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Rhys Roberts crowned New Zealand winner of top agri-award

An entrepreneurial approach to primary production has resulted in Rhys Roberts of mid-Canterbury receiving the 2022 New Zealand Zanda McDonald Award.

Rhys Roberts is Chief Executive of the Align Group, who operate 7 farms, a market garden, and are vertically integrated with a yoghurt brand and milk processing facility.

The Zanda McDonald Award, now in its eighth year, supports talented and passionate young professionals in the ag sector from Australia and New Zealand. Rhys will receive an impressive trans-Tasman prize package centred around mentoring, education and training that is 100% tailored to his needs.

Roberts is passionate about food production and future workplaces. He’s currently running a regenerative agriculture project trial to monitor farm productivity, animal health, human health and environmental outcomes. His focus on building a 'future workplace' has resulted in creating a market garden that feeds his team through the fruit, vegetables, meat, poultry and eggs from their farms. All of the team are on fully flexible rosters, and can manage their own schedules, choosing shifts that suit them. This frees them up for about 1000 hours combined per year, which they reinvest into the community.

Zanda McDonald Award Patron Shane McManaway says “Rhys is highly ambitious, and he’s prepared to break the mold of the past and do things differently. Some of the results he’s seeing, due to his innovative approach, are nothing short of exceptional. He has a strong environmental and wellbeing focus, as well as creating a significant difference to the company’s bottom line. As judges, we were extremely impressed and inspired by his leadership, and know he has a very strong future ahead of him.”

Roberts was thrilled to receive the Award. “It’s such a privilege, and I’m really grateful for the opportunity. A definite highlight for me will be the trans-Tasman mentoring trip, where I’ll get to spend time with top ag leaders in New Zealand and Australia, as well as previous award winners and finalists. The learnings I’ll get from that experience will be absolutely life-changing.”

The Award interviews and presentation were originally going to be held in Martinborough, but this changed to an online format as a result of the sudden COVID alert level change to red last week.

Roberts was named as a finalist alongside Adam Thompson, 35, director of Restore Native Plant Nursery, beef farmer and mortgage broker from Cambridge; Katie Vickers, 28, Head of Sustainability and Land Use for Farmlands, from Christchurch; and Olivia Weatherburn, 33, National Extension Programme Manager for Beef + Lamb New Zealand, from Mossburn Southland.

Once COVID restrictions ease, the four will get together for media training and to spend some time with leaders in the sector, which is a benefit available to all Award finalists.

As the 2022 winner, Roberts will receive a professional development package that includes an all-expenses paid trans-Tasman mentoring trip to high-performing farms and businesses in Australia and New Zealand, $10,000 towards further education, and incredible networking opportunities. Roberts will travel by a Pilatus PC-12 aircraft to parts of his mentoring trip, enabling him to reach diverse and remote farming operations on both sides of the Tasman.

The Award would normally crown one winner from across Australasia, but in response to COVID-19 related travel restrictions, an Australian and a New Zealand winner will be crowned this year. The Australian 2022 finalists are being interviewed face-to-face next week, with the Australian winner being awarded on 10 February in an intimate setting in Orange, NSW.


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