Thursday, August 18, 2022

Farming with passion and precision

Agricultural champions Craige and Roz Mackenzie have poured their heart and soul into their family farming operation over the past 40 years, but health challenges now force them off their land. They talked with Annette Scott.

The Mackenzie family farm, Greenvale Pastures, could easily be called the home of precision agriculture.

Craige and Roz Mackenzie took over the Mid Canterbury farm from Craige’s parents Alastair and Noeline, having initially farmed together as a family through the 80s.

“Like it was for everybody else, it was really tough times and the family’s philosophy of always doing the best with what you have got, no matter how little that be, is what drove our farming business then, and still does today,” Craige says.

The difference today is that the 204 hectare farm near Methven has been strategically developed over the years into both a national and world leading arable operation.

Leading edge technology combining with natural resources has placed Greenvale Pastures at the forefront of environmental sustainability.

But with the farm sold, come August their time on the land will draw to a close and as they prepare to move off the land, they are happy with what they have achieved.

“There is a bigger journey now for Roz and I, family is not coming here to farm and driven by some health challenges we have been forced to make a tough decision.

“That decision is our future, somewhere you have to realise what’s most important and if you don’t focus on your health, you have missed the plot.

“We are happy with what we have achieved and where we have taken the farm.

“We have always said the land outlasts the people on it, we are just caretakers, there’s life after the farm and we are happy to hand it over now,” Craige says 

But he admits he is not ready to severe his farming ties completely.

“I’d like to think we still have something to offer the NZ food and fibre sector, there’s a lot going on and I will stay involved where I can, to help farmers in business, the industry and NZ Inc.

“I am particularly interested in the international influence we might be able to have.”

It may be his Scottish ancestry, or it may be his love for detail but Craige has always been driven to achieve the best value for every input on Greenvale Pastures, including the Three Springs joint venture dairy they farmed for several years. 

The change from a dryland property in 1998 to become partially irrigated brought with it a wealth of learning for the Mackenzies as they discovered