Agriculture's rebirth as the next sunrise industry
OPINION: At the start of this month, a story ran that worried that New Zealand was on the road to becoming the "Detroit of agriculture".
It was a provocative headline to a piece outlining the technologies that are disrupting and going to further challenge farming. The author was right. Some of these innovations are quite remarkable, and signal a shift in how food can be produced, as the world grapples with needing more food for more people with an already stressed environment.
But the irony of comparing Detroit with NZ agriculture is quite delicious. Because out of the fossils of Detroit's waning car industry is the rebirth of the city based on urban farming. From the derelict unused buildings and empty lots are springing up a host of vertical farming companies and urban farming co-operatives. Detroit is emerging as a leader in urban farming. Detroit is being reborn, and the seeds of that rebirth are literal ones.
So rather than being a warning from the past, Detroit's new food-based economy is becoming an example of the future.
That's the key thing here - most of us who work in the agriculture sector see the changes occurring. Just because we work the soil doesn't mean we have our heads in it. We see shifts in how people eat, the food they want, the technologies that can produce new foods, and the environmental requirements placed upon us. We know there are disruptions coming. Food producers are no more immune than any other industry to dramatic changes from technology and swings in consumer tastes.
And just like all the challenges our sector has faced, we recognise that we need to adapt how and what we're farming to keep up. It's just that our adaption this time will need to be much faster than it has been before.
Rapid change is difficult in farming because we work at Mother Nature's pace, not our own. The breeding of new types of animal or plants take many years to occur without significant genetic modification. Our farming systems are incredibly complex and unique to each farm. They are also prone to seasonable variables. That makes accurate benchmarking, and the use of big data and other tools more difficult.
But these can't become excuses for doing nothing. The disruptions in how, and what, food is to be produced don't allow us, as a sector or in our businesses, the luxury of changing slowly any longer.
At Landcorp we're determined to make these disruptions work in our favour. To do that, we have four initiatives underway.
The first is ensuring we are using these big leaps in technology to farm better. Fewer inputs and less waste. We have invested in developing FarmIQ, world-leading software for farm management, that allows precise recording and analysis of fertiliser applications, environmental and livestock performance, and farm activity. We have invested heavily in new machinery and technologies to minimise safety risks and manual handling injuries. We are investing to upgrade the telecommunications infrastructure to increase bandwidth speeds to use cloud-based data solutions. We are investing significantly in our people and training in leadership, safety, and technology. These investments will help us farm more sustainably, and help us generate a much better commercial return.
The second initiative is to remove from our farming practices those things that make consumers uncomfortable about our food. New Zealand already produces amazingly high quality, pasture feed meat and milk. But we can always lift our standards and the premium segments are demanding that. Whether it was our decision to stop using PKE feed, our shift to establishing organic dairy farms or using a group of external experts to challenge us, Landcorp is looking at ways in which we can improve our commercial performance while benefiting the environment. It is embodied in our new brand, Pamu Farms of New Zealand – a responsible food producer using our care of the land and its resources to produce innovative, natural products the world desires.
The third is being crystal clear on which specific consumer segments we're targeting with our food, and what solution we're delivering for them. That means really understanding what people in these markets want, worry about, and need. What do they want from their food and for their health? And what tailored portfolio of foods we can produce on our land?
This has meant spending much more time beyond the farm gate working with health experts, nutritionists, food technologists, product developers, food manufacturers and marketers on targeted food solutions. Innovations such as sheep dairy probiotic powders, deer milk products, and new plant cultivars with particular nutritional characteristics are all products that Landcorp has either commercialised or has in research and development.
It's about being very niche. Super premium. Having a low environmental footprint. And the possibility of becoming part of a bundle of NZ produced health products the world will be crying out for.
The fourth initiative is exploring ways in which we can be a part of the disruption rather than become a victim of it. If the science and technology now exists to produce meat burger patties without using animals, how can we produce specific plant cultivars that are perfect for their food production but hard to grow elsewhere? What brand can we wrap around these products that provides a NZ-origin story that is so trusted in Asia? Where are the investments in the R&D, or the processing and distribution supply chain we can make to help us capture this rapidly growing market? Are there niche opportunities using hydroponic technologies nearer our markets that can complement our pasture-fed product range?
Landcorp is just one of a number of players across New Zealand's primary sector working to redefine a new, prosperous future in the face of extraordinary change.
So, no. New Zealand agriculture isn't about to become a figurative ghost town. In fact, quite the opposite. Just like Detroit, a rebirth is happening in our agriculture and the future of food production is at its core. New Zealand already has great farmers – and I think the future we face, if we keep adapting, could make them greater still.
Steven Carden is the chief executive of Landcorp (Pamu), the largest farmer in New Zealand.