production sector, including farming and irrigation. The irrigation service industry and the companies that design, restore, repair, and maintain irrigation equipment were also deemed to be essential service providers.
However, in order to be approved by the government to remain open, companies have had to put in place programs to protect their workers. Their employees must maintain 2 meters of distance from each other, and companies must provide their workers with personal protective equipment. Getting registered with the government required quite a bit of work from our schemes and service sector. The government has been making on‑the‑ground visits and phone calls to check that companies that have registered as essential services are complying with the requirements.
People have had to order and pick up equipment through a noncontact system. They can preorder essential equipment and then pick it up without having to go to a retail or wholesale outlet. It means that a lot of people involved in backroom operations have been working from home, but the people who work in the field have had to work hard to maintain distance from each other and follow strict protocols to protect themselves and stop the spread of the virus.
Irrigation Leader: What are you doing to keep your employees and members safe?
Elizabeth Soal: Because our employees travel frequently, Irrigation New Zealand has been set up for quite some time to allow for remote work and work from home. When the government announced on March 21 that we were moving to alert level 2 and that anyone who could work from home should, we did. The shift to alert levels 3 and 4 was fairly seamless for us as an organization. It did mean that we had to cancel our large conference, because the government banned any gatherings over 500 people when we were at alert level 2. Unfortunately, it’s a major event that only occurs every 2 years. We’ve also had to cancel our training workshops, but we are shifting training and education content online. We already had an e-learning platform up, and we shifted a lot more of our resources onto that so that our members could still maintain their training levels for things like local government requirements.
Irrigation Leader: What is the most innovative thing that you and your schemes have done to maintain your workflow?
Elizabeth Soal: We already had the e-learning platform up and running, which was really helpful. Some of the speakers that we wanted to come to our conference, such as New Zealand’s minister for agriculture and the opposition spokesperson, have made short videos that we put up on our Facebook page. We’re looking at holding a forum for irrigation schemes via Zoom in a couple of weeks.
Irrigation Leader: Do you expect any of the changes you have made to be retained after the pandemic is over?
Elizabeth Soal: I’m not sure about the schemes, because a lot of the work they do in the field has continued with only slight modifications. As for all the people I’ve been speaking with, we’re actually doing quite well with remote work, Zoom meetings, and that sort of thing—it might be that we engage in that way more in the future. The technology seems to have improved rapidly. I think many companies and organizations will start allowing more remote work and will be more flexible with their approaches to how employees work.
Irrigation Leader: What advice do you have for other irrigation associations?
Elizabeth Soal: We have found that a lot of information has been provided by the organizations that represent farmers. We’ve tried to tailor the information that we have put out to our members so that it relates specifically to irrigation, because otherwise there’s the risk of information overload. There is a lot of information coming through official channels, and we have been getting COVID‑19 updates from our prime minister daily at 1:00 p.m. We wanted our information to be specific and helpful and not simply to repeat those communications. We got good feedback in that regard, so I would advise other associations to do likewise.
Irrigation Leader: Is there any way that Americans or American companies can be more involved with Irrigation New Zealand?
Elizabeth Soal: Like I said, we had to cancel our conference, which attracts a lot of exhibitors and which we were hoping would increase the level of exposure of overseas companies. We’re still looking at how we can do our events, but we would encourage anyone who is interested in working in New Zealand to get in touch with us. We’re looking at holding webinars and putting our content online. Get in touch, and we’ll see if there’s any way that we can reach out through some of the channels that we’re investigating. We are still producing our quarterly magazine IrrigationNZ News, which has a great reach across the sector.
Irrigation Leader: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
Elizabeth Soal: Everyone has been working extremely hard to fight the virus, and we’ve had one of the strictest lockdown regimes in the world, but everyone’s feeling really positive about the future. Infection rates in New Zealand are low. I know the rates in America are much higher, and our thoughts and best wishes are with everyone who has been affected by the virus.