Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Interview

Vanessa Winning of Irrigation New Zealand: Bringing a Holistic Perspective to Irrigated Agriculture

Vanessa Winning has served as the CEO of Irrigation New Zealand (IrrigationNZ) since October 2020. IrrigationNZ is 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. Winning tells Irrigation Leader about her background, IrrigationNZ’s current top issues, and the importance of taking a holistic view of the benefits of irrigated agriculture. 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position. 

Vanessa Winning: I went to Auckland University, where I got a bachelor’s degree in commerce, majoring in management and economics, and then got a postgrad degree in marketing. After graduating from university, I spent 18 years in banking. I went into a little startup banking organization called Ergo, which was an offshoot of AMP and was essentially the world’s first internet-only bank. I was a junior product manager, so I got to price and set product features. About 5 years later, HSBC bought us out, and I moved to HSBC with the retail portfolio. I was lucky to be part of the process of integrating the products into a different system, which required quite a lot of development and customer engagement. I was at HSBC for about 6 years before moving on to ANZ—moving from one of the largest banks in the world to the largest bank in New Zealand—and spent another 6 years at ANZ. I moved into roles that had more to do with marketing than with product development and pricing. I left ANZ as the head of marketing for the institutional, commercial, and ag markets. That’s where I got more engaged with farming customers and service organizations for farming. New Zealand’s economy is largely made up of food producers and the service industries that support them—when you add it up, it accounted for about 65 percent of business in New Zealand before tourism started to grow. 

I went on to do a leadership and governance program with the Agri-Women’s Development Trust, and as part of that, I sat in on DairyNZ’s strategy development. DairyNZ is an industry body in New Zealand that was set up when Fonterra was formed to ensure that there was still a noncommercial support organization for dairy farming. It essentially takes a levy off the milk solids as mandated by government and the Commodities Levies Act and uses it for science, research, and behavior change programs to support farmers. I joined DairyNZ and spent 5 years there. As the general manager for farm performance, I was responsible for extension, which includes all the farm behavior change programs for farmers as well as marketing and product development. I had a team of about 130 across the country working directly with farmers to introduce them to new technologies and to engage them in what was going on in the market. 

When COVID‑19 hit last year, we set up a career changers program with the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), DairyNZ, and other entities to get people into the dairy sector. We had strong lockdown restrictions within the country, but the primary production area was considered an essential service, so people were still continuing to produce food and export it. However, we were struggling to get people into the industry because we’ve relied quite heavily on immigration for so long, and as the borders were closed, the people who would normally be coming into the sector to support the industry during high-activity times weren’t available. There was a significant investment to support career changers, but we struggled to get people to move, especially from urban to rural areas. While the pandemic was going on, I was doing a small contract for the Federation of Māori Authorities related to greenhouse gas mitigation as well, trying to get funding support for Māori ag businesses to support a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions on their farms. 

Keri Johnson, the chair of IrrigationNZ, gave me a call and asked me if I would be interested in applying for the newly vacant CEO position. I’d seen it advertised, but while I am a strong stakeholder manager who is engaged with the community and has strong relationship skills with farmers, customers, and the industry, I am not a specialist in technical irrigation elements. However, IrrigationNZ felt that with its move to Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city, it had greater needs for advocacy and relationship management, and I was appointed in October 2020. I’m loving it. The great thing about our sector is that there are lots of technical experts who are willing to support you in what you’re trying to achieve, giving freely of their time and support. I have learned a lot, and we are making real headway in our advocacy, too. We have a technical advisory group, and I have just appointed a new principal technical advisor, which will make my job easier. At the moment, we are involved in about six different working groups across government departments, all related to water. 

Irrigation Leader: What else can you tell us about your new role as CEO of IrrigationNZ? 

Vanessa Winning: Every day is different, because at the moment we only have five staff. We have more than 3,800 members, each with different requirements of us. The job ranges from what is basically office and financial management all the way to dealing with the prime minister and other government ministers. Our work covers drinking water issues, infrastructure, capture, storage, water application and use as well as the environmental effects of all these things. We cover urban and rural settings, from irrigation in stadiums and parks through to orchards, vineyards, and pasture on dairy and beef farms. 

We had a really tough year last year. The COVID‑19 pandemic really affected IrrigationNZ. The cancellation of the main conference, which occurred before I started, significantly reduced revenue. It’s typically around 400 people and was planned to be our main income source for the year. All the costs had already been sunk into it, and its cancellation had a big effect on the balance sheet. But our members supported us, and we are growing our membership base now, so we are actually bringing back small reserves and have reduced our reliance on large events. We’re bringing resilience back to the organization, and at this point, we would be able to manage another disruption like the pandemic. 

