Interview with World Class New Zealander Phil Rolston

World Class New Zealanders are high achieving New Zealanders who are making their mark on the world and defining NZ’s image internationally. These Kiwis are all outstanding and have worked hard for their international success. Kea sat down with World Class New Zealander Phil Rolston for a Q&A about his journey, being a New Zealander and what advice he has for New Zealanders going forward.


How has your New Zealand background contributed to your journey/success?
I was raised on a dairy farm in the Horowhenua. Understanding practical farming issues that you learn working on a farms (both at home and as part of the 48 weeks practical farming work we did in summer holidays for our BAgriSci degree) mixed with the papers and research I did in my University studies in Agricultural Science (Massey University/Oregon State University) gave me a mix of skills both theoretical and practical that I was able to apply working as an international consultant. My father was a member of what is thought to be the 1st farmers discussion group in New Zealand, and growing up with the extension/farmer training that was the focus of the early discussion groups helped me understand about how farmers learn new technologies. This was a complete contrast to the traditional Chinese approaches to farmer training which I encountered, which was topdown, the experts know best and the farmers aren’t educated so they don’t know anything.

My NZ based working career (DSIR Grasslands/AgResearch) was focused on field based applied research aimed at developing information that farmers could use and information I could share with farmers personally. I developed a passion for talking with farmers and this also contributed to the success of my journey.


What are some stand out failures/problems you faced on your journey and how did you overcome/learn from them?
A typical problem at the start of any aid type project is winning the trust of the farmers you are working with. Trust is earnt and it takes time for trust to be earnt. To build trust some quick success outcomes help, and solving some immediate need of the village/community which may/may not be directly related to the major goal of the project. The first step is always understanding the needs of the community from the total community (farmers and women) rather than relying on the needs portrayed by officials was always the best starting point. There was a project in Yunnan Province I worked on with a Tibetan community to improve livelihoods through improved agriculture, but we discovered that the two biggest needs for the community was the lack of clean drinking water (which came from a stream that was also used for washing and stock for drinking water) and repair of the school roof which had a big hole in. We got a simple water system installed which piped water about a kilometre from a safe water source and fixed the school roof. With that done the community was ready to work and trust us on agriculture focus of the project.


What in your professional career or personal life are you most proud of?
Building relationships that stand the test of time. In Argentina and China I continue to be invited back by people that we started working with more than 30 years ago. In China I have built a long relationship with Lanzhou University, Gansu Province who sponsored me for the “China International Science and Technology Cooperation Award” in 2014, received at the Great Hall of the people in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. While I was very proud to receive the award it was the work and the relationship that sat behind it that I am most proud of. That relationship started in Palmerston North in 1989 from a casual conversation with a young Chinese PhD student and then befriending him and his wife. In later years he became known as one of the modern fathers of China’s grassland sciences and his wife the director of a nationally recognized seed science programme. Over the years I have taught classes, tutored PhD students and provided help into their grassland science programmes.   I have recently returned from a week in Argentina speaking at field days and in a team retreats on grassland and seed production management. That relationship started in Denmark at a conference in 1987 and my first visit later that year, and forty years that initial relationship has seen numerous exchanges.


What’s an important issue which needs attention in your industry?
In our NZ pastoral agriculture the greatest issues relate to both real and perceived environmental footprint issues and the environmental and economic sustainability of our production systems.  At a global level the issues are a sharper impact between food security, food production and environmental sustainability with world agricultural land and fresh water resources being static or declining and world population increasing.


How have you used global New Zealand connections/networks to help achieve what you have?
Both local and global networks and connections are very, very important. Knowing who “knows-what” and being known are both important. Many of the international jobs I have worked on have started from someone approaching me, not the other way around; i.e. being part of networks. This type of work is rarely advertised. Some projects I have worked on in China, have started because my name was picked up somewhere usually by a NZ company or organization. Being known as a team player and being adaptable and being unruffled in stressful conditions are probably as important as the technical knowledge you bring to the table or field.


What is one key lesson you want to share with New Zealand entrepreneurs/businesses/SMEs
Business in China and many developing countries are built on relationships and trust. You can’t rush relationship building. You can’t build a business without first building a relationship. If your goal is to make money quickly and the client perceives that you are chasing money and not chasing a long term business relationship that is “win-win” for both parties then your China / Asian success will be limited in scope and success.


In your experience what do Kiwis excel at in the eyes of the world?
Kiwi’s often excel by bringing practical technologies and solutions to problems by being able to adapt what works well in NZ for local conditions and with this the natural friendliness of kiwis. The word adapt is critical, because transplanted technology that is not adapted often fails. To adapt a technology needs a detailed understanding of local conditions, the environment and the social structures and social issues of the community and area. Being friendly is something that is easy in small town communities, and something that is easily eroded when populations increase and life becomes rushed.


What are the biggest growth challenges and potential opportunities for New Zealand companies/businesses/SMEs?
Markets like China tend to be very price sensitive and the challenge is not to be the commodity space that is dictated around price. The emerging middle class are discerning consumers who want and will pay for quality, whether it is quality that is defined by food safety, provenance or some other factor. The experience of Chinese tourists and their interaction with your company’s products while in NZ is a potential opportunity for a company to start a relationship with a consumer around a product. China’s strength in e-commerce makes it easier for the consumer to meet your company and to make a sale. The rapid changes in e-commerce changes the focus from trying to select geographic areas in China to develop to using a much broader geographic scope. Being able to tell your story on the provenance of your product is critical. The image of sheep, beef cattle and dairy cows grazing on green grass pastures is critical to the story.


What will be New Zealand’s biggest strength in 10 years?
In 10 years time the biggest strength in NZ will be the production of high quality, high value food products that maintain food safety standards. Underlying this will be sustainable agricultural production systems and the integration of tourism through agricultural lands where we have managed our “green” environment.


Phil Rolston has worked with farmers around the world, from China to Iran, and Argentina, to develop seed production, grassland farming systems and other agricultural systems. Phil has received a number of awards for his work, including the Chinese Government’s Friendship Medal, AgResearch’s technology prize, as well as the NZ Institute of Agriculture and Horticulture Technology Transfer Award.

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