AgResearch faces grilling from irate farmers

There's a strong body of opinion that scaling down Invermay is a big mistake, writes Rob Tipa.

AgResearch directors and staff can expect some stern questioning from southern sheep and deer farmers in Gore this week when they are asked to explain their reasons for scaling down research at Invermay.

It has taken the Southern Texel Breeders Group four months to set the meeting up and one of the organisers, Hugh Gardyne, said it had "taken a jackhammer to get them down here".

Mr Gardyne confirmed AgResearch chairman Sam Robinson and chief executive Tom Richardson, along with one other director and another staff member, would attend the meeting at the Heartland Hotel tomorrow at 1.30pm.

Apart from meetings with Federated Farmers and Beef+Lamb NZ in Wellington over its "future footprint" proposals, Mr Gardyne said AgResearch had done little to consult with its farmer stakeholders.

The board's directors were invited to meet with southern farmers face to face to explain their reasons to cut or relocate 240 jobs from its Ruakura and Invermay campuses by 2016.

"They're going to face some stern questions when they get down to Gore because they have forgotten that their clients are farmers who use the science out of Invermay," Mr Gardyne said.

The country's largest crown research institute intends to concentrate its agricultural research efforts on two central hubs, one at Grasslands near Palmerston North and the other at Lincoln University, near Christchurch.

It has budgeted $100 million for the development of facilities at those hubs, which it says will be partly funded by borrowing and the sale of assets, including the sale of surplus research farms.

"We don't think AgResearch has been honest in telling us the full story about Invermay," said Mr Gardyne, a former provincial president of Southland Federated Farmers.

"They have argued that [Invermay's] facilities are old, people won't want to work there in future and ageing staff are due to retire soon anyway," he said.

"They're talking about leaving a crew of about 30 staff at Invermay.

"They talk about scientists being able to talk to each other at a single South Island hub when the whole purpose of agricultural research science is to talk to farmers. You don't withdraw 500 kilometres and still claim you provide the same service to farmers.

"With the cost of depreciation of their asset, they haven't told us, but inevitably they have it in their sights to close Invermay."

Business and Economic Research (Berl) had reviewed AgResearch's proposal from an economic basis and found it did not stack up to close Invermay and concentrate its South Island research on a single hub at Lincoln, Mr Gardyne said.

Berl director Kel Sanderson, former Invermay and AgResearch director Jock Allison and former AgResearch scientist George Davis are among the guest speakers invited to address the meeting.

Mr Gardyne said Invermay was regarded as one of the top five agricultural research centres in the world and that fact was not well understood by the AgResearch board or people in Wellington.

"It's often said that the Invermay brand was far bigger than AgResearch's," he said. "Clearly it will become a political issue because, in case you haven't noticed, it's an election year."

Mr Gardyne said sheep breeders had invited MPs including the Minister for Science and Innovation Steven Joyce and local MPs to this week's meeting.

Deputy Prime Minister Bill English had declined because of work commitments, but New Zealand First's primary industries spokesman Richard Prosser had accepted. Mr Gardyne believes AgResearch's plans to scale back spending had been precipitated by a $70m shortfall of funding for agricultural research.

"We're losing the plot in terms of adequately funding science," he said. AgResearch itself was underfunded and its scientists spent much of their time bidding and tendering for work.

"They should be actively engaging in science and its application should be judged by its uptake," he said. "By extension, if this government wants to keep agricultural production at the leading edge of the New Zealand economy, they're going to have to fund it adequately."


The Southland Times