Farm advice: Arable sector's time to shine

By: Alison Stewart, Foundation for Arable Research CEO


FAR CEO Alison Stewart tells us how New Zealand-grown grain and silage can add value to the livestock sectors

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For many years, the arable sector has been viewed as the invisible partner of New Zealand agriculture. A somewhat harsh viewpoint maybe, but with a strong ring of truth given our predominantly domestic commodity market focus and the fact that we’ve chosen to fly under the radar on most of the major policy issues affecting New Zealand’s economic, environmental, and social development.

However, I believe the ‘invisible partner’ image is slowly changing and could change even more if the entire sector worked together to make it happen.

Think about COVID-19. What was the first food to fly off the supermarket shelves as New Zealand moved into lockdown? Not meat, not milk, not fruit, but bread, then flour, and pasta. What was the thing that Kiwis were hanging out to do once lockdown was over? Head out to a local café for a decent coffee and cake or tea and biscuits.

Suddenly, the New Zealand public recognised the value of having a local grains industry, something that they had been taking for granted for years.

Add to that the challenging drought conditions in the North Island over the last six months, which have driven a strong demand for more locally produced animal feed, and the role of the New Zealand arable sector in sustaining the New Zealand economy is starting to become more obvious to a lot more people.

And there’s more to arable than food and feed. Integrating arable crops into farming systems could contribute to a reduction in New Zealand’s agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and help protect our natural resources, supporting our position as a leader in sustainable food production. Achieving this will require a re-setting of the New Zealand agri-landscape, with a move towards more diversified and integrated farm systems utilising the very best of New Zealand’s animal and plant productive capabilities.

The much tried-and-tested mixed cropping/livestock system suddenly becomes an attractive option when you’re looking for a business model that has a positive environmental footprint and delivers the resilience and adaptability that we know will be required into the future. You don’t need to be a brain surgeon to work out the potential opportunities for cropping in this future scenario.

So what next? How can we build on all the good things arable has to offer?

The next three to five years will be crunch time for the arable sector. It can choose to stay under the radar and let the larger primary sectors direct New Zealand’s agri-economic and environmental development, or it can stand up and be counted by promoting the benefits of arable cropping to the other sectors, to the Government, and to the wider New Zealand public. As a sector, we have strong messages that should resonate with each of those groups.

We know New Zealand-grown grain and silage can add value to the livestock sectors. We need to bring the evidence to the table and present it in a way that encourages them to embrace it as part of their systems.

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We know the Government is committed to reducing the environmental impacts of the agricultural sector. We need to provide it with data that illustrates our positive environmental footprint and the opportunities to integrate crops into other systems to mitigate their risks and enhance their footprint.

We know that New Zealanders like the idea of eating food grown in New Zealand. We need to raise awareness among New Zealand consumers about the many benefits of locally sourced grain and other arable crops.

As a sector, we’re in a strong position to deliver these messages. We have a vibrant research agency in FAR that can deliver the research to show the benefits of arable cropping. We have strong advocacy operating at all levels within both our sector and the wider agricultural sector. We have re-invigorated our whole of industry body AFIC (Arable Food Industry Council) to build a common vision across the supply chain. And, of course, we have nearly 3000 growers that operate at the highest level of technical competency, showing a level of business acumen, adaptability and innovation that exceeds many other sectors.

But we need to lift our game. Collectively, we need to take every opportunity to promote and profile our sector. If the New Zealand public sees the benefits in what we grow and how we grow it, they will act as the lever for change within the retail markets which in turn will drive change in the supply chain.

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Similarly, as a sector, arable has to become more vocal in the policy and advocacy space. Most government agencies have a very simplistic view of what we are and what we do. We need to work together to provide them with an understanding of how arable underpins much of New Zealand’s agricultural sector by producing seed and providing feed.

But this advocacy, education, and promotion has to be a joined-up, whole sector focus. FAR can fund the research needed (including market research), but it will take more resources (time, money, energy) than we have to drive all of the cogs in the wheel to get us to where we want to be.

So, the big question is, do you as growers want to get out from under the radar, and help make things happen for your industry? FAR is ready to support you if the answer is yes.  

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