April 18, 2011

The death of agricultural research and extension in New Zealand - a personal view

By Dr Clive Dalton

The day we were told to ‘Go Out & Sell’
Agricultural research in New Zealand, the foundation of our national economy for well over 100 years, died in my view the day we were told to go out and ‘market our services to clients’ – very strange words to our ears at the time. We soon learned that this was bureaucratic code to get out and sell what we had previously provided for free! I remember that day well - it must have been in the early 1980s. But first some background.

‘Change’ - the first worrying signs

The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF), which evolved from the New Zealand Department of Agriculture had ‘Divisions’ - Research, Advisory, Animal Health, Meat, Dairy, and Fisheries. 'Information Services' was not a Division but was attached to the Director General's office. These Divisions had all served farmers and fishers well since MAF’s foundation in the 1890s.

(See: White collars & gumboots: A history of the Ministry of Agriculture & Fisheries, 1892-1992. By Tony Nightingale, Dunmore Press, 1992. ISBN 086469-168-8)

In the late 1970s the cult of changing names started, which we were told was more ‘modern’ and would make us more ‘efficient and effective’. We were to hear a lot more of these two words, as corporate speak started to spread like gorse and blackberry. Like these two noxious weeds, the seeds seemed to spread in faeces carried by vectors!
We were told with great confidence that our old ‘image’ was outdated and needed updating. No doubt the PR company they asked for advice, sold them the idea and made big money from the change. I can't imagine any PR company telling a business that their old logo was OK!

Who said ‘change’ was needed?
The changes must have been spawned in Treasury with somebody proposing they would be more ‘cost effective’. Then the message would be handed down from the Minister of Agriculture to the then MAF Director General (DG).

Remembering the DG at the time, I cannot imagine him doing anything but agreeing with what came ‘down from the hill’ from the Minister’s office in the Beehive building which was fairly new. He had been a former Director of the old Farm Advisory Division.

Also remembering the Acting DG who followed him, a veterinarian who had been Director of the Animal Health Division; he wasn't a person to rock boats either, in the short time he was in charge.

MAFTech, MAFQual and MAFCorp


So the old MAF was reshuffled into MAFTech (MAF Technology), MAFQual (MAF Quality Management) and MAFCorp (MAF Corporate Services).


  • MAFTech was the old Research Division and the Farm Advisory Division.
  • MAFQual was the old Meat, Dairy, Animal Health, Horticulture Divisions and the Agricultural Quarantine Service (AQS).
  • MAFCorp was the administration staff. I think the Information Division was part of MAFCorp.



Some of us were a bit suspicious about these fancy names and the waste of money involved with new stationery and logos. The new logo which didn't impress many of us, and we felt that the money spent could have been used for better things - like research!

We lost our old logo ( below) with the ‘a’ with the fish in it which every farmer had known for donkey’s years since the days of the New Zealand Department of Agriculture.

Restructuring started quietly with parts of MAF such as Ag Quarantine and the Farm Advisors being made partially cost recoverable. And things grew from there. In 1992 more restructuring continued and MAF ended up with separate parts for MAF Policy, MAF Regulatory Authority, MAF Quality Management, Fisheries, Agriculture NZ (the farm advisors) and the MAF Corporate Office.

Later on the farm advisors in Ag NZ were purchased by Wrightsons, and was still supposed to operate as an independent business. It was the kiss of death for extensive farm advice.

Getting research out to farmers
McMeekan Communication Centre on the Ruakura campus

At the Ruakura Agricultural Research Centre, I was one of three ‘Scientific Liaison Officers’ in the McMeekan Communication Centre (1979-80). We were in MAFTech, and our job was the same as it had always been - to get the latest research information from scientists into a form which advisors and farmers could use. Somewhere along the road, 'advisers' had become 'advisors'.

We had an arsenal of ways to do this, from printed booklets and manuals, the excellent AgLink series of over 500 technical leaflets, films, displays, and our pride and joy - the Annual Ruakura Farmers’ Conferences and Field days. The 'Farmers' Hall' at Ruakura was full to the rafters with over 1000 farmers on each of two days- first dairy and then beef and sheep. There was four media tables down the side of the hall with 2-3 journalists on each.



