by Simon Edwards
New Zealand’s arable farming sector has built-in resilience from a wide range of crops grown and end markets. But it’s falling down on financial resilience, David Birkett says.
The Federated Farmers arable vice-president (seeds) and chairman of the Seed Industry Research Centre said more work needs to go in to ensure a greater share of the rewards from diversification and new product “value add” reaches the growers.
“We have very good influence and resilience up to the farm gate,” David said in a presentation to the Primary Industries NZ Summit earlier this month.
“But as soon as we hit the farm gate, we become price takers essentially. That has to change – and it’s not just a New Zealand thing, it’s a global thing.”
David called for cross-sector collaboration and a more hard-headed attitude in the world’s marketplaces, an end to trying to please other countries and being the good guy.
He gave the example of the call two years ago by the Arable Food Council for New Zealand to push to be self-sufficient in growing the milling wheat we need for our flours and bread products, instead of importing large quantities.
“We were told off because we were talking about being self-sufficient and it wasn’t good free trade messaging. Yet earlier this year we signed a free trade agreement with the UK and within two months the UK was talking about being self-sufficient in their own foods.”
A client for some of New Zealand’s arable products in the Netherlands told him recently that the Dutch are too smart to be kind “and you Kiwis are too kind to be smart”.
New Zealand has good soils for growing arable crops, and it seems we will be less affected by climate change than many other nations. We do good business growing products in our summer for northern hemisphere markets.
But we’re still behaving as seed companies and merchants, going out and grabbing whatever contracts we can get and expecting our growers to take them up.
“We’re now in a situation where we don’t have enough land to meet the contracts coming in,” David said. “So the biggest question we have is not what we’re going to grow but what we aren’t going to grow – what are the contracts we should be leaving behind on the table?”.
He feels strongly that the number one mission going forward is to add value and boost returns to the growers.
We’re seeing new products – extracted proteins and compounds, often for food health and pharmaceutical uses – being developed out of existing crops we grow, with enquiries coming from universities and companies overseas.
“But right now a lot of that value add is being captured beyond the farm gate.
“Unless we get this right, we may be talking about the last generation of arable farmers.”
As well as growing the seeds and feeds that New Zealand’s pastoral farmers rely on, our relatively small number of arable growers are also big players on international seed markets. They grow half of the world’s white clover, are the largest producer of hybrid radish seed and also grow about 40% of the world’s hybridised carrot seed, for example.
“We have a brilliant plant breeding industry. With all these varieties we grow, a lot of them are unique to New Zealand. We’re very lucky to have a very good selection of plant breeders – companies and crown research institutes.”
Diversity delivers resilience and our arable trade is not heavily reliant on any particular end market. While China buys more than 40% of our meat and dairy, that nation takes only about 9% of our arable output.
An underrated ‘resilience’ attribute of New Zealand agriculture is integrity, David said.
“When you make a deal or agree to something in New Zealand, we take it for granted it will happen. It’s just second nature to us. But in the rest of the world, that’s not necessarily a given.”
A constraint is that most arable growing happens in Canterbury, a province that is “pretty much full up” in terms of land use. New Zealand needs to identify which are the best other areas in which to expand arable, whether it’s financially viable, and then to invest in infrastructure such as seed cleaning plants.
A big range of the crops we grow, particularly when hybridised, are pollinated. So crop isolation is needed so that crossing of those crops doesn’t occur. It’s another reason for looking for more growing areas outside the Canterbury concentration.
David fielded questions around mixed farming and C4 photosynthetic plants and synthetic seeds. He said there were good prospects for integration of arable crops within a dairy platform in New Zealand, with crops grown in the rephasing stage able to help a dairy farm reduce its greenhouse gas profile.
As New Zealand warms with climate change, there are prospects for C4 plants, David said, but we’ve probably looked more closely here at endophytes to give us heat stress gains. If New Zealand was to get more into C4 plants “it’s probably going to need better access to gene editing and those types of techniques”.