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New ATS director has a passion for farming

Words by Anita Body

7 February 2017

There’s a well-known saying that if you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.  It’s an adage which could easily be applied to newly appointed Ashburton Trading Society (ATS) director and Dunsandel dairy farmer, Tony Coltman.

By his own admission he can be a bit of a workaholic, but says when you’re doing what you love, it doesn’t feel like a job.

“I’ve never wanted to do anything else – farming is where my passion is.”

Not coming from a traditional farming background has provided it’s challenges and Tony’s entry into farming has come in a round-about way.  “I had to get into it myself and prove my worth.  It’s not something I inherited or even grew up with.”

Originally from Nelson, Tony’s grandfather was involved in the tobacco industry and his parents were a plasterer and a microbiologist, while his brothers pursued careers as an electrician and a radiologist – all quite removed from the agricultural industry.  His appetite for farming was whetted somewhat by working on a distant cousin’s dairy farm at Brightwater just out of Nelson during the school holidays.  On leaving school, he attended Lincoln University where he gained his Bachelor of Commerce with Agriculture (Farm Management) and Diploma of Farm Management (with distinction) before embarking on a career in rural banking.

While at Lincoln, Tony spent some time in Mid Canterbury but it would be many years before he returned permanently to the region.  His work took him to various parts of the North Island, and later he had a contract with Westpac in Australia.  For a short time he left the agricultural sector to become General Manager of marketing for a print manufacturer in Auckland.  “I decided that wasn’t for me.”

It was after this short foray into city life, and a stint at DairyNZ as GM of its Development and Extension Group, that Tony made the switch to farming.  “I spent four and a half years as the GM, Director and Shareholder of a group of dairy farms in Missouri in the United States.”  The New Zealand owned operation carries 4,000 cows using a pasture based system and Tony says his ongoing involvement as one of only three shareholders has provided him with a valuable international perspective.  “We have monthly calls with the manager, who is also a shareholder, and I also visit annually.”

In 2012 he took up a Farm Manager position at Jamieson Dairies in Mid Canterbury – a 365ha 1400 cow operation on Mitcham Road, employing seven staff.

Twelve months later he and his wife, Dana Carver, bought into Canlac Holdings and now he is a Manager, Director and Shareholder based at Dunsandel.  The 335ha pivot irrigated farm milks 1400 cows, producing 700,000kg MS and employs between seven and eight staff, depending on the time of year.  Tony makes up part of the staffing numbers and is still very active on the farm.

“We strive for high performance, production and profitability – we strive for excellence.”  These efforts have been recognised with the farm being the Canterbury regional runner up in the New Zealand Dairy Industry Awards for the last two years.

Since joining Canlac, Tony has made use of his contacts within the rural sector, and particularly the dairy industry, to take part in a variety of programmes and initiatives aimed at providing and sharing valuable knowledge and information with others in similar positions.

“We are a monitor farm for FRNL (Forages for Reduced Nitrate Leaching).  It’s a DairyNZ initiative and we are into year three of a six year project.  We joined so we could better understand the environmental footprint of our business and to contribute to the industries understanding of whole environmental issues at a practical farming level with real numbers.”

He says taking part will help ensure they are “first of the rank” with sustainable and profitable farming practices, and it will have the wider benefit of providing regulatory organisations and the industry with more factual information to help with decision making.

“There are a lot of organisations and regulatory organisations out there wanting to change things and they don’t have all the facts and/or the understanding of the implications of farming businesses and families.  So rather than just standing around and complaining about the issues and blaming everyone, I wanted to contribute to finding a solution.”

Another DairyNZ campaign the farm is involved in is Rosie’s Education, an educational programme aimed at raising awareness about where milk comes from and how dairy farms and the dairy industry work.  The programme is aimed at younger children, from pre-schoolers through to primary school aged kids.

“We’ve had around 400 central Christchurch children visit our farm as part of the programme over the last four years.  There’s usually one adult for every four kids, so that means there have been around 100 adults who have also learnt more about dairy farms and how milk ends up at the supermarket.”

“I am often surprised at how little the kids know about milk.  One of the common comments we get is how warm the milk is straight from the cow – they are used to their fridge-chilled bottle of milk.”  He says they really enjoy being part of the programme and having the opportunity to share their time with groups who wouldn’t necessarily get the chance to visit an operating farm.

Tactics for Tight Times is another DairyNZ initiative Tony is part of and was instigated following the recent reduced pay-outs.  Focus farms provide a forum for dairy farmers to discuss tactical and strategic decisions at a local level with host farmers sharing information about their systems and tips on how to stay profitable and sustainable during difficult economic times.

Canlac Holdings (Dunsandel) is also a benchmark farm for Lincoln University and as such opens itself up to sharing its production and operational figures.  It is another example of the farming operation being open and transparent about its business in an effort to help and provide useful information to others in similar positions.

“I enjoy business and in particular, agricultural business.  I want to build on my experience in senior management positions.  That’s the next progression for me.”

To that end, Tony took part in one of Fonterra’s governance programmes last year.  “I wanted some governance training and to upskill in that area.”  He was approached to stand for the ATS Board prior to its Annual General Meeting in November, and decided to give it a go.  ATS Directors retire by rotation, and with long-serving Director Phil McKendry not seeking re-election, a vacancy became available on the Board.  As the only nomination received, Tony was duly elected.

“I have waited to get into something local and something that complemented my attributes.  I had a rural professional career prior to farming and I wanted to find something I could leverage off of that.  I have good common-sense, finance and international experience, and strong farming connections.  I also have a sales and marketing background in previous roles and general business and management experience around farm systems.”

“I’m excited about my new role.  ATS and Ruralco, is and has for a long time, been an obvious competitor in a very competitive market.  It is strongly positioned and has stayed competitive, providing good service and pricing to its members.”

“It also has a good vibe around its management and staff – there’s a good feeling around the whole organisation.”

That’s important to Tony.  Having the right culture within a business is vital to its success.  Keeping on top of your game, in good physical and mental shape, is also important.  He is an advocate for Farm Strong, an FMG and Mental Health Foundation initiative which promotes healthy and balanced lifestyles and his wife, Dana, leads DairyNZ’s Farmer Wellness and Wellbeing Programme.  Hailing from the US, Dana has a background in psychology and fitness.  The pair have three children – an 18 year old daughter who is heading off to Canterbury University this year, a 15 year old son and a 12 year old daughter.

Tony is looking forward to his time on the ATS Board and says one of the things which attracted him to the position was the business’s co-operative status.  “I am very much a co-op person and believe in the principles of co-operatives.  Central Plains Water, Fonterra, DairyNZ and ATS – they are all co-operative structures.  After working overseas in Australia and the US, I really appreciate what we have got in New Zealand.”

“We need to protect and enhance what we have got – they don’t have these things.  We tend to take a lot for granted.  It is easy to forget what co-ops have done for us.”

Throughout his career so far, Tony has always strived for excellence in whatever he does.  He says being an ATS Director will be no different and he’s looking forward to his new role in governance and where it will take him.