Photo Credit: Florence Charvin

Back in July, BayBuzz asked a variety of Bay ‘thinkers’ how our region might best learn from and survive our pandemic experience.

Marketing guru Kim Thorp responded: 

“What’s the one fundamental thing above all others that could help us prosper if we embraced it or devastate us if we destroyed it?

I would suggest it is our ability to grow and produce food … What if we were genuinely and famously one of the world’s most authentic and exciting growers, sellers, preparers, cooks, educators and orators of world class food and wine?

“If we started with the bedrock of our reset being our ability to grow, export, prepare and present high quality, world respected, sustainable food, it would not only keep us real and faithful to our past, it would help guide and clarify some very big decisions for our future.”

Kim’s remarks offer a superb prelude to this edition of BayBuzz – all about food – and particularly to this article, where we asked a few other HB thought leaders to speculate about the future of Hawke’s Bay’s food economy.

Steve Smith MW, co-founder of Craggy Range, former chancellor of Lincoln University and more recently, as a member of the Primary Sector Council, was a key architect of the ‘Fit for a Better World’ vision and strategy, now embraced by Government.

Steve leads off with a ‘50,000 foot’ view of the ‘discerning consumer’ and what will be required of our region’s food producers – and their surrounding environmental context and ethos – if they are to succeed in the future marketplace. He refers to “our tribe of consumers” … “the world’s most discerning consumer who has the means to spend what they really want to on their food, clothes, shoes, homewares and drinks.”

As Steve sees it, “Hawke’s Bay Food Inc” must deliver a consistent ‘food experience’ genuinely grounded in sustainable, health-oriented values.

Then, Jason Ross, co-founder and CEO of premium meat producer and marketer, First Light, carries this point further, discussing “Brand Hawke’s Bay”. 

Referring to those same values, he urges, “Let’s engage and attract those people who share our moral compass.” And he warns, “…if one part of Brand Hawke’s Bay is inconsistent, it will tarnish the whole … We don’t need to be perfect – we just need to be on a pathway to making things better, not worse.”

Yummy Fruit general manager Paul Paynter takes a pragmatic, on-the ground approach in his essay. He writes, “…there is no revolution happening. Improvements in farming reflect hundreds of small refinements that will make us dramatically more efficient and sustainable.” 

He points to Hawke’s Bay’s labour shortfall and costs at all levels – issues addressed elsewhere in this edition – as a serious ongoing challenge to HB’s horticulture and viticulture viability. But on the other hand, he enthusiastically describes technology advances that will improve productivity, concluding, “The big challenge for our industry is to achieve technology-driven productivity gains that trump higher wage costs.”

And finally, True Health soil advisor Phyllis Tichinin takes us right to the foundation of HB’s agrarian economy … the soil. Before we can lay claim to ‘top of the pyramid’ food consumers, we must ensure the superior nutritional health and safety of our food products. And that begins with biologically healthier soils.

She says, “…natural farming systems produce at least as much, of better quality, at lower cost while improving the environment. This perspective is no longer fringe, it’s front and centre for our consumers.” She refers to “nutrition per hectare” as the ultimate measure. Steve Smith also emphasises soil health and Jason Ross comments approvingly on “regenerative agriculture”.

And each of our HB commentators is very clearly consumer-focused … and reading a particular consumer expectation and dynamic at the high end of the market. Is it an accurate read? And should it drive Hawke’s Bay’s food future?

Well, it’s increasingly the vision of the planet’s food giants – take for example Nestlé, world’s largest food merchant, and General Mills, a US$17.6 billion food marketer.

From Nestle:

Nestle is “working with over 500,000 farmers and 150,000 suppliers to support them in implementing regenerative agriculture practices. Such practices improve soil health and maintain and restore diverse ecosystems. In return, Nestlé is offering to reward farmers by purchasing their goods at a premium, buying bigger quantities and co-investing in necessary capital expenditures. Nestlé expects to source over 14 million tons of its ingredients through regenerative agriculture by 2030.”

From General Mills:

“We began to discover the incredible power of improved soil health to do so many of the things we were trying to accomplish with our sustainability initiatives – improve water stewardship, reduce climate impact, create stronger supply chain resiliency, increase biodiversity, all while improving farmer profitability.

