First off, tell us a bit about yourselves and how you came to work for New Zealand Merino? What do you both do at NZM and how long have you been working together?

I grew on a sheep and beef farm in North Canterbury and have always been passionate about the agricultural industry - promoting the amazing work that growers do and supporting them to continually improve.

I started with NZM in early 2016 and my work was focused on how we create and maintain the social licence to operate the sheep industry. Initially this was very focused on animal welfare but over the last five years the focus has shifted to the environmental aspects of farming. In mid-2019, Donna joined to team and together we spear-headed the next evolution of ZQ; the development of ZQRX.

To describe myself simply, I am a sustainability nerd who wants to do good. I feel incredibly lucky to not only have developed this interest in the environment from a very young age but that I have been able to actively contribute to this space throughout my working life, specifically in the agricultural sector.

I started at The New Zealand Merino Company almost two years ago, excited to work for a company that is both bold and ambitious, where I could continue to support positive change. In my role as Regenerative Transformation Manager, I work with both brand partners and growers to improve the way business is done and rethink how we work together with Nature, animals, and community.

A tricky question to answer but for those who may not know, could you give a small run down on what ZQRX is?

ZQRX is an impact platform to accelerate meaningful change. It provides a framework to support continuous improvement and lays a vision for the future, inspired by regenerative principles.

We know that there is a lot of work that our ZQ growers do for the betterment of their land, their stock, their communities, and often that work goes unrecognised. We wanted to develop a system that recognises all this additional work and provides a framework from which they can improve on.

You were tasked with developing the ZQRX programme (something to be incredibly proud of) and like all good things has taken time, how long have you been working on the RX programme and how have things changed along the way?

Donna joined the team in mid-2019 when ZQRX was an idea on a whiteboard – it wasn’t even called ZQRX at that stage! Together we began building the program, prototyping it and testing it with growers along the way.

In March 2020, we pulled together a summit with a handful of growers, brands, and scientists to try and understand what this would look like both on farm and in market. Then in May 2020 (in the middle of Covid lockdowns!), we launched the program to all our growers and were blown away by the response. We had 170 growers sign up to the program – much more than the initial 20 we were hoping to get!

Tell us a bit about the ZQRX index, what was the thought process behind this framework and how did you decide on the 15 key indicators? Can you expand a little on how you measure each farm based on the index framework set in place?

First and foremost, the ZQRX index is about our growers, they are the ones on farm doing the mahi on the ground. We wanted to both celebrate the good and signal what great might look like too. It is a way to connect growers to evolving consumer expectations and support continuous improvement.

Behind the ZQRX is a change management framework. With this framework we assess where each farmer sits on that journey against the 15 key indicators, spanning environment, animals, and people.

After researching countless international standards and best practice frameworks, we settled on 15 key metrics across the environment, animals and people, whereby we score farms on a scale from 1-10. The scoring reflects a theory of change, lower scores represent awareness/desire whereas the higher scores are about championing and giving back.

ZQRX is all about championing the great work of growers and forms the framework to help them improve their farming practices, how have you found ZQ growers have responded to this programme?

We’ve had a great response from growers for the ZQRX programme. First and foremost, we want to recognize and celebrate all the great work they are doing. We sit down and go through the core areas of environment, animals, and people – capturing the stories and celebrating the progress that has been made to date. To be able to talk about all this positive work is hugely exciting! It reinforces how much our growers care about their land and their animals. From there we can reflect on where the growers currently sit on the ZQRX index, and then we can work together to help improve in the areas that matter to them and the brands they supply wool to.

One of my favorite quotes is "do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better". That rings true for our growers and their approach to ZQRX.

We were overwhelmed by the interest in the ZQRX programme, we had to close sign ups within a few weeks of opening because we weren’t set up to cater to so many growers – what a wonderful problem to have. And now, almost a year later we have been able to welcome more growers onto the programme again.

Over the years, NZM has worked hard to connect growers to brand partners and the strength of those relationships are reflected in the willingness of growers to voluntarily opt-in to the ZQRX programme.

It has been a joy to sit down with such progressive growers and to learn about the legacy that they are wanting to create and leave behind.

With ZQ as the baseline, what’s the process of getting growers on the ZQRX programme?

ZQ is already a globally leading wool standard. The bar is high and will continue to evolve to remain competitive. However, ZQRX captures all the work done above and beyond this base standard.

To be part of the ZQRX programme, growers must first be part of ZQ. Growers currently opt into the ZQRX programme, they then get a visit from one of the team to talk through the different aspects of their farm to understand what work is happening on farm.

From here we develop their own unique index and work with them to continually improve against their own baseline.

From an idea jotted down on a piece of paper to now, you’ve been on this two year journey together. What’s your proudest moment as ZQRX has come to life?

The proudest moment for me is when we get to sit down and connect with amazing growers who are striving to leave their land in a better state for future generations; hearing their passion, learning about all the work they are doing, and knowing that we get to be the ones to share that story!

I am also very proud of the amazing capable women we have in the RX team – everyone brings a range of different skills, and we wouldn’t have been able to achieve what we have without each other.

Hard to choose!

Back when we were exploring what regeneration was and what it meant for us, we hosted an epic 3-day summit with international brand partners, world leading experts and some of our growers. It was the complete alignment around a shared vision and common understanding of the challenges that gave us the confidence to launch to our growers post-NZ lockdown. Global issues require urgent action; and we didn’t want to let perfection get in the way of progress.

We have had the most amazing response from growers who feel empowered to try new things and challenge the status quo. They know that NZM has their back and that through ZQRX their efforts will be rewarded.

Photography by
Kate Wilson

As told to
Courtenay Lewis