Delivery methods
Out in the field, Farm Advisors either delivered the message from researchers to farmers themselves, or the scientists delivered it; but the best method was a combination of both.

I have fond memories of being involved in many of these combined efforts, where for example, for the farmers up the East Coast of the North Island, or the far North, two or three of us scientists would join the local farm advisors and have a Mini Farmers’ Conference in a local hall. They were a rip-roaring success for all of us, and we scientists certainly got feedback from the real world of farming. The conferences at Wairoa and at Kaiwaka in their local halls were specially memorable.

There were also regular visits by farmers (usually led by Farm Advisors) to research stations, where scientists talked about current research, and got vital feedback from farmers and advisors about this. Ruakura's Number 2 dairy was world famous for this.

At the Whatawhata Hill Country Research Station where I was a scientist for 11 years, apart from the 1000+ farmers who came to our Annual Field Day in June each year, up the twisty track up to the yards and woolshed, we regularly entertained busloads of farmers from all over New Zealand down at the office (then the old woolshed). A special feature for us was the annual visit of the third year degree students from Massy and Lincoln Universities.

It was 'two-way communication' at its very best, and we knew it worked simply because it had been proven by the work of MAF over the previous 100 years.

The Ra-Ra-Ra meeting
I was working with MAFQual on this memorable day in the 1980s. Talking to some old colleagues about it, they have this image of a large room with a stage - some think it may have been at the University of Waikato. Maybe it was a hotel in town.

We all remember that at the meeting we were honoured by the presence of a bevy of heavyweights from Head Office, and the MAF Director General of Agriculture. This meeting was part of a motivational traveling circus which went around other regions too.

Massey marketing guru
To rev us all for the new era we were addressed, (more like assaulted) by a member from the Marketing Department at Massey University. He told us all about the science, the art, the mysteries and the challenges of marketing, and it sounded all very exciting stuff. He illustrated his experience in the business using the story of the Tullen snips, and his skill in helping to make them a marketing success.

We got a fair ear bashing about the importance of ‘branding’ discussing the famous brands around the world. We had to think about MAF as a brand, and what it meant to us and our clients when they saw our logo. That's why we needed new logos of course to get away from the old public service image we were reminded.

By the end of the Tullen snips saga we were punch-drunk, and most of us left in silence. Confusion reigned – to put it mildly, as we tried to get our heads around how the heck we were supposed to make money!

But there was more to goad us on. We were told to read the classical marketing books – one in particular was 'In search of excellence' by Tom Brooks, about successful marketers in the USA. One example was the supermarket owner who made it his business to know the names of all his customers, their children and grandchildren, and stand by the door to greet them as they came in and wander around chatting to them as if they were family - and making sure they were filling their trolleys.

It was stressed that he was successful because he used MBWA (management by walking about). It was so exciting, and in a way it was like a Billy Graham meeting where at the end, we all rushed forward and committed our souls to the ‘ God of Marketing’.

The DG sent us away with his final blessing and the new MAF mantra of ‘Go forth and sell’. It wasn’t hard to work out that we were not the only ones going to be judged by our sales; he would be too – and he was probably as concerned as we were. DGs don’t like to have their butts kicked by the Minister and unseen faces in Treasury, as it could mean no gong at the end of their tenure.

Stunned and confused
The shock and confusion lasted for days, weeks and months – because although we’d been in the business of giving out advice for all of our careers in MAF, we had never had to even think about asking for money for it. The whole essence of our relationship with farmers (who were never our 'clients' for goodness sake), was based on the fact that there was no hidden motives like money, for what we told them.

Most of us in MAFQual with our separate parts, could see immediately what was coming – a bureaucratic monster of keeping time sheets, charge sheets and to sending out accounts.

MAF Information Services
As part of my role in MAFQual, I managed what had been the old 'MAF Display Unit' in Dey Street Hamilton. If you traced its roots to Head Office, I’m not sure where it would end up- I think it was in Information Services. Our office admin work was done by the wonderful staff in the Hamilton MAF office (later at Ruakura), led by Alex Taylor, the Regional Admin Officer.

They were all fantastic folk. Alex, ex NZ Navy serving on the Achilles, with 40 year’s in the public service was a master at knowing how to get around things. There would never have been a more loyal public servant in the history of MAF.