“We believe soil health is the cornerstone of regenerative agriculture, which is a number of key principles, that when stacked together, really unlock and unleash some incredible power. Simply put, regenerative agriculture is about seeing the farm as more of an ecosystem and viewing common issues like pests, weeds, disease, and nutrient deficiency not just as problems to be patched with a synthetic input, but instead as a symptom of an unhealthy ecosystem … We see regenerative agriculture as a lasting solution to a healthier ecosystem.”

This is the page Hawke’s Bay farming need to be on. Read on and see if you agree. First, Steve Smith.

Hawke’s Bay Food Inc.
By Steve Smith

We need to be clear. Delicious, distinctive, nutrient dense, good for you and good for the planet food, natural fibres and beverage is the proposition in that order. Our consumer is the world’s most discerning consumer who has the means to spend what they really want to on their food, clothes, shoes, homewares and drinks. 

Let me take you through it.

A consumer’s first motivation is to satisfy their own, some may say, selfish emotional and physical needs before anything else. Food and drinks for these people need to taste great; fashion, carpet and upholstery needs to be comfortable and make them look and feel good, nutraceuticals that don’t deliver genuine wellbeing will just occupy a moment in time. In nearly every case the aesthetics and quality of the experience will have to meet their emotional and rational needs. 

Discerning consumers will never be a long term lover of a product/brand if these needs aren’t satisfied every time they experience it. The great brands and products do this every time, Apple iPhone, Allbirds, Mercedes, Dom Perigon Champagne …

So if we are a Hawke’s Bay farmer, grower, fisher, maker or crafter we must satisfy these needs first. Saying we are regenerative … organic … sustainable … GM free means diddly squat in the long term if we don’t satisfy the consumers desire for personal fulfilment first. 

We are well placed to do the quality and integrity of product bit … the quality of aesthetics and either purchase or consumer experience needs a lot of work.

And here is where the big opportunity comes in. 

First. Assume we honour what I said above, then imagine if everything we produce can be good for our tribe of consumers – healthy, nutrient-dense food, drinks and nutraceuticals. 

What does that mean? Well, we have to prove they are actually good for them by using great science. And, as well in my view, there is no question they will need to be free of anything people think may be bad for them – such as synthetic industrialised additives and pesticides.

Second. Care for the planet must be genuine, transparent and supported by real measurement. 

The days of green washing, or hiding behind social issues are over; the world is totally connected. The opportunity lies in becoming ultra-transparent in identifying what our good-for-the-planet initiatives are, and how we are solving them. 

What do our consumers care about in this space? 

It’s carbon, water, biodiversity and people. Our production systems, designed by a unique combination of natural wisdom and science, must become carbon sinks, not carbon polluters, measured biologically, not using a flawed political or taxation basis. Healthy soil is a key. 

Our colour is blue, we are a country of water. Discerning consumers will expect us to have the healthiest water systems in the world. Monocultures will not be supported; biologically diverse ecosystems that protect species diversity and resilience will. The wellbeing of our communities must be a responsibility for all of us, particularly in our industry ensuring they have access to healthy nutritious food. We shouldn’t try to feed the world if we can’t feed our own.

Finally, there is no other country that has the natural capital available to realise this opportunity. Our island nature, temperate climate, beautiful soil, energetic sunlight, available natural rainfall, and great farmers is the reason why we can produce this healthy, distinctive food, fibres and drinks. Hawke’s Bay has New Zealand’s most comprehensive food, fibres and drinks proposition and should be the leader, it’s as simple as that. 

And we should stop giving money away to others in the value chain that don’t add value, we need to take more charge of our own destiny and ensure more value comes back to our communities. No one said it was going to be easy, but it will be worth it.

“The days of green washing, or hiding behind social issues are over; the world is totally connected. The opportunity lies in becoming ultra-transparent in identifying what our good-for-the-planet initiatives are, and how we are solving them.” 

Steve Smith | Hawke’s Bay Food Inc.

What about genetic modification?
By Steve Smith 

There is no doubt that the world’s discerning consumer has a distaste for genetically modified food. However a lot of research has shown that they don’t understand what in fact it is they don’t like. 

