Joanne van Polanen, moving on but not moving out 


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Former New Zealand Farm Environment Trust chair Joanne van Polanen can’t quite believe how the last eighteen years began. “Just at the time the children were settled in school and we had extra farm labour, I was thinking it would be good to do something off farm. I saw an ad in a local paper that basically said, ‘If you can understand farm systems and like mixing with rural people, apply now.’¸ 

“I had no idea what I was getting into,” says Joanne. Her initial involvement was with the Canterbury Ballance Farm Environment Awards followed by election to the New Zealand Farm Environment Trust in 2010. 

A decade on, Joanne has come to the end of her term and last year welcomed the appointment of Brendon Cross as new Chair of the Trust, which runs the Ballance Farm Environment Awards. Looking back, she remembers some advice she was given by a former colleague. “He told me it’s a bit like the Hotel California. You’ll never leave.” 

Prophetic words because, while she’s leaving her post as Chair, “I will never lose that shared connection and interest with our farmers, growers, sponsors, partners and supporters who share in the Trust’s vision to see New Zealand farmers and growers recognised as leaders in their stewardship of land and water.” 

Among her recollections of her time as Chair, and before then as Treasurer and Deputy Chair, the most significant event was the establishment of the Gordon Stephenson Trophy. “The award has evolved over the years and is now recognised as one of the prestigious events and features on the annual calendar in the primary sector,” she says. 

In addition to this, an inspirational alumni community has grown from the Gordon Stephenson Trophy award. “They are a wonderful, passionate group who support each other. Even though what they do is quite different, they join the annual leadership programme with a common cause they are all passionate about,” says Joanne. 

Over the years the Trust, which during her tenure has grown from eight regions to now 11, has supported several regional and national initiatives run by other organisations. “Trust famers and growers identified through the awards programme have also played a significant role during engagement programmes with the government of the day ahead of regulatory change,” says Joanne. 

But it’s the people, their stories, their successes, and their challenges that have captured Joanne’s heart and spirit. 

“I listen to their stories and think, how can I make that work for me, will that apply to what I do? I’m sure this is how the alumni get such a buzz out of the programme. They get together and discuss what they are doing and feed off each other. One of the main objectives of the awards is that they promote sustainable farming and growing by engaging people in their stories.” 

Joanne says a significant change for her has been the shift in attitude from when she first starting judging and farmers looked at the environment or sustainability as sitting alongside their business to what it’s like now. “Farmers and growers look at sustainability over their whole business. The environment is part of it and is now incorporated across the whole farm and their decision making.” 

Not only that, but Joanne says farmers and growers happily speak about the changes they’ve made and that they want to make. “Farmers have been shy about standing up to say, can I tell you about my story. They’ve moved past that mindset and are proud to share good practice and good ideas further.” 

It’s those ideas that have spurred the Trust to regularly revisit the judging criteria to make sure the awards stay relevant. The awards have constantly evolved to keep pace with the changing dynamics within the farming and growing environment, including the increasing number of different farm types and changing regulation. 

It’s a big job that Joanne says wouldn’t happen without a huge amount of support from volunteers and partner organisations. “The Trust and its activities are really led by a small management team but are supported by a huge number of volunteers across the 11 regions,” she says. “It is due to the dedicated backing of sponsors and partners and the overwhelming in-kind support that everyone gives that continues to progress the activities of the Trust.” 

Joanne farms with her family near Ashburton and will take some time now to focus on supporting their three 50/50 sharemilking couples achieve their goals. 

So, we’re moving on, but we’re not moving out.” 

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