My latest collection of farm publications included these headlines:

• More innovation needed – PM

• (Ag) Science suffers as middle managers meddle more and more

• Fonterra to wield the axe

• Bees vanish as parasite spreads

• Too many people are dying on farms

• Exporters missing out on leveraging Brand NZ

• Primary sector’s shortcomings outlined

The last headline relates to KPMG’s latest Agribusiness Agenda, an authoritative annual review of what farming leaders deem necessary to lift their sector’s performance.

Speaking of New Zealand’s aspirational role as the ‘world’s delicatessen’, KPMG’s Ian Proudfoot comments that “environmental reputation would underpin everything”. Farmers could no longer afford to do the right thing just because a regulation told them to. “It’s no longer acceptable to do the bare minimum”. Consumers are defining sustainability as being able to farm indefinitely. This is KPMG speaking, not the Green Party!

The report says: “…the industry needs to be ruthless in culling poorly performing operators … No primary sector business should be allowed to ‘freeload’ on the efforts of the wider industry.”

With tough words like these from the industry itself, you might think that any initiative to ‘raise the bar’ for current farming practices would be more than welcome. Especially here in Hawke’s Bay, where the primary sector forms the bedrock of our regional economy.

Yet consider what happened when a group of Hawke’s Bay’s most experienced farmers/growers, farm advisers and economists, and soil/land management experts recently made a proposal to do just that to the Regional Council.

Here’s the still-growing group (organizations for identification only): John Bell (Massey), Dan Bloomer (Centre for Land & Water/ LandWISE), John Bostock (biggest organic grower), Murray Cammock & Andrew Wilson (CHB farmers), Garth Eyles (soil expert and former HBRC land management manager), Scott Lawson (LandWISE, HB Veggie Growers), David Manktelow (farm consultant), Nicole Masters & Phyllis Titchinin (soil consultants), Barrie Ridler (farm economist), and Ngahiwi Tomoana (Ngāti Kahungunu).

These are folks with well-established credibility and deep networks into the region’s agriculture sector. They called for a step-change improvement in Hawke’s Bay farming practices, aimed at better productivity, profitability AND sustainability. They argued that Hawke’s Bay had plenty of talent right here in the region to get the job done, if the Regional Council would help kickstart the initiative.

They proposed creating a Hawke’s Bay Future Farming Centre.

Unfortunately, most of the Council resisted … one councillor called their proposal ‘too big’. A senior staffer, meeting with representatives of the group, basically said: ‘Who the heck are you?!’ Yet people wonder what holds Hawke’s Bay back!

Especially in view of the fact that the Government has just proposed a $25 million fund to seed the creation of four Regional Research Institutes to advance regional economies. The Government is looking to seed fund precisely the kind of public/private entities the Future Farming group is proposing. From the Government announcement:

“The proposed new research institutes would support innovation in regional areas … by maximising the unique business, technology, and economic growth opportunities in a region.

“They would be funded from a mixture of public and private sources … We envisage funding the launch of between one and three new institutes over the next four to five years depending on demand.

“Regional Research Institutes would focus on scientific research relevant to a particular region, with a strong emphasis on the effective transfer of research into new technologies, new firms, and new products and services.”

One to three centres, “depending on demand”! You can bet your butt that councils from Southland to Northland have read that announcement and will press their case with vigour.

Here at the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council, the attitude is: We’re doing a lot already. We’ll mull it over. Maybe we’ll put a discussion on the agenda in a few months’ time. Zzzzzz!

In abridged form, here is the proposal made by our local experts. Hopefully they’ll proceed with or without Regional Council support.

What do you think of it?

Hawke’s Bay Future Farming Centre

Hawke’s Bay planners consistently emphasise that the past, present and future of the region’s economy is grounded, literally, in the primary production sector. The sector is estimated to generate upwards of 50% of the region’s GDP, when all associated business activity is taken into account.

Yet Hawke’s Bay does not have a central, focused initiative or institution dedicated to advancing the productivity and value of that sector, in the context of environmental sustainability.

We lack a regional focal point that is commensurate in scale and aspiration to the importance, now and in the future, of our primary sector.

The time has come for such a regional initiative. We have more than ample talent, right here in the region, waiting to be tapped, to fuel such an initiative and make it successful.

What limits our region’s primary sector?

Our ability to produce even more value from this sector is constrained by:

1. Less than optimal farming practices, with slow adoption of best practices and inappropriate focus on scale rather than farmer profit.

2. Inadequate focus on growing premium products and/or adding value through processing in HB.

3. Serious soil erosion and less than optimal soil health, alongside of inattention to improving hill country pasture management.

4. Inadequate marketing – including lack of a ‘HB appellation’ that clearly signals safe, sustainable, quality food.

Plus increasing shortage of well-trained farming personnel, adverse environmental impacts of some farming practices, and underutilised Māori land in multiple ownership.

Going forward, these factors must be addressed in the context of climate change and higher input and transport costs. Moreover, increased farm productivity must be achieved alongside more stringent environmental standards.

To address these issues, we need …

1. Outside of the square thinking, and willingness to challenge the status quo.

2. Total command of what constitutes best practice with respect to production, environmental protection and ecosystem services. This requires systematic scanning of the NZ and global horizons for information and technology that has practical value to HB growers facing HB conditions.

3. Direct applied research to specific HB needs, combined with effective outreach and stepped-up engagement to propagate relevant knowledge to farmers and growers – typically 10-20% of the farming community are initiators or early adopters. We are targeting the next 60%.

4. Incentives – financial and regulatory – for adoption of new technologies and practices.

5. Food products and marketing aligned with the food safety and sustainability values of premium global customers.

All of these objectives championed by an independent Hawke’s Bay-based institution devoted to our primary sector … The HB Future Farming Centre.

Getting Started

We would begin by undertaking a stocktake of all initiatives currently impacting farming practices in Hawke’s Bay, including the stakeholders, resources, and current levels of knowledge and uptake. This includes tapping HBRC’s growing regional knowledge of soil mapping, land use capability, hydrology, ecosystem services, climate factors and environmental health.

Looking beyond Hawke’s Bay, we must investigate known science through formal literature review, and identify initiatives occurring elsewhere that have applicability to our region.

We’d then develop specific ‘smarter farming’ options for HB, assessing the practicality of specific farming systems – forages, crops, animal and pasture systems, erosion control, land retirement, complementary industries (such as mānuka honey) – suited to HB’s growing conditions. Applied research projects specific to the needs of Hawke’s Bay would be conducted. On-farm trials would evaluate performance of specific systems that emerged from the research process.

Dissemination and on-farm adoption of new approaches would be promoted using demonstration farms and local farmer groups, workshops, design of farm-specific management plans, assistance from extension staff, plus online learning and information to enhance.

The Centre would promote agriculture as a career path for HB youth, and recommend regional policies and incentivise to encourage best practices.

Eventually, the Centre would move beyond on-farm practices to address the marketing challenges and prospects of our Hawke’s Bay ‘appellation’ – extracting and attaching more value to what we produce.

Here in stagnating Hawke’s Bay we yearn for greater and more sustainable returns from our primary sector. But we will not succeed unless we break through the historic logjam of slow farmer adoption of best practices. To break through we must drive the process from within the region, tapping the talent and experience of local, switched-on practitioners in Hawke’s Bay.

We need a credible independent institution – our regional centre of excellence – persistently advocating farming approaches whose benefit has been proven right here in our region, in our farming conditions.

That institution is:

The Future Farming Centre.

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