Lincoln big winner in AgResearch revamp

TIM CRONSHAW
Last updated 07:00 14/03/2014
AgResearch chief executive Tom Richardson
Fairfax NZ
BIG CHANGES: AgResearch chief executive Tom Richardson says agricultural science will be the winner after tough calls were made to move most of its team to Lincoln and Palmerston North by 2017.

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A science cluster at Lincoln will swallow more than half of the $100 million set aside by Crown research institute AgResearch for its shakedown of research sites that will see scientists relocating around the country.

AgResearch has "big plans" for the Lincoln site, the clear winner along with Palmerston North of its research centres, as the Invermay site near Dunedin and Ruakura site near Hamilton are reduced to regional campuses.

The Lincoln campus will expand to about 300 scientists by 2017, with about 200 of them and their families coming mainly from the other centres and stationed in new buildings. The design phase will start in the next two months.

Chief executive Tom Richardson said the research organisation's science would be consolidated to the Palmerston North and Lincoln clusters, with regional campuses retained at Hamilton and Invermay, but Lincoln would receive $60m to $65m of the $100m budget.

"Lincoln is the big beneficiary ... and Christchurch is the big winner. We thought we were too lightly resourced in the South Island.

''The role and growth of agriculture and changing farm systems have demanded more science and research in the South Island and we see a lot of the sector moving there."

He said strong agribusiness and increasing dairy production had drawn groups such as Fonterra and Dairy NZ to move to the south, and that had helped convince AgResearch it was the right move.

"We thought we should put the lion's share of our science programme focusing on farm and environmental work at Lincoln campus."

Much of its plant, genetics, farm systems and farm environmental science will be based at the campus.

Richardson said science would include research to increase farm production within the changing environmental landscape and finding ways to balance production and sustainability.

He said the organisation had expensive equipment for DNA, animal genomics and protein science and metabolism scattered in facilities around the country and this "kit" would be relocated to custom-built facilities at Lincoln by 2017, as increasingly the research was inter- connected.

AgResearch's head office will be based at Lincoln and research ties with Plant & Food Research, Landcare Research, Lincoln University and DairyNZ will be strengthened, along with other commercial partners.

About two thirds of the $100m project will be funded by asset sales and the rest from retained earnings and debt, with this breakdown dependent on cashflows.

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AgResearch's board began looking at its asset base in 2010 for the Future Footprint project, and made the decision to strip away half of its farm holdings and develop more science on the remaining farms. AgResearch's farm of 1193 hectares at Flock House near Scotts Ferry is under a confidential sale agreement and it has moved out of its Wallaceville site in Wellington.

The board identified the state of some of its buildings as "decrepit". Better facilities were needed for scientists and there was duplication among sites.

AgResearch's Palmerston North cluster will become the Food HQ in a $30m-$40m investment, with another 40 scientists to move there, mostly from the Ruakura centre, based in new and refurbished buildings.

Richardson said it had been "tough" to tell staff they might have to move, but four years of advance planning would help and staff would be given flexibility.

Farmer reaction had varied, with recognition that empty science campuses could not continue. Other farmers, particularly those linked with the Invermay site, would disagree with the decision, as they wanted scientists to continue working on their farms.

Regional campuses were retained so this connection could continue, as science needed to be tested in different environments, climates and conditions, he said.

AgResearch also felt it needed to keep some staff outside Lincoln and Palmerston North for extension work, to keep close to field days and work with farmer groups and councils.

AgResearch has identified about one third of staff it proposes to relocate will be at or near retirement age by 2017. The organisation expects replacements will be attracted to new workplaces, strong partners and fair pay.

- The Press

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