Two leaders sum up agriculture in NZ

OVER THE FENCE - JON MORGAN
Last updated 05:00 03/07/2012

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OPINION: It's  good that Federated Farmers should choose agripeople of the year. It's a way of recognising the work these people do in an industry largely misunderstood by the wider public.

The agribusiness person of the year is the self-made Hawke's Bay meat baron, Craig Hickson.

He is a hard-headed businessman with a sombre, almost forbidding face in repose, but which easily breaks into an infectious grin.

When he speaks people listen closely. He has a quiet, conversational but confident speaking style and brings to any discussion his 30 years of hard-won experience in the meat industry.

In contrast, the other person recognised by the Feds this year is much livelier.

The agripersonality of the year, Waikato soil scientist Doug Edmeades, struggles to hold in an intellect brimming with enthusiasm.

His mission in life is encapsulated in the Carl Sagan quote he uses to sign off his emails – "The only antidote to pseudo-science is science itself".

When he speaks people listen closely.

These two men sum up New Zealand agriculture perfectly. Basically, we have world-leading science being applied by farmers and industry.

But it is more than that. We need people like Edmeades to explain the science to farmers in a way they can quickly grasp and who can help apply their practical skills to making it work efficiently.

And we have Hickson, the businessman, who applies the science to lift meat plant efficiency but who also imposes financial prudence.

Actually, Hickson is also a farmer who uses science. On his Hawke's Bay sheep, beef and deer farm he has been searching for ewes that can lamb at any time of year.

The research has concentrated on finding ewes that can conceive during the time known as deep anoestrus, between September 25 and October 25, when ewes are at their most infertile. The assumption is, if a ewe can conceive then she can conceive at any time.

Creating flocks of such sheep would transform the meat industry, opening up overseas markets to the more valuable chilled, instead of frozen, meat year round. However, so far progress has been slow.

Hickson is a board member of Beef+Lamb New Zealand and the science innovator Ovita, and is a strong advocate of last year's red meat strategy that urged greater collaboration within the industry.

After a 12-year grounding in the meat industry and earning degrees in food technology and economics and marketing, he and wife Penny started Progressive Meats in Hastings in 1981.

They started with a $60,000 loan that paid for equipment, and they leased a coolstore and cutting room. "The annual rental was $25,000 a year and I had just left a job that paid $14,000. So if I failed I couldn't earn enough back on the market to cover the rent," he recalls.

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For the first few months he trimmed carcasses during the day and worked on the books at night with Penny. It was seven years before they could find time to take a family holiday.

In 1987, he took the plunge, built his own slaughterhouse, bought direct from farmers and found exporters to take the product. Now he owns or is a part-owner of four meat plants in the North Island.

The key to his success, industry insiders say, is specialising in processing meat and leaving exporting to others.

While Hickson is relatively unknown outside agriculture, Edmeades, who has a soil science doctorate, sprang to prominence on TV's Fair Go in 1985. He said the liquid fertiliser Maxicrop was useless and the makers sued. He stood his ground during New Zealand's longest civil court case and emerged with his reputation unscathed.

Since then he has become an outspoken crusader against pseudo-science, unproven claims used by those on the fringes of agriculture to sell doubtful products.

"These are causes at the core of my being," he says. "I can no more change that than change my DNA. It is not in the interest of this nation that we allow farmers to be ripped off. These guys work hard and when I see a hard-working guy being conned and misled, that's when I get angry."

If he has a weakness, it is that he is a climate change sceptic. It appears to be at odds with his core science beliefs, but he can argue forcibly on the subject. It could explain why he has not won the agribusiness person of the year award, which is chosen by a panel of guest judges, although he was a finalist last year.

And it could explain why he is this year's agripersonality, which is chosen by the federation.

Farmers identify with his quirky mixture of common sense and irreverence.

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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