If you had a problem, Alex loved to see how it could be circumnavigated and fixed. For one National Fieldays ,where MAF a few years beforehand had acquired a permanent wooden building – again ‘arranged’ by Alex, I wanted some green shower-proof jackets for our staff so we would stand out, so farmers could see who to go to for help. We gave away thousands of AgLink leaflets at the Fieldays.

Head office said we could not buy these locally as the MAF ‘clothing contract' had been let to some major company in Wellington. Alex fixed it in two seconds by telling me to call the jackets ‘fabric’ which was under another code. The DG appeared at our stand at Fieldays, so we had a green jacket his size ready for him. He never asked who approved it as it sure wasn't an 'official uniform'.

The Unit had been set up when MAF used to go around shows and Field Days with a bus supporting Farm Advisors , and the Unit made all the displays for this. We had an office, a workshop, spray booth, dark room and our staff was made up of a graphic artist, workshop technician and photographer. They did some great work for MAF staff all over New Zealand.

By the time I joined, attending shows was over and my job as manager under the new deal was to get new business! It was a difficult concept as the customers were our own colleagues.

Our good ‘clients’
Animal Health veterinarians
The Unit did work for MAFQual vets, mainly from the Ruakura Animal Health Laboratory. I was regularly called in to suggest ideas for promotional programmes where they wanted to get their message out to earn income from their clients who were practising veterinarians. An example was the Karaka Horse Sales where they advertised the lab’s services to horse vets.

The Lab Director was very tight with his budget (to put it nicely) and seemed to think, along with many others of our other clients, that the Display Unit had a budget for their projects. He'd been a young vet in Cumberland working for a Scotsman so I certainly understood where he had picked up the habit!

Many a time I’d do a promotion job for an enthusiastic field vet, and then find out that their boss would not approve the payment! So on my time sheet I had to put my time and that of the Display Unit staff, with nothing to show for it.

Livestock officers
Livestock officers were animal health field staff , many recruited to carry out the nation-wide TB and brucellosis testing of cattle. They also had a role as animal welfare officers so could report any welfare problems they saw on farms. They were daily out on farms and were great communicators with farmers.

We at the Display Unit loved helping them with their promotional work. Outbreaks of exotic diseases were another important role they had. They were all brilliant staff to work with and we never had any concerns with them over money as they knew they had to get their boss to approve things before they came to us.

One officer Vince Roberts was a communication zealot and got money from his bosses for a trailer which he took around meetings and field days all over the region. We made him displays and he must have given away thousands of AgLink leaflets.

My not-so-good clients
Two dairy consultants
These were two Farm Dairy Advisory Officers who were national experts in their field. They were an endless source of ideas about getting milk out of cows and getting it grade-free to the factory, and in the process, making sure the cows were happy.

They were great colleagues, but they drove all of us at the Display Unit mad. After endless sessions with them discussing their ideas, they’d finalise their work for us to complete (e.g. a display, brochures, etc, etc), but then, when we had the display half made (if we were lucky), or fully made (more blinkin likely), with the work back from the printers, photos done, etc, etc, they’d want to change something – or everything!

I had to charge them for all the time and materials involved, and when they got the bill they went ballistic. They regularly would not pay, as they had to get the bill signed off by their boss who also thought we had ripped them off.

MAF meat inspectors
These had a major image problem which I worked hard to improve – but failed. They were employed by MAF and operated in all meat works. There was also a MAF veterinarian in every works, who signed off all products for export after it had been checked by the meat inspectors.

The meat inspectors were never loved by the meat workers as the inspectors could stop the killing chain, which meant loss of earnings for the workers. Inspectors could also go on strike, which again closed the works and cut workers' pay.

Photographs were a critical part of my work, but taking a camera into a meat works was as dangerous as taking in a loaded AK47. To take photos you had to get the OK from the works General Manager, the Meat Workers’ Union boss, the MAF resident vet, and even then, when a flash went off, there was always a risk of a 'stop work', and someone approaching you in a threatening way, knife in hand asking - ‘What the F**** did you take my F****** photo for. You had no F******* right to take my F****** photo'! It was not very pleasant.

Even walking through the works gate with a camera got the gate keeper on edge, and grabbing his phone to the Union boss.