I think this year will be quite different for our membership. We’ve grown by probably 10 percent since last year just by delivering submissions, engaging with the government on our members’ behalf, demonstrating our value to our membership with training and support, and engaging with them as much as we can so that they can see that what we’re doing in Wellington is making a difference. Moving to Wellington from Christchurch was a good strategic decision by the board, because we’re now much more engaged with what the government is doing and are having more influence in the creation of policy rather than just in its implementation. 

Irrigation Leader: What is the mission of IrrigationNZ, and who are your members? 

Vanessa Winning: We have a diverse range of members, including farmers and growers as well as large irrigation schemes, the equivalent of U.S. irrigation districts. The figure of 3,800 members probably underrepresents the reality, since the large schemes each have a significant group of shareholders. Our membership includes the irrigation service industry as well—companies like Waterforce and PGG Wrightson and the organizations that design and deliver irrigation systems or components. That broad membership also means that we have a broad range of activities. We also do a significant amount of training and develop codes of practice, so we’re kind of the gatekeepers of the industry. We probably make up about 40 percent of all those who could possibly be part of IrrigationNZ. 

We’ve recently been going through a strategy refresh, and we are making sure that we are focused on water that is for lives and livelihoods. Our focus is on leading the industry by creating credible solutions and sought-after advice and support. In the past, irrigation has been thought of in predominantly economic terms and as a productive tool. Now, as we move toward asking how we can have a more

meaningful influence on the community, we’re thinking of irrigation and water capture and storage as being for people’s lives and the community and iwi (Māori tribe). That’s first and foremost. Irrigation as a a productive sector is the secondary piece, because you can’t have it without community support and engagement. 

New Zealand is resetting the way it looks at resources like our rivers and asking how our communities can work together for better holistic outcomes. IrrigationNZ is moving that way as well. We’re changing the way we talk about irrigation. In New Zealand, over the past few years, irrigation has been framed almost as a form of pollution. We have to talk about how we are going to reduce environmental damage and improve outcomes and not assume that people understand that irrigation is a powerful enabler. We have some public perception work to do, and that’s what we’re setting up at the moment. 

Irrigation Leader: Aside from interfering with your meeting, how else has the COVID‑19 pandemic affected your organization? 

Vanessa Winning: New Zealand is a producing nation. People need food, and they need good food. We produce good, healthy products that are desired by the world. Ninety-five percent of our produce, in terms of value, goes overseas. Agriculture and water have been considered essential services, so the lockdowns have not affected them too terribly. Our society was compliant, and people looked after each other, so our lockdowns were sharp but short. From an economic perspective, irrigation and food production have fared well. I think that’s really kept New Zealand afloat. We probably haven’t gone through the same economic downturns that most of the world has, solely because of our domestic food production and our ability to keep COVID‑19 restrained. The global dairy trade is crazy at the moment: The price of milk has gone up 20 percent, mainly because China has suggested that milk is nutritious and that people should be increasing their animal protein consumption as part of a balanced diet. This has really helped the overall economy as the largest export earner. 

Irrigation Leader: Can you put a number on the importance of irrigated agriculture to New Zealand’s economy? 

Vanessa Winning: Not accurately, which is something that we’re talking with the MPI about. We last produced data in 2012, and while IrrigationNZ doesn’t have the budget to do another proper national economic survey, we feel it is necessary to quantify the opportunity. We are confident we will get new data as water and resilience to climate change become more important, which I am sure you will be seeing in the United States as well. With the changing climate, more parts of our country are drying, including the parts that produce the most fruits and vegetables. Not only is irrigation needed to mitigate the risks of more extreme weather conditions, but for New Zealand, it is also an enabler for increasing hydroelectricity as we move to renewable sources. New Zealand has high levels of renewable energy in its system already, but we also know we are going to need significantly more as we move away from fossil fuels for transport. 

As we move to reduce our greenhouse gases, New Zealand will shift from increasing animal agriculture to increasing horticulture, and to do that, we’re going to need more water, too. Fruits and vegetables will require a lot more water per hectare than pastural grass growth at certain times, and reliability of source will become more important. We will need more water capture and storage and more irrigation, especially in the dry and drying parts of the country. 

Irrigated wheat in New Zealand.

At the moment, the entire east coast of New Zealand, from Gisbourne and the Hawke’s Bay on the North Island down to the east coast of Canterbury and Otago on the South Island, is experiencing what is close to a drought. That situation makes it all the more important that we’ve got the right infrastructure in place. We get enough rain in this country—we are called the Land of Long White Cloud for a reason—but we don’t always keep that water and use it efficiently. It is an exciting time to be in the water space, because we’re going to need more water, more structure, and more understanding of how to use it, including in places that traditionally have not had to worry about it. 

Irrigation Leader: What are the current top issues facing IrrigationNZ and its members? 

Vanessa Winning: The public perception issue is primary. I don’t want to say that there is something as stark as an urban-rural divide, but there are misunderstandings between city and country. There is a misperception that more irrigation means more intensive agriculture. Actually, it means more choice and more opportunity for a community, rather than just for the end users of the water. I’m loath to say that we need to tell our story better, because I don’t like the word story—we just need to tell the truth better. We need to engage better and to be honest about the issues that we have instead of expecting everybody to understand automatically. 

I’m on the board of Surf Lifesaving New Zealand, and our lifesavers are out on the beaches from October to April every year. In Auckland, for a number of days through summer they have to pull people out of the water not due to rips or dangerous conditions, but so they don’t get sick from storm water and sewage after it rains. That’s just one example of what happens when infrastructure doesn’t keep up with population growth. When that occurs in an urban location, it becomes easy to realize that environmental issues affect us all and that we need new infrastructure and more investment across the country. We need to bring everybody along on the irrigation and water storage and capture conversation as well and talk about it in a holistic way, rather than just focusing on the production of food. It is not only an economic conversation; it also touches on the environment and how the community can benefit. 

Irrigation Leader: How do irrigating farmers care for the environment? 

Vanessa Winning: I think New Zealand underestimates just how much farmers have changed and adapted in the last 10–15 years. I think that if people could see the changes that have occurred in planting, harvesting, and animal management practices over the past 15 years, they would be impressed. The issue is that we haven’t taken people on that journey with us. We’ve just assumed that we’ll get better, and they’ll understand. 

The vast majority of farmers care for the environment, and it’s in their best interest to do so. The last thing they want to do is pollute their rivers, because that affects their ability to use water, reduces the value of their property, and restricts what they can do with that land. There have been farm environment plans in the dairy sector for at least 10 years. They may not have always been used as consistently or as widely as they are now, but they’ve been available for a long time. Other sectors are starting to understand their environmental impacts and improve their outcomes too as we come to know the true effect of farming on greenhouse gas and water pollution. There are 150 years of development that need to be improved on, and that’s going to be an intergenerational journey, but it is one we are seeing real momentum on. 

Most of the country has catchment programs in place now. A community—including farmers, growers, and industry as well as urban dwellers—will work on a particular river or water body, coming up with collective solutions rather than seeking to blame a certain entity, whether agricultural or urban. I think that is the way forward, because each community has a different view of what its water bodies are needed for. Once we start investing more in capture and storage, we’ll rely less on our rivers and on the existing bodies of water, which will also help. That infrastructure investment is needed if we are to move forward as a country and meaningfully improve environmental issues. 

I also think New Zealand farmers are some of the most adaptable farmers in the world. They are doing research into greenhouse mitigation, genetically modified (GMO) pastures, methane inhibitors for sheep and ruminants, and other topics. The GMO research is actually taking place in the United States, since New Zealand is GMO free. Those are technologies that we can’t put in place at the moment, but the farmers are investing in the research anyway, because they know that it may be necessary in the future and that all options should be explored. 

I’m really proud of our farmers. I think if you took a group of very different farmers, the one thing they would probably all agree on is that they’re ready for change. They just need to know the objectives we are aiming at, and I’m confident they’ll get there. 

Irrigation Leader: What is your message to the public and your elected officials about irrigated agriculture in New Zealand? 

Vanessa Winning: Irrigation is needed; infrastructure is required; we have underdeveloped areas; and we have underinvested in capture and storage for 40–50 years, and in some cases longer. We don’t have a choice anymore; we actually have to move, and the investment required is going to be community based rather than solely for productive purposes. We have to aim at holistic outcomes rather than just at production. Particularly dry areas such as Hawke’s Bay desperately need large capture and storage options, because right now there are a number of rivers that are particularly dry, and it’s affecting community drinking water as much as it is the production of wine and apples. I think New Zealand needs to have a grown-up conversation around how to increase our infrastructure for our collective benefit. 

Vanessa Winning is the CEO of IrrigationNZ and can be contacted at vwinning@irrigationnz.co.nz.