Thursday, 11 April 2024 07:55

Back to the tractor!

Written by  Nigel Malthus
Outgoing Alliance Group chair Murray Taggart says he is looking forward to spending more time on farm after 18 years in governance roles at the meat co-op. Photo Credit: Nigel Malthus Outgoing Alliance Group chair Murray Taggart says he is looking forward to spending more time on farm after 18 years in governance roles at the meat co-op. Photo Credit: Nigel Malthus

Alliance Group chair Murray Taggart is looking forward to spending more time on farm as he steps down after a total of about 18 years on the meat co-operative's board, including the last 10 years as chairman. Nigel Malthus reports...

"That's probably long enough," Taggart tells Rural News.

It is perhaps a bittersweet end to his time at the top, coming during a downturn in the market, especially for lamb, which saw Alliance post a loss before tax of $97.9 million in its 75th anniversary year.

"I don't think you ever get the fairy tale ending in any of these things," Taggart adds.

"I think anyone that goes into them thinking you'll somehow rather crack it and that'll be the end of the journey - that's not how it works."

He says it is a journey with no end.

“Everyone that gets involved in any of these businesses as a director or as an executive is trying to improve the performance of the business all the time.

“You can be doing the best job in the world, but if the global economics cycle is against you, then when the tide’s going out, you can’t always swim against it.”

Speaking to Rural News on the family farm near Cust in North Canterbury, Taggart says it doesn’t matter whether it’s on farm, in the processing sector, or the export sector, “it is just really tough at the moment”.

“We need every link in the chain to be profitable, otherwise you don’t have a chain.”

It is not the first downturn that he has experienced.

“I reckon I’ve seen this four times, this cycle. Once when I was a banker, once soon after I came farming, once in 2012 when I was a director, and once now as chair,” Taggart explains.

“Everyone thinks: ‘Gee, how can we stop this happening again?’ but at the end of the day, you’re at the mercy of international supply and demand, which is driven by the health of the international economy.”

Taggart grew up on the farm but says it was not the original plan for him to take it on. After Lincoln University, he worked as a banker, before looking around for a farm of his own to buy. However, he then returned to the family farm in 1990 by buying out his brother who chose commercial crayfishing instead.

“That’s how we ended up here and it’s been pretty good to us, especially when we got irrigation in the late ‘90s. That’s a game changer in this part of the world.”

Perhaps ironically, for a leader of the meat industry, the 732 hectare farm is now predominantly cropping, producing cereals and grass, clover and vegetable seeds, while finishing lambs and “a few” dairy culls between crops.

“It’s basically an arable farm now,” says Taggart. “It didn’t used to be, but with irrigation and trying to pay the bills, it really comes down to you either going to dairy or some other intensive land use.”

The farm was originally about 90% sheep but now gets only about a quarter of its income from livestock.

Taggart says it has been a dry summer, with the dry compounded by irrigation restrictions. The farm is currently carrying only about 3000 lambs.

“We would probably normally have double that, but it’s not looking like that’s going to happen at the moment.”

However, the farm is not in the “dire straits” of some further north in Canterbury, or in Marlborough, where a medium-scale adverse drought event has recently been declared.

How mainstream media portray drought assistance “always annoys me,” says Taggart.

“All it means is the farmers get the same access to social welfare as what the rest of the population gets. It’s not some hand out.”

Taggart says he has been only a weekend farmer in recent years and he’s looking forward to getting back into it – but it is his son Roscoe who now runs the farm.

“He does a better job of it than what I used to. So, I don’t want to start wading in and dragging down the farm performance by thinking I’m going to run the thing again. I will do as I’m told. I find what works best.”

Meanwhile, Taggart continues to chair Taumata Plantations Limited (formerly Carter Holt Harvey Forests), which he describes as “a forestry company but a real one, not a carbon one.”

He is also a director of FMG insurance and, by way of giving back to the local community, is on the board of a local medical centre.

“It’s a tough industry. But it’s also enormously rewarding. At the personal level, I’ve just learned so much. I’ve had some amazing experiences that I never would have thought I would have.

“I’ve met just so many really interesting people. Nice people. The lasting memories you have is the people you meet.”

The Demise of Wool

"When I first went farming, I was farming for six weeks when the Wool Board removed the supplementary minimum price,” Taggart explains.

“So, I never got to enjoy any of the halcyon days of the wool industry.”

He says that, up until that point, wool had been 50% of their sheep income, but now, it is nowhere near even covering the shearing cost.

As for wool, Taggart says various groups are trying to recreate demand for its traditional uses. But he struggles to see them ever lifting wool to a point where farmers will be selecting aggressively for it again. “To me, it has to be completely new uses and much higher value channels. Certainly, the sort of stuff that WRONZ is working on, with its new uses programme, feels like it’s got potential. But there’s probably a way to go before we really find out.”

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