Technology, innovation offer optimism

Last updated 07:21 22/07/2013
FLIGHT TIME: Tim Groser likes to travel.
Trade minister Tim Groser.

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OPINION: Federated Farmers president Bruce Wills considers New Zealand's farming future.

What makes New Zealand agriculture special? Perhaps the answer was delivered by Trade Minister Tim Groser at this year's Fieldays in Hamilton. He delivered a fantastic speech based on Anzco Foods' Sir Graeme Harrison's description of agriculture being "New Zealand's Silicon Valley". Farmers would add Hollywood too.

New Zealand agriculture did not get this way by being conventional when, overseas, conventional farming is still dominated by subsidies. In the United States, its multi-year farm bill going through the House is costed at US$1 trillion. The European Union's newly settled budget of about a trillion euros will see 4 per cent of it going to farm support; last year that was worth about NZ$68 billion - almost what our Government spends in a year.

Groser liked the "Silicon Valley" analogy because it conveyed a sense of optimism, it captured the reality that agriculture will be as important to New Zealand's future as it has been to our past and, finally, it captured a more subtle notion. That being a vastly more sophisticated agriculture with innovation at its centre will become tomorrow's economic backbone.

As I head for Ashburton and Federated Farmers' 2013 national conference, I can look back upon some great strides that Federated Farmers has made over the past year. Membership is growing despite drought, rain and snow. Policy-wise, organisations from government to private businesses want our input, - including Google on its Project Loon balloon-powered internet.

Agriculture has an impact on the environment. We don't deny that but, then again, so does the act of being alive.

Last month, a television news show became convinced that a cull of swans on the Manukau Harbour for aircraft safety was due to their Waikato habitat being wrecked by "intensive agriculture". The associated images did not look good when a voiceover suggested the messy brown water of today was clear a decade ago.

If we'd been asked, we would have pointed out the area that these swans supposedly fled from was a mature farming area devoid of "intensification".

Inadvertently, the show said the lake had apparently been home to 12,000 black swans. Yes, 12,000 large waterfowl. If thousands of birds on a single shallow lake in north Waikato is bad what about what lurks below, like introduced koi carp? These fish look like goldfish on steroids but are really an aquatic combination of possums and rabbits. In 2007 in another north Waikato lake, Lake Waikare, it was estimated there were 466,000 adult carp in the lake with a combined biomass of 851 tonnes. A single cow weighs about half a tonne so the biomass of carp in that single lake is mind-boggling. The situation is made much worse by thousands of waterfowl living "on top".

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The Waikato Regional Council's koi carp programme is fantastic but is wrongly invisible.

It points to the way water is affected by what lives in and on top of it, every bit as much as what flows into it through urban wastewater, or indirectly, from farming runoff.

Given what the Waikato Regional Council is finding there and what the Hawke's Bay Regional Council has found working with Niwa, it seems there are big gaps in our knowledge that makes me nervous about being forced into solutions. We need to be science led but we don't seem to have all of the science to make the right policy decisions and that makes me nervous.

At least one gap on the farmer side could be filled by a primary growth partnership to get precision fertiliser application on to our hill country.

This seven-year programme will start by gathering data from eight research farms to build the systems needed.

It involves Ravensdown, Massey University and AgResearch and will develop some truly cool science for the remote-sensing of soil fertility on hill country farms that will be combined with GPS-guided aerial topdressing.

New Zealand has been leading the development of using remote sensing in agriculture for more than 10 years. This project provides the opportunity to apply that technology directly to our farms, improving hill country pasture productivity while reducing nutrient runoff to water. Hill country soils can vary incredibly even on the same farm. This is why improved use of precious nutrients is great news for our balance sheet, the environment and the wider economy.

It means we can grow better quality pasture applying nutrients when and where they are required.

The word smart underlines why Ravensdown expects it to generate $120 million annually in economic benefits to New Zealand by 2030. This should have happened years ago but it is only in recent years that we've seen a fusion of technology to make it possible.

This truly indicates where farming is heading, environmentally and economically.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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