Let’s get real here. Humans have been genetically modifying plants and animals since agriculture became real after the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago. We started selecting the best from nature’s pool – the Ambrosia apple being an example of this. We also started using a whole lot of scientific breeding techniques to select desirable genes in both plants and animals – the Fuji apple being an example of this – creating huge benefits for all in the agricultural value chain. 

We have been modifying the genetics of our plants and animals forever, and everyone has benefited. 

However consumers hate the idea of genetic modification when breeders play with the gene pool of separate genus that normally wouldn’t breed in nature, and force them together. And so they should see this as distasteful. If it can’t happen in nature, then it shouldn’t happen in my view. 

But what if these scientific techniques could simply allow what could actually happen to our plants and animals in nature by chance, to happen much more quickly and in a more precise, outcome-based approach? Disease resistant, drought tolerant, awesome taste as examples. 

My guess is that most discerning consumers would have no problem with that, yet the world still seems to be putting these gene-editing technologies in the same bucket as the ‘day of the triffids’, ‘frog gene in my tomato’ genetic technologies. 

As is nearly always the case, it is perception and communication that is the issue, not necessarily the technology. 

Brands for consumers who share our moral compass
By Jason Ross

We decided to domicile First Light in Hawke’s Bay back in 2003 because we saw opportunity. Opportunity looked like a beautiful place, with an established agricultural base, good infrastructure and capable people. 

It wasn’t long before we realised we weren’t the only people who saw Hawke’s Bay as a desirable location in which to live and bring up children, as we were doing. In those early days we received the odd resume from outside the region, and we occasionally saw a new face in the bars and restaurants that were popping up. 

Slowly but surely the word got out and the people started to come – good people, with ideas, creativity and the motivation to make Hawke’s Bay their home. Today Hawke’s Bay is a vibrant, diverse, interesting place to live and the world is starting to catch on. 

We invented 100% grass-fed Wagyu for the Californian consumer who wanted to eat healthier beef, but had grown used to the mild flavour of a grain-fed product. We chose California because it made sense to go fishing where the fish are. First Light created a product to meet an unfulfilled need for a very specific consumer group – people who understood and saw value in our proposition. Once we knew them better, we refined our products to meet their needs. 

We believe that is the lens through which Hawke’s Bay needs to view and then shape its future – let’s engage and attract those people who share our moral compass. 

An agricultural strategy must be a component part in the overall Hawke’s Bay strategy. If we are to attract the right people – those who want to live here, or visit here, or buy Hawke’s Bay brands – Hawke’s Bay needs to deliver on all fronts. People are smart and intuitive – if one part of Brand Hawke’s Bay is inconsistent, it will tarnish the whole. But people are also pragmatic and forgiving. We don’t need to be perfect – we just need to be on a pathway to making things better, not worse. 

Brands play a critical role in defining the perception of a place. 

It wasn’t the German government that made Germany synonymous with engineering – it was Mercedes and BMW. Nor was it the French government that made France the home of fashion and luxury consumables. That was Louis Vuitton, Hermes and Moet & Chandon. 

As well-organised and capable as our councils, economic development agencies and regional tourism organisations are, they can only do so much. Hawke’s Bay needs products and stories we can all promote. We need exemplars and success stories. The more we have, the louder our voice will be, and we’ll be appealing to exactly those people we wish to attract. 

So, a key role agriculture will play in the betterment of the Hawke’s Bay brand is to build brands people love. And it’s helpful if the brands we build are loved by people around the world. Kiwis have a funny attitude to success – we value world domination more than we do achievement at home. So, global success brings with it the twin benefits of broadening our reach internationally and soliciting the support of people within Hawke’s Bay and New Zealand. 

Increasingly, agriculture is being asked to prove its role as part of the Hawke’s Bay ecosystem. Along with many other producers, First Light is sharpening up its knowledge around the principles of regenerative agriculture, a movement gaining momentum internationally. Here’s the good news: the majority of New Zealand sheep, deer and beef farming operations already sit within the broad definition of regenerative farming. A number of improvements may need to be made with time and knowledge, however we’re not entering this race from a standing start. 

It’s beholden upon those businesses who are playing a role in defining Brand Hawke’s Bay to tell the stories of all the good things we are doing on-farm. In our experience, we have a receptive audience internationally, and our success overseas will play a role in winning support at home. 

