December 29, 2013

New Zealand hill country farming - deserted by research support

Dr Clive Dalton

It’s good to see in 2013 that sheep and beef farmers have been complimented for raising productivity, while at the same time limiting pressure on the environment.

It’s a pity that they didn’t get rich at the same time!  As capital rich and cash poor, many have been lifestyle farmers for years, as being first in the production chain, they’ve been ripped off by ticket-clippers all along the way.  It’s a wonder more didn’t give up and go to town long ago. 

Their young folk left years ago to be lawyers and accountants, leaving aging parents to dag, drench and crutch their falling sheep numbers.  No wonder farmers’ carbon footprint has dropped along with their incomes.

Living on the western side of Hamilton, I now rush out when a Fletcher flies over heading for the coastal hills.  For the last 10-15 years a Fletcher engine has been a rare sound, and as a result of no fertiliser, the Raglan hills have raced back to browntop, fern, gorse, broom, kanuka and manuka – where honey now is touted as the new gold from the hills.  What a fond hope?

With this sad state of affairs over the last two decades or more, I keep wracking my brains and despair over how researchers just walked away from hill country farmers as soon as times got tough. 

Where was the urgent emergency task force of researchers and farm advisers set up to find answers and keep the hill farmers viable?  After all, two thirds of New Zealand is still hill country, and forestry didn’t save the day and still won’t!

The reason for the disaster was the CRIs, which as a commercial outfit had to make a profit for shareholders - the taxpayers.  AgResearch directors must have convinced themselves that better bets were dairying and ‘blue sky’ things like cloning and GM.  So the lower hill country became ‘dairy support’ and even some of it became ‘milking platforms’.  Drive out to Raglan now and count the sheep flocks – you won’t need both hands!

The CRI excuse for ditching sheep and wool research was because farmers refused to pay the wool levy, as they were getting nothing in return. That was fair comment as little research was being done to help them.  Why would they pay?  If more effort had gone into meaningful and practical beef and sheep research, or got what was known applied, things could have been different. 

AgResearch just walked away from hill country research so avoided the problem. There were donkey’s years of finished research in the old MAF research files, at Whatawhata, Invermay and Tara Hills. It was easier to restructure, and get rid of it and the scientists.  We were expected to believe this was progress.

A very smart economist, Grand Scobie joined us at Ruakura and calculated that for the dollars put into research, there was an 80% return on investment to the nation.  But, there was a 10-12 year lag in these benefits getting though to action on farms. So the recent good news hasn’t come from recent CRI research – it has come from work decades ago, when MAF scientists were dedicated to the needs of hill country farmers.

I often muse on what C.P. McMeekan would have done with hill country farmers’ incomes bleeding, and being told there was no money for research to help them - so just ignore them and the problem would go away. 

He would have been down to Wellington like a raging bull, grabbing the DG by the scruff on the way up to the Minister’s office, his very clear message laced with expletives to demand new cash from the treasury for research before he got on the overnighter back to Frankton.

Clearly nobody in the current set up has the passion for hill country farmers to do that.  Concern about jobs, bonuses and KPI’s seem to take priority these days.  CRIs have to make a profit which history shows is done most easily by getting rid of staff, while getting into joint ventures with commercial companies with their embargos on Intellectual Property.  So nothing ever emerges through the barbed wire entanglement guarded by big-salary Directors of Corporate Communications who are the kiss of death in any research organisation.

When we go to Raglan at weekends for a coffee and pass my old Whatawhata hill country research station where there were over a dozen of us working flat out to improve sheep and beef production, my heart sinks for hill country farmers. 

If there was ever a image to prove that nobody cares any more about hill country farmers, it’s the faded sign at the gate – waiting till the lease runs out so it and hill country research can all be forgotten.

And I couldn’t see in the recent big announcement of the $100million going into the ag research’s joint venture hubs, that hill country got a mention.  It looks as if the manuka and bees will have the final say.  Nobody else seems to care.  What a national tragedy.

Photo to go with article

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