Diddled
I was ‘diddled’ by my clients (my own MAF colleagues) so many times before I learned to say – ‘Look mate, let’s get this straight before we start – what’s your charge code and the size of your budget for this job’? If that was too fancy a way of putting things, I said – have you got any blardy money? I found that enthusiasm and giving out ideas was a very dangerous part of my job in this new charging environment - my clients read this as me being willing to pay too!

Large mural photographs
At the Display Unit we had the facilities to print massive mural photographs, and we had a great collection of old glass negatives from the Turnbull library. I never could find out who had acquired them, and whether they should have been sent back.

We sold many of these prints to both our MAF clients and to outside organisations. I remember helping print some and delivering them and hanging them in the Lambton Quay entrance in the new MAF Head office in Wellington.

Outside work
To try earning income, I once went to Wrightsons in Hamilton to sell them the idea of having a staff newsletter. They bought the concept so instead of me getting on and working for MAFQual’s clients – meat inspectors, dairy inspectors, Ag Quarantine staff and the like – I interviewed Wrigthson’s staff to tell them in a Newsletter what a great company they were working for. How stupid was that?

Exotic sheep
The Massey marketing guru who came to liven up our lives must have made a good impression because in no time after this, he was appointed as a Marketing Manager for MAFTech, residing initially in the Hamilton office and then at Ruakura where one of his jobs was to sell the ‘exotic sheep’, - helped by another marketing executive type.

The importation of Finn, Texel, Oxford Down and German Whitehead sheep cost a lot of money, and MAFTech must have been pushed to get some return. The Texels were most popular for their meat potential and MAF had imported top genetics from Holland, unavailable from anywhere else. The sheep were sold after MAFTech had met their research needs.

The new ‘Business Managers’ loved it
It was depressing. Suddenly there were ‘cost centres’ and ‘business managers’ who wore business suits and ties to work, carried ‘organisers’, ‘man bags’ and black leather brief cases. They wore black slip-on shoes and carried mobile phones – which in those days were large and fairly rare, so they stood out in a crowd and especially on their arrival at airports. They just loved all these trappings of importance and some power.

I often had to meet managers at Hamilton airport from Head Office, and they generally came running off the plane as they were so rushed to get to their meeting. I assumed it was a toilet stop they wanted from the food and booze they’d quaffed in the Koru lounge at Wellington airport (they all qualified for membership), but I was wrong.

In the major snow crisis in the South Island in 1999 I had to travel to Christchurch as the MAF Media person, and arrived at a closed and deserted Wellington airport. I had to take a flight to Christchurch on the hard back seat of the Westpac rescue helicopter.

In desperation I joined the Koru club to get some food, and when the Director General (no less) was checking membership some months later, I got a reprimand for doing this, as my rank did not qualify me for this honour. I should have phoned to ask for him to bring me some sandwiches and a flask of coffee to the closed-down airport!

The Ruakura MAFQual managers were given little portable word processors (like today’s laptops), but none of them could type, as before the carve up we all relied on the wonderful ladies in the typing pool. The typing pools were all split up, but what was amazing was the ease with which Apple II computers appeared on everyone’s desk, which were simply used as typewriters. Where that money came from was never explained.

The other big deal was that they were all given bank cards instead of having to get expenses refunded from the office clerk with the petty cash box. This sure was a sign of new power!

Personal Assistants (PAs) who used to be secretaries appeared, and this boosted the new power and status of both the business manager and the PA. The PA's job was to manage the manager!

Networking
Our MAFQual Regional Manager was an enthusiastic ‘networker’ – and an even more enthusiastic name dropper, and we were encouraged to develop our networks in ‘growing the business’ – another famous bit of corporate speak we learned. I enjoyed working for him as he had come from a science background.

Part of this networking carry on was to get management heavy weights from outside industries to talk to our MAFQual business managers at a four-day retreat, to goad them onwards and upwards towards commercial nirvana.

One memorable one was held at Flock House near Bulls still then under the care of MAF, and I got in as an observer because the 'new business manager' backed out - the very bloke who should have been there. I remember a session on 'synergy' by an Australian guru (at enormous expense) who had motivated the Australian army. He made us listen to 'The Bolero' to hear how all the separate instruments came in at different times, to end up as one wonderful climax. The music was great, but I was mystified as to how I could use this concept to help farmers. Maybe MAFQual needed an orchestra!