First Light believes Hawke’s Bay has the potential to take its place alongside the iconic food and wine destinations of the world. We see value in Hawke’s Bay being a destination for foodies who want priceless experiences – people who will come here, spend their money and leave as brand ambassadors. 

For that to occur we need Brand Hawke’s Bay. It’s already happening, slowly, as small brands become bigger and bigger brands learn how to better tell their stories. But as the agriculture sector, we can and need to do better. 

The greater our success globally, the better it is for Brand Hawke’s Bay. And that’s how we’ll win support at home. 

Our food production success hinges on technology
By Paul Paynter

The fundamentals of producing sheep, wheat or apples hasn’t changed too much over time. Technology is changing things, but slowly. 

The media love stories of pace and precocity; the 18 year-old that just bought their first home or the technological breakthrough that will quickly revolutionise the world. It makes for a decent read, but things actually happen slowly. 

The fundamentals of producing sheep, wheat or apples hasn’t changed too much over time. Technology is changing things, but slowly. 

With that caveat, here are two trends I see affecting Hawke’s Bay food production.

Sensing technology

The most important technological change in farming is in the field of remote sensing. At one end of the spectrum are satellite or aerial photography. The resolution of these images has improved dramatically and is infinitely more useful. The newer domain is that of drone-based data capture. 

While buzzing airborne drones are what people think of, ground-based drones are also developing quickly and have proved infinitely more durable. The data they capture isn’t just based on photographic images; they can use microwave, laser and magnetic techniques to gather electromagnetic information or to use fluorescent, infrared or any other light-based techniques. 

One drone operator I spoke to had used 13 different types of sensors on his drone, capturing all manner of data. I asked him what it was for and he replied, with no sense of irony, “We don’t know yet.” They’re capturing all the data and then correlating it with the data from the actual crop and location. Hopefully from all this they can work out what information is helpful and what is not.

In the field, remote sensing allows for precision management of crops. You can predict and observe the performance of different soil types and monitor water stress, pockets of disease, yield and biomass differences. With this information you can potentially start managing a crop down to the plant level, rather than as a whole field. The impacts of this will be dramatic. It will allow farmers to irrigate, spray and fertilise only those plants that need it. It will also allow them to identify pockets of poor soil, pests or diseases that present reoccurring problems. They’ll be able to adjust the planting density or management inputs of that specific area to achieve more consistent yields.

At the other end of production, fruit and vegetable packing lines are now using optical, infra-red, NIR, fluorescence response and other techniques to evaluate quality and eliminate substandard items. Some of this technology is focused only on the surface of the fruit or vegetable, but others use transmittance to pass light through the specimen, scouring its internal attributes. All of us have cut a potato or apple, only to find it is brown in the middle and this technology will go a long way to screening the proverbial ‘bad’ one.

Most of these techniques have been around for two generations or more, but the algorithms are so vast that the computers of the day could not process the data at a rate of hundreds of units a minute. Now we can do on two computers what used to take five. Refinement of these technologies has the potential to deliver more reliable quality to consumers across the globe and to justify the premiums we will need to ask for. 

Labour costs

The other trend having a significant impact is the cost of labour. The minimum wage has gone up about 30% in the past three years which is putting the squeeze on margins for many in the rural sector. In the apple industry, our key seasonal competitors are Chile and South Africa, who have much cheaper land and labour than we do. 

The truth is, the wage range in the fruit industry has never been greater. You need talented people to manage all of the emerging technology and ‘new money’ investors like Rockit and Craigmore are perfectly happy to pay a premium to secure existing industry talent. Both the demand and competition for talent are very strong. Wages are growing much faster than inflation. 

Rising wages are a good sign, but also a double-edged sword. The more you pay people, the more you expect of them and there is a renewed focus on labour productivity. 

Right through our sector there is the steady arrival of robots and unmanned vehicles. It is unnerving to see a tractor driving itself in the field, but that will be happening in Hawke’s Bay somewhere today. There is also a trend toward elevated platforms to replace ladders and even robotic harvesting of fruit. 

Prototype sprayers can map each bud on every tree and spray an orchard to the bud level. It might be a decade or more before many of these technologies are sufficiently reliable and cheap enough to become ubiquitous. Moreover, the technology developers are now requesting we change out tree architecture to make orchards more ‘robot ready’. Given we expect an apple orchard to have a life of greater than 30 years, this could take a while.

