Martin Bennett has been a dairy farmer for nearly half a century so he’s seen his fair share of change in the industry over that time.
“I’ve been a dairy farmer since I left school. I was always going to be a dairy farmer. It was something that I decided when I was very young, all of four years old.”
“I received the letter in mid-November and had to keep it a secret, although I told my wife of course. We told the kids on New Year’s Eve and they were surprised but very proud at the same time.”
As a passionate Fonterra farmer, our Co-op is proud of Martin too. Not just for his award but also for his unwavering commitment to environmental sustainability.
That commitment started when Martin and his wife Judith were sharemilking and accelerated when they bought their own farm – 136ha near Putaruru where they milk 400 cows.
“When we first bought the farm, we had a beautiful 1.6-kilometre stream but none of it was fenced. That was the first thing we did, then through some local contacts we got some plants and away we went.”
Martin became a founding member of the Dairy Environment Leaders group, which is funded by DairyNZ and initially organised by the NZ Farm Environment Trust, and he was its Chair between 2009 and 2016.
“I knew I wasn’t the only guy paddling this canoe and we had annual forums where we would invite a group of 50 farmers or so to discuss ways they could farm more sustainably and drive sustainable environmental change in their own communities.
“Through the forums we created a small army of like-minded farmers to get things going. People with the environment front of mind who realised that our licence to operate was at risk. They certainly had positive impacts on their local catchments especially.
“I have to say that people like Dr Rick Pridmore were instrumental in that project and he provided a lot of momentum. He’s a very inspirational leader and knew that a large and effective network of farmers learning from farmers was the only way to effect change in the dairy industry. Also as the former boss of NIWA he had vast knowledge of the environment and what factors can impact it both positively and negatively.”
But it’s fair to say that the Dairy Environment Leaders group was not that popular at first.
“That was a time of extreme growth. Farmers were all about growing the industry and their businesses. Environmental sustainability wasn’t really on the radar at all.
“We got some pushback, but we persevered and the key thing was that we were building a big network of farmers who had the understanding and foresight to work with these concepts as a group.
“We have an obligation to do the right thing and be good stewards of the land by doing what we can to minimise our footprint. Most farmers are on board with that and there’s a new generation of dairy farmers who are really running with it and doing a fantastic job.”
Martin says the dairy industry still has a lot of work to do with tough regulations coming down the line.
“Things like nutrient management and emissions reductions will take sustainability to the next level. It will involve a lot of work and change but the best thing we as farmers can do is to work with our supply companies, not against them. Regardless of what happens in the industry, Fonterra is always going to the benchmark and they have a big role to play in helping farmers to navigate and understand what needs to happen to ensure the future success of our industry.”
An added hurdle to Martin’s farming and environmental work is Parkinson’s Disease, a degenerative disorder that impacts the central nervous system, which he was diagnosed with in 2015.
Never one to shy away from a challenge, and with exercise key to slowing down the disease, Martin became involved with multisport events. He founded the Parkinson’s Waikato Tinman Club in 2017 competing in, amongst other events, three Tinman Triathlons and raising $30,000 for Parkinson’s New Zealand.
As well as that fund raising, Martin says he sees his honour as an acknowledgement for all the hard work thousands of farmers have put in to improve life on the land.
“We have an industry that is a far better operation than it used to be. There are some pretty good people out there, and to be singled out as one of them is very nice. I’m very grateful for that but sustainability is a moving target and always has been, so let’s get on and chase it.”