In fun, I starting using buzzwords from a ‘buzz word generator’ I had been given by an American visitor, but I had to stop as folk didn’t realise it was a spoof!

I worked out that good networkers and name droppers had to be involved with meetings all the time, so when someone wanted you, you were either (a) rushing to a meeting, (b) were in a meeting, or (c) had just finished a meeting and were preparing for the next one.

Latticing
I thought I was keeping up, but then found myself left behind again, as our MAFQual Manager started talking about ‘latticing within networks’! I gave up with fancy concepts after that, and never did get to the bottom of latticing. I had an image of it being something like darning socks, which I am still very good at.

‘Stakeholders’
This ugly word soon became a regular part of the jargon which we had to learn, and that some ‘clients’ were also stakeholders! You had to watch the spelling incase you got the wrong kind of steakholder!

‘Retreats’
To keep us on the ball, our MAFQual Director was keen on Regional Conferences at a retreat off the campus, so we could also do a bit of ‘bonding’. Taupo was a favourite spot to thrash out or plans for the future, and especially how to make more money. It was clear to the simplest of minds that we were good at spending money but not earning it.

We had to have one such urgent meeting as we were told that the business was verging on bankruptcy. If we were going broke - I could never understand why we had to spend money to meet in Taupo.

Pool cars
MAF always had a pool of cars for staff use, and in the old days this worked like a charm with some really great folk in charge of them. They saw it as their job to help you, and not make it difficult.

But in the new deal, things changed. The business managers were allowed to use their MAFQual-allocated car for private use, and in theory these cars were still part of the pool. So if all the pool cars were out and a manger’s car was in his office park (as near to his desk as possible), they were available for staff use.

But of course, theory and practice were very different and you had to be a very brave person to go and ask a manager for their car. If they did reluctantly agree, you were reminded to be back in time good time – time for them to drive home!

Time sheets

The Ruakura Homestead which in the early days had been a hostel for
students and farm staff. It was refurbished
for MAFQual to use in the late 1980s.


One day, in the refurbished Ruakura Homestead which was our excellent MAFQual headquarters, an Indian gentleman appeared around my door with a time sheet, and kindly explained how I had to fill it in every Friday.

Every 15 minutes, I had to record who I had been working for and include their ‘charge code’. He provided a list of charge codes, but there was never any code for ‘Information’ or ‘Promotion’ which was my business. I failed to ever get one, as I had to charge somebody else for everything I did. Apparently if lawyers and accountants could charge clients every 15 minutes, we as a business could follow suit.

In no time, this gentleman had acquired an army of women helpers and computers to handle all the data generated and he took over a whole wing of the Homestead. You got your sheet on Friday morning and you had to have it completed for collection on Friday afternoon, when it was processed. Presumably the Regional Accountant needed all this to justify to Head Office that we he was earning his pay.

At the end of any day, I could never remember who I had worked for every 15 mins! My phone never stopped ringing and my door was always open for staff to call in and discuss things. How could I work out who to charge for a three-minute phone call or a 10 minute chat?

So I just fudged the charge codes and put a bit on each, small enough not to trigger an inquiry. This was OK until the Regional Manager one day must have had a close look. I once attended a Facial Eczema meeting in the McMeekan Centre as the only MAFQual representative (by invitation), so I charged the four hours to Animal Health, for which the RM gave me a reprimand. He would not approve payment, as he (rightly I suppose) said we didn’t make any money from the disease, although we were the source of information for farmers about how to prevent it. It was rampant stupidity!

‘Change management’
Out of the mists of all this upheaval, we started to hear about another group that seemed to have hatched in Head Office - called ‘Change Management’. It was a mystery to us what they did other than change things, and as everyman and his dog seemed to be doing this, we couldn’t work out why did we need more of them in Head Office. This clearly was a group to keep away from, and thankfully none of them spread into the regional MAFQual office.

This certainly confirmed our suspicions that the business world and all their jargon would be the end of the way we could work for farmers. Change was going to be a permanent feature and the bureaucrats who had found a nice cosy nest in our midst - changing things, would make sure they had long-term employment.

Auditors
Strangers kept arriving in our midst who we were told were 'auditors' - accountants checking on accountants. It must have been a difficult job as they seemed to hang around the corridors for months on end like a bad smell, spending long hours in the regional accountant's office.

The Crown Research Institutes (CRIs)
Change was like a bush fire, and no doubt somebody in Treasury must have had a bright idea that research organisations should be able to attract and make money to save the taxpayer forking out for agricultural research.

So from this bad dream, the Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) were spawned, and in the case of Agriculture, 'The New Zealand Pastoral Agricultural Research Institute Ltd.' was the result set up in 1992. In 2000 this was changed to 'AgResearch Ltd.', and in true corporate style, they had a 'Mission Statement'. Many organisations also had ‘Statements of Corporate Intent’. I never knew the difference. Here’s AgResearch’s Mission Statement.

‘Our Mission is to help New Zealand lead the world in creating sustainable wealth in the pastoral sector through application of leading-edge knowledge and technologies. Our research, development and knowledge transfer is focused on five major areas - creating the future dairy, meat, textiles and biomaterials industries, helping achieve a pest and disease-free New Zealand and enabling capacity for change in agriculture and its future communities’.

Mission statements
What I always found interesting with mission statements, was how much of them could be remembered by the staff. I used to ask staff to quote their mission statement, and when this regularly failed, I used to ask if they could just quote any of the key words in it. Any who knew what I was talking about usually struggled, and you were lucky to get 4-5 words. They really needed a ‘slogan’ that they could remember and quote to their clients.

Research staff culling
Trying to get a research organisation like a SOE to make money for its shareholders (the taxpayers) never made sense. You rarely make money from research - if you understand the lag factor. Returns can be a long time in coming.

With any research organisation the biggest cost is salaries, so when the books are in the red, you cull staff - and AgResearch has certainly done that over the years with sometimes 40 going in one hit. Then with key staff gone, how can you do research, if and when some money appears?

This has been the worst advertisement in recent years for any young person to go into science in New Zealand. Needing two degrees ending up with a massive student loan and no guarantee of employment in either the short or long term, why would any young person be interested.

A recent AgResearch CEO used to use a lot of media space complaining about the lack of young people coming into science. The reason should have been staring him in the face, and especially when each bus load of staff of redundant staff went out the gate taking all their expertise and corporate memory with them.

DSIR
The other famous New Zealand research organisation, the Division of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) was morphed into ‘Environment & Science Research (ESR)’ and most of its former roles were amalgamated, and to the casual observer seemed to disappear.

Information flow
Information flow in my view died the day CRIs were set up, as from that point on, they were forced to get support from the commercial world as government funds tailed off, and the bureaucracy of applying for government money became more difficult. Scientists who had not left or been made redundant, were open in their criticism of having to spend up to 9 months of their year producing submissions for funds for the next few years to keep them going.

With AgResearch came embargos on what could be said and reported, when information could be released, and the worst part of all – what individual scientists could say to the media.

CRI Public Relations staff were haunted by any scientific or technical staff who became ‘media darlings’ and were popular for radio or TV interviews. They didn’t want to be outdone as it was boosting their image and not the company that seemed to rule their behaviour. Staff were muzzled from talking to anyone in the outside world – especially the media and farmers, if they had ever remembered who farmers were and could recognise them.

A young new Ruakura AgResearch scientist once phoned me to ask if I knew of any farmers who reared calves? She wanted to source some for her research. I felt real sorrow at how we could ever get to this stage of disconnect between researchers and farmers. I pleaded ignorance to save my pain, and told her to contact Federated Farmers who she had not heard of.

Directors of Corporate Communications (DCC)
These are the kiss of death to information flow in any organisation, and as a business or corporation grows, there seems be a death wish to appoint more of them. They immediately need assistants to give them more power, especially if the business is organised into regions. For example the AgResearch DCC is in Christchurch so to keep an eye on things on the Ruakura campus there is a 'Branding and Events Seniour Executive'. You have to wonder who dreams up all these fancy names!

I often ask newly-appointed staff in organisations bubbling with enthusiasm, if they have a DCC. If I hear an enthusiastic ‘Yes’, I tell them that they are stuffed as nothing of value to clients (farmers) will ever get out of their organisation! I am not joking as I see it so often.

Publicity is always much more about what’s going to happen (‘gunnas’), and not what has actually happened which is of use to farmers.

My reasons:
  • DCCs think that they are the only ones who can write English, and anyone else’s words will not do. Most have come from the poorly-paid media jobs to a mega salary, and will not be dictated to my mere hacks!
  • They rarely understand what a word limit is, and even when given one, their words are so important and perfect, that the publishers or editors limit shall be ignored and will be expected to print every word of their perfect prose.
  • They do not understand that the media has a thing called a deadline, and it’s usually very short like 10am tomorrow. And after deadlines are passed, printing presses worth mega millions have to roll. They think that their meetings are much more important than a journalist on the phone asking if their copy has been approved.
  • They cannot allow the staff to talk to the media, as their own importance and status will be threatened. In one classical case recently I was told that an old scientist mate who had talked to farmers for over 30 years could not speak on an issue as he had not had 'media training'.
Rock Star CEOs
The other thing that seems to have evolved with the CRIs (and other big corporates) is the culture of appointing CEOs who like to see themselves are ‘rock stars’ – demanding fat salaries, and most importantly of all – massive ‘parachute packages’ for when they bail out early from their contracts. And bail out they do – the average time in harness of a CEO is 18 months of 3-year contracts. How can the Boards of Directors who appointed them be glad to see them go so early – and then repeat the exercise over and over again?

What of the future?
I am not optimistic that agricultural research will ever recover, because in New Zealand governments have three-year terms, and it’s easy to switch off money for R&D especially in tough economic times, and not be blamed. So much momentum has been lost in applied agricultural research, and I cannot see any party with the political will to try to catch up the lost time.

AgResearch has sold off research farms, and those leased like Whatawhata would need $1.5million to tidy the place up and get it going again - probably more. The last time I walked with a group of ramblers around the farm road, the place was a neglected tip. The two staff cannot cope and in six years the CEO had been there once. I cannot bear to go back.

In any case, despite what the Treasury's books say about agriculture being the foundation of our economy, there are few politicians of any party who understand this. The current Prime Minister is also the Minister of Tourism so that doesn't help farming's political status. And the Minister of Agriculture is about 10th down the pecking order, which confirms the cabinet's political awareness about the farming and horticultural industry.

In the early 1990s an economist Dr Grant Scobie joined the staff at Ruakura and found that the return on investment in agricultural research was a massive 80%, but there was an average time lag of 10-12 years before it was fully implemented by the industry. So this again is a reason why politicians and bureaucrats can cut the money supply for research, and it never be noticed and them never blamed.

We had the age of ‘blue sky’ research bristling with high technology which was supposed to save the world. In my view it has not delivered at the farm level where farmers have to invest big to keep New Zealand moving ahead economically, in an ever-challenging world.

Sheep research & extension
This is my real major concern having been in the sheep research and extension business.

Once the world beat a path to New Zealand’s door to see how a sheep industry was run. We had the world’s top sheep academics in Ian Coop at Lincoln and Al Rae at Massey. We then had the independent MAF Research Division, the Farm Advisory Service and the Information Service. There must have been 20 of us boffins working on sheep at about 5 research stations, and some 30 Information print, radio and TV specialists in our Wellington head office.

We then had a small group of about 5 Farm specialist Advisory Officers (Animal Husbandry), who were supported by about 15 Sheep & Wool Officers and Sheep & Beef Officers. The latter were our ‘foot soldiers’ in every region, hands-on with farmers to get science into practice. There were also Farm Advisory officers in every region who dealt with farm business management issues.

Today – who? They’ve all gone to join the Dodo. This former great structure is history, killed under the heading of ‘progress’ when AgResearch was spawned. I keep asking where was AgResearch when hill country farmers were in their first crisis, never mind the subsequent ones? Nobody was home to set up a task force to package appropriate parts of the past two decades of sheep research, which could have been used to ease farmers' economic pain. For researchers to say there was no money for this is a cop-out.

So sad, and sadder still, is the fact that the whole neglect of our hill country (remember it's two thirds of New Zealand) will never be restored under the current CRI set up of research and the extension from it. It seems to me that there's nobody left who seems to know much about it any more; those who did have all gone.

The AgResearch gate sign at what was the MAF Whatawhata Hill Country Research Station summed it all up for me - total neglect of hill country farming and farmers. I'm glad to see somebody has cleaned it after my stirrings, but nothing else has changed. It's a national tragedy which I fear is now too late to rescue under the present political and CRI climate.

The sad state of hill country research

The Ministry of Science & Innovation
The evolution of this new bureaucracy is the latest development. I have little faith that much of their resources will reach hill country farmers. At the moment, nobody seems to know what it's going to do.

Comment - Professor Paul Callaghan, 2011 New Zealander of the Year
Reported in NZ Farmers Weekly, 25 April 2011 in column by Alan Emerson
  • We are a country bending over backwards to promote tourism. The Prime Minister is also Minister of Tourism.
  • Tourism is an industry for unskilled workers. This is not a route to prosperity.
  • We have Agriculture at number 10 in the cabinet,` and Research, Science & Technology at number 13.
  • We need to spend more in R&D. Israel spends 4% of GDP on it, USA 2.5%, Australia 1.6% and New Zealand 1%.
Further reading
'The triumph of the airheads and the retreat from commonsense'.
By Shelley Gare. 2006. Park Street Press. ISBN 1-876624-54-X



4 comments:

  1. Sad article - you need to get with the real world and stop living in the ivory tower. There is a real world out there matey!

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  2. Sad comment above from a person ( probably an agresearch public relations drone) too cowardly to put his name to his nasty snipimg. For me, I kill my own meat with bullet and knife so don't put me down as some kind of tree-hugger, thanks.
    Anyone who has had the misfortune to have anything to do with the 21st century incarnation of agresearch will know that the modern agresearch concentrates almost entirely on attracting funding from the biotech industry to perform experiments on animals aimed at the production of so-called "nutraceuticals". Unfortunately these experiment have not only been utterly devoid of relevent results, but have also resulted in horrendous deformities to the mutated livestock used. In fact, this is the reason why this research is done in New Zealand- because it would be totally unacceptable to public opinion in the countries where the biotech companies are based. This is the point of difference that Agresearch bases its present business model on- it is a whore who makes a few extra dollars by turning nastier tricks than the other whores on the street. It never fails to amaze me that the government fails to see not only the harm that Agresearch is potentially doing to the clean, green, 100% pure image of New Zealands agricultural produce, but also the void left by not concentrating on supporting the primary sector as it did in Dr Daltons time.

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  3. Excellent piece of writing, Dr Dalton; this should be compulsory reading for anyone contemplating life in the applied ag/ hort research sector for it describes the current situation perfectly whilst providing the historical context with a refreshing dash of humour.

    I have been in my current position in horticultural extension in the UK for almost a year, and have observed exactly what you have described. If Defra statistics are to be believed, the UK's agricultural productivity has declined by 30% over the past 30 years. This roughly correlates with the withdrawal of taxpayer-funded extension services. With increasing pressure to 'sustainably intensify' and ever-decreasing profit margins, small farmers in the veg sector are really struggling to maintain their businesses and many have switched to producing animal feed over the past couple of decades.

    Much of the funding has been siphoned into universities, who have an intense focus on publishing peer-reviewed papers and believe that knowledge transfer is taking place via the 'trickle-down' principle. It is not. After attending multiple farmer workshops and meetings I cannot fail to detect a simmering resentment towards the 'white coats' for cornering the money and leaving farmers without extension services. Of course that is the government mandate to universities for measuring scientific output, so what are university researchers supposed to do if they want to remain employed within their field?
    I only know of one farmer who receives agricultural knowledge via peer-reviewed journals, and only the open-access ones (few and far between).

    Having spent time in academia, applied research, and commercial production, I have seen the issue from various angles. Academics believe they are doing knowledge transfer but farmers are not listening; farmers generally do not read scientific papers because they are too busy trying to produce food, and often state that academics do not understand their issues or speak their language; applied research stations have largely been closed or have transformed into higher level science institutions - those that remain are grossly underfunded and viewed as the poor relations of research with no real skills beyond counting aphids and pulling weeds. The fact that we publish in trade and industry journals (things farmers do read), conduct practical farming workshops, and actually listen to challenges farmers face, is completely overlooked as irrelevant.

    We do excellent work on a shoestring, and could do so much more, but the current corporate model of selling extension services is failing farmers, their continuing livelihoods, and food security objectives.

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