I doubt any futurist will write about what is going on because there is no revolution happening. Improvements in farming reflect hundreds of small refinements that will make us dramatically more efficient and sustainable. 

The big challenge for our industry is to achieve technology-driven productivity gains that trump higher wage costs.

Biology, not chemistry, must fuel our food future 
By Phyllis Tichinin 

What with Covid-wonky markets and labour shortages, we need the highest premium possible for our Hawke’s Bay agricultural produce. 

We’ve been saying for decades that we produce the best in the world and in large part we do, but the quality goal posts are shifting. We can no longer rest on our branding or our supply chain tracking laurels. Consumer phone-based food quality testing is around the corner and then there will be no place to hide. 

If we get on with farming innovations smartly, we won’t need to hide. We could justifiably brag from the global rooftops that we produce the most flavourful, healthiest, longest-storing food in the cleanest environment … Hawke’s Bay meeting its true potential for paradise. We have a choice now to get out in front or get left behind. Here’s how we get out in front, on all fronts.

Principles 

A diverse farm ecosystem is a more productive one, so plant multi-species understories in orchards and vineyards. Intercrop and rotate. Plant 20+ species hedgerow strips inside the orchard windbreaks and around cropping paddocks for beneficial insect habitat. Diversity is key. 

Keep soils covered at all times with diverse living plants or with covercrop residue. Have something green growing and feeding soil microbes throughout the year – NO bare soil ever!

Microbes rule, so keep them healthy and well fed. First, do no harm to your soil’s engineers, which means back off the pesticides and herbicides. The sooner you get rid of the chemicals, the faster your microbes will recover to feed and protect your plants for maximum flavour and yield. As a bonus, microbe-rich soils hold more water and can help recharge and cleanse our aquifers.

Less chemical and tillage disruption means more healthy microbes working to provide minerals to plants so they can create more flavour molecules with better tissue integrity that resists pests. If we continue to apply chemicals and leave soil bare, then we’ll continue to fight an expensive losing battle with diseases and storage rot, while yielding only modest flavour. Don’t sweat the weeds – they provide ground cover and diversity.

Where to?

Growers are embracing some of these principles. I see more vineyards with grass directly under the vines and with flowers between the rows. 

High-end consumers are happy to pay more for verifiable nutrient density and no chemicals based on reliable measurements they can take themselves before they buy. 

The Felix F-750 developed by Queensland Central University is already in use in New Zealand, measuring produce dry matter, brix, acid and colour related to harvest readiness. Several international initiatives are closing in on creating hand-held devices that measure food mineral and antioxidants levels as well. Measurements of chemical residues are close behind. 

The BioNutrient Association based in the USA is working on its third version of a smaller device that measures mineral levels – keyed to a grower/consumer testing app – to identify the management practices that produce the highest quality crops. They are finding that crop mineral content can vary by up to 200 times depending on how the crop is grown. We will soon be called on to justify our production in terms of Nutrition per Hectare.

Innovation is the basis of better farming and living, but what we were taught about farming isn’t the full story. Cutting edge science supports a biology view of food production, not a chemistry one. Biologically diverse, humus-forming soils grow high brix, nutrient dense crops that don’t attract insects and diseases. 

Concerns about pesticide spraying and food residues is not paranoia. Ag chemicals are a major factor in our worsening human and ecosystem health. Ignoring the objective science on this is dangerous to our branding, our pocketbooks and our lives. 

We’re understandably uncomfortable admitting that. We battle with our own mindset and actions in farming over the last 80 years. The science not paid for by chemical suppliers documents that natural farming systems produce at least as much, of better quality, at lower cost while improving the environment. This perspective is no longer fringe, it’s front and centre for our consumers.

A shift in farm aesthetics is recommended. Think of weeds and ‘messy’ borders as appealing diversity. Use tillage only to incorporate weeds and residues. Spraying becomes a method for applying nutrition not toxins. Farm personnel and neighbour satisfaction increases along with profits. 

Farming needn’t degrade the ecosystem we are part of. Farming can restore its health, our health and the health of our customers. Can we be responsive and responsible? Innovative and science-based? Can we be brave and caring? 



Photo Credit: Florence Charvin

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