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Bruce Wills sees encouraging progress on a number of fronts based on science, market research, and sector strategies

Bruce Wills sees encouraging progress on a number of fronts based on science, market research, and sector strategies

By Bruce Wills*

Every time you think we know all there is to know about agriculture, nature has a habit of coming along, tapping you on the shoulder and reminding you that really, we don’t.

Like sand flies in summer, not all native species are what you could describe as cute, cuddly or wanted.

Porina caterpillars love to chew the grass equally of lawns in-town and farm pasture in the countryside.

Meanwhile, grass grubs attack grass from below ironically proving that beside scale, both town and country have much in common.

These insects do their worst during the key periods of growth for pasture and lawns alike.

If you live in town and find bare patches of lawn odds are you’ll know what I mean.

Since pasture is the engine room of any farm and directly supports half of everything we export to the world, helping to pay our way in it, farmers will spend many millions of dollars trying to control these insects.

Nature being nature means this becomes a biological game of whack-a-mole. 

Luckily for us that porina and grass grub are both natives. That means something would have co-evolved with them to help keep their numbers in check.

That we are slowly finding out what these natural controls are affirms my faith that science can and will rise to the challenges we face.

In the blue corner against porina comes AgResearch’s Yersina entomophaga MH96; a natural bacteria.

The Christmas before last saw Rural News report that porina after ingesting it developed a range of toxins causing the caterpillar to die rapidly.

Proving why we say good things take time, like with improving water quality, MH96 was only identified in 1996 but it has only broken cover in recent years.

In the red corner against grass grubs comes the Foundation for Arable Research’s 2013 discovery that the maggots of a native carnivorous fly called Ostenia robusta have a taste for the grubs. FAR’s recent fly discovery, like AgResearch’s MH96, will take time to commercialise but they prove how resourceful our scientists are in finding innovative solutions to the problems we collectively face. 

These discoveries and there are more beside, prove to me just how little we know about what’s under our feet.

That statement is also proven by our meat and fibre industries and the millions of animals who graze pasture afflicted by porina and grass grub.

It makes you wonder what we are missing out on because the revenues from red-meat exports alone are worth around 35 Avatar movies each year or some 80 times the annual revenue generated by local tech company, Xero.

When we talk reform of red-meat or of agricultural science it matters to all New Zealanders.

Federated Farmers is not one to sit back while a key industry fails to fulfil its true potential. That is why we have put to our members a range of reform options that will inform our strategy for 2014. There is no reason why meat and fibre could not be as big as dairy once again but it all starts with belief.

We have put three broad options to our members: Processor Focused, Behaviour Focused and Marketing Focused.

To be fair, there are many suggestions within each of the options so it is more like a pick ‘n’ mix.  It does canvas the big issues like a Fonterra type approach to the separation of processing and marketing we call toll processing.

Even fishing quota like Tradable Processing Rights are in the mix right through to an ANZAC approach for marketing and research.

None of these ideas are new but joining the dots is.

One idea that is new comes to us via the successful Uruguayan red-meat industry. We call it total value transparency and it is about transparent information so that coordination, collaboration and in-market behaviour can finally be quantified.  For farmers, it would tell us where the value is being added to what we produce. 


Farms For Sale: the most up-to-date and comprehensive listing of working farms in New Zealand, here »

Another example of new thinking comes from wool, which is fast regaining its mojo thanks to design houses like Wellington’s The Formary. 

In December we got the fantastic news that a new fabric blend of Kiwi mid-micron wool and Chinese rice straw is to start commercial production mid-year. 

This has the potential to perhaps create significant demand for New Zealand crossbred wool.

Co-founder, Bernadette Casey, is one of those great visionary Kiwis who can see new ways of reinventing wool.

The new fabric is also being shown to North American and European furniture manufacturers and distributors. Given China has overtaken Australia as our largest export destination this has the potential to be big.

What The Formary shows me is that our economic future is about taking what we do best and vastly increasing its value through intellectual property.

Bernadette Casey has not missed what’s beneath her feet and we need more like her to make 2014 the year we finally get the bugs out of meat and fibre. In the case of porina and grass grub that’s quite literally.


Bruce Wills is Federated Farmers President

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Some interesting info there, Mr Willis.

One thing to note though, with regards to the Avatar movies, and Xero, is that they make a lot better margin, especially with regards to the yield of the assets/money that is put up.  That reflects just how real farmers (ie those almost solely dependent on farm produce sale for revenue  (vs landlords, accountants/lawyers/etc, or subsidised partnerships)) are struggling to keep up with the required levels of change/development.

 All fine to monetise (commercialise) the insect discoveries for instance...but as many are finding it's only the old money and the queen streeters who can afford such things.

None of these ideas are new but joining the dots is.
Agree Bruce - NZ agriculture has definitely struggled there, and I suspect also with logic/analysis.
But I note your heading ommits any mention of economics?

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