Following over nine years’ service to Ruralco as Board Director and ATS Group Chairman, Alister Body has led the development and continued success of the 3,000 member strong co-operative through good times, structural change and challenges. Although it’s the right time to hang up his Chairman’s hat, Alister is far from taking his agricultural boots off.
Alister Body is a born and bred farmer. He grew up on a family farm, Midfield, in Methven, which is situated under Mount Hutt on the vast fertile plains of Mid Canterbury. Alister says he was a farmer right from his early years, “when I was growing up, we were a typical mixed cropping operation, however, in the early days we always had a few cows and sent cream to Midland Dairy in Ashburton. Then, while I was at Lincoln University in 1981, we converted solely to dairy. I was a farmer right from the start, if I was not at school, I was out on the farm or in the workshop tinkering on something. I did consider other careers, but in the end, working in the outdoors won out.”
To date, Alister’s farming life has been typical of many of his peers. “The last 30 years have been a time of development. For us, we converted the farm to dairy, sunk capital into flood irrigation and planted trees. Alongside this we worked on herd improvement and expansion of the business. Then, with the development of pivot irrigation and more efficient use of water, we turned around and did much of it all again” he said. The price of progress and development, no matter the cost / benefit of it, can be a bitter pill to swallow and Alister was saddened to have to fell mature trees they’d planted over 30 years ago, and wave goodbye to huge sums of capital they’d sunk into flood irrigation. “That was one of the hardest things to stomach in my farming career. Until we actually flattened the boarder dykes and cut down the trees; I really never envisaged that this would have been the case.”
The lease of neighbouring land initially allowed the business to expand and Alister to spend more time working on the business rather than in it. Firstly, a Herd Manager was employed and then a Farm Manager, as he spent more time on governance work within the dairy industry. This lease land was eventually purchased and added to Midfield. Today the farm peak milks 600 cows with potential to increase this number with further development. This is still smaller than the average Mid Canterbury dairy farm at 184ha, but a great size for a family operation. As they say, change is inevitable and as of the 1st June this year, new owners will take over Midfield Farm and, as the Body family have done, leave their own mark on the land.
Understanding the cost of progress, along with being able to make decisions and plan for the future, are key skills of anyone in the leadership and governance area. From an early age Alister was interested in governance. He was Head Boy and Chair of the Methven High School (now Mount Hutt College) School Council. He took on roles within Young Farmers and eventually he became the National President of New Zealand Young Farmers Clubs. He credits this time as when he really learned the skills of meeting procedure, how to get on and work well with others and the skills of Chairmanship. “Every organisation, board and management role I have taken on since my Young Farmers days, has been based on the incredible experience I had back in my late 20s” he said.
Alister has a passion for the dairy industry and the environment and has held various roles across many primary industry organisations including Chair of the Dairy Environment Leadership Group and the Canterbury Dairy Leader’s Group. He served as a Director at DairyNZ from its formation in 2007 until 2017, where he had the opportunity to work on development of the industry, the people in it and highlighting environmental well-being. As the Chair of the New Zealand Dairy Industry Awards Trust, an Awards programme, where entrants learn, accelerate and challenge themselves to raise the bar and climb the career ladder, Alister notes “this is an incredible organisation, showcasing the best the industry has to offer. It continually reinforced in me, the notion that - if these young people are the future of our industry, we’re in good hands!”
Alister was also Provincial Dairy Chairman at Federated Farmers and during his time involved with Federated Farmer. Of this time, he says “I had my eyes opened wide to the incredible work done by this organisation to help others in the industry. Often Federated Farmers is the only advocate against the plethora of regulations and challenges facing the primary industry.”
For Alister, it was a privilege to lead the Sustainable Dairy: Water Accord and see the progress which has been made over the years by farmers, all on a voluntary basis. “Getting stock out of the waterways and getting on top of nutrient management has been a huge step forward for the dairy Industry”.
In 2011, there was a vacancy on the ATS Board. After discussion with the Chair at the time, Alister decided to put himself forward for election. “I felt that due to my governance experience in other organisations, I had something to offer ATS” he said, “ATS has always been a part of our business. In 1973, my parents became shareholders and ATS became part of the family psyche, I guess. My parents always spoke highly of the co-op, so it wasn’t a surprise that I grew up with that same fondness for the business.”
After serving six years as a Director, a role which he will continue with Ruralco until the end of June, he became Chairman in 2017. Since then there have been many highlights but Alister notes the continual improvement in the viability of the co-op, re-branding to Ruralco, the improvement of board processes and the great working relationship between the Board, CEO and staff. “Ruralco’s enduring success is largely down to its people, both those directly involved with the business and our farmer members. It is said there are 3 P’s in business, purpose, people and performance. We have all three at Ruralco.”
Undoubtedly one of the highlights was the hugely successful 25th Anniversary of Instore Days in June 2019. The event saw record revenue achieved, greater attendance, and increased turnover. Alister said “We were humbled and extremely proud of the support shown and the results achieved. Our $250,000 Big Draw prize pool was made possible by the strong support shown by our suppliers through their sponsorship and generated much interest in the anniversary celebrations.” Alister has championed the Leadership Development programme demonstrating his true passion for the business and his belief in the Ruralco management team. Another highlight was Ruralco winning the Health & Safety Champion Award at the Westpac Business Champion Awards in 2019.
From a farmer-business perspective Alister states “co-operatives and primary production are a great fit; I can’t see this changing. Whether it is producers getting together to increase the buying power of their business or pooling their production to take on the market dominance of large multinational retailers, I believe there will always be a place for co-operatives. That said, there is nothing magical about this business structure and the same important business disciplines that ensure viability and growth of corporates and SMEs apply to co-operatives. In fact, because of the challenges we can face raising capital, compared to the corporate model, it could be said continual viability and profit is even more important.”
After stepping down as a Director of Ruralco, Alister’s only other governance role will be that of Director of Pastoral Genomics. This is a research partnership, which has been set up to develop and improve genomic selection in ryegrass and clover “this research, science and technology has the potential to be an absolute game changer in pasture improvement going forward”, Alister said.
With so many practical and governance skills Alister hopes to continue with governance work. “This is something I really enjoy. I am certainly looking forward to a change outside of active farming whilst still being connected to the industry which has given me so much. I’m really keen to help other businesses using my experience gained in farming and governance” he said.
Alister is married to Janine Peters, a graphic designer and typographer. They have two grown children who both have unique ambitions. Bringing children up on a farm Alister thinks was “the best way to raise kids, by far. As farmers we are hugely privileged in this respect. Growing up on a farm breeds resilience, an appreciation of the natural world and a can-do attitude. While both our children are currently pursuing careers outside of active farming, they will always be country kids!”
Alister acknowledges that there have been challenging times in agriculture – facing both day to day farming and the ups and downs of the primary industry. Having off farm interests are particularly important and over the years the local Methven theatre group has been a great creative outlet for Alister. Alongside this, sailing has become a passion, thanks to wife Janine’s love of boats and the sea. Janine is also credited with introducing Alister to horse riding, which has become a big part of both his recreation and, at times, work.
As we look forward to the future of New Zealand agriculture Alister has some grounding observations. “Food production is the most important job on the planet, and it always will be. In the future, what will change and continue to change is the way it’s carried out. As farmers, we must adapt to consumer preferences and at the same time promote the value of naturally produced food, grown and processed in a sustainable way. Not all producers on the planet can do this, but we can, so let’s get on with it! I have no doubt that COVID-19 will change many things for ever. What it will not change is the demand for food, and this is a huge positive for all farmers.”