Monday, February 26, 2024

A lifetime of helping farmers get the basics right

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Retired farm systems scientist Tom Fraser is a straight talker who takes pride in getting the basics across to farmers.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

In this year’s Land Champions edition, we celebrate domestic and imported people in agriculture, from the Italian clan that owns a slice of North Otago wool production to the teacher rebooting ag education in the hort heartland if western Bay of Plenty.

For more than 60 years Tom Fraser has been translating science into farmers’ language, providing farmers with tools and wisdom that can help drive productivity, profitability and environmental outcomes.

Tom’s passion has been for science to be relevant, useful and make a difference.

His commitment to the sheep and beef sector, to research and on-farm extension is legendary, with his influence and impact spanning the whole of New Zealand’s sheep and beef industry.   

A farm systems scientist, Tom always has, and he says always will, advocate back-to-basics farming.

Fraser was honoured for his dedication and passion at the Beef + Lamb New Zealand 2023 industry awards when he received the Alliance Significant Contribution Award.

“I am humbled and honoured to have received the award but it’s what I love doing and without the farmers to work alongside I wouldn’t get the satisfaction from what I do,” he says.

Tom is a straight talker who takes pride in getting the basics across to farmers. He gains motivation and a “huge amount of satisfaction” from observing the on-farm results of his work.

So why a farm systems scientist? 

In his earlier days Fraser worked with DSIR Grasslands, now AgResearch, and more recently has contracted to Beef + Lamb NZ.

“That’s when a group of us became what we called systems scientists. There was a lot of research that AgResearch was doing but the staff weren’t au fait with farming.

“People go to university and train up in a degree and the further up the academia they go, yes, they become very good, but then they say they have done this amazing research and farmers are not taking it up.

“I question, ‘Does it fit into the farm system?’ and they answer ‘What do you mean?’ 

He said some academics are “not necessarily specialists in the wider picture and so as farming systems scientists with hands on farming experience, we understand the grassroots”.

Tom grew up on a high-country sheep and beef farm in northern Southland. 

“I was the youngest of five boys and when my turn came around there was no land or money left, so it was suggested I do something else and I was sent off to Lincoln College, as it was in those days.”

After a couple of years he returned south and began to manage a demonstration property for the Department of Agriculture in the Te Anau basin.

“It was the skinny sheep days of the 1960s, when government took over settlement blocks, farms got smaller and subsidies were the incentive for farmers to heavily stock farms. 

“It was a big and quick learning experience. All eyes were on this young fella to see what he could do.”

He managed the farm for three years and when he missed out on getting a settlement farm, he went to DSIR Grasslands employed as an agronomist.

“With my farming background and four brothers farming in Southland it seemed to me the way we were evaluating the species in plant breeding and plant evaluation didn’t fit with farming. 

“It was obvious that this wasn’t the way to go about it because growing a whole lot of pasture that the animals didn’t want to eat was going nowhere.    

“I started evaluating the plants the way livestock wanted it and found the way livestock like it was different.”

By the late 1970s the decision was made to measure pasture production by weighing animals.

Tom recalls weighing lambs on bathroom scales and recording results with pen and paper.

He acknowledges it was basic, compared with today’s technology, but effective in its time.

Basic being the key word.  

Farmers appreciated Tom’s practical farming, down-to-earth, basics approach.               

“I tell farmers today, and tomorrow, that back-to-basics science doesn’t change. Yes, farming has changed, but basics don’t change.

“We live in a society where everything has to be new; new stuff is going to revolutionise the world. While some researchers are doing good work, they are really just playing around the edges.

“If you go back to basics, you make progress.”  

It is seven years since Tom retired from AgResearch but, at 80 years of age, he is still talking with small farmer groups.

He has “plenty of confidence” in the sheep and beef industry, but times are changing.

“I don’t think it matters two hoots want any government is going to bring in, it’s all about the consumers and what they dictate.

“We used to say bugger the consumer, they can take what they get, but now, while 90% of consumers don’t know anything about a farm, they are most concerned about the environment.

“We can have any thought we like about greenhouse gases, nitrates, regulation, but it will be the consumer and market demand that dictate how we farm.”

Looking at career highlights, Tom noted a “bright spot”: the increasing number of youngsters and women in the industry.

“We have a lot more young people and a lot more females, all with a lot more knowledge and technical skills.

“Some of these young farmers are doing absolutely amazing work, they are not going to write a paper but they are doing great stuff on farm and keen to share their successes.

“I say to farmers, get alongside and learn from other farmers, you will never sort it all out yourselves. Research is in a very narrow field and not as practical as it could be and certainly not as practical as on-farm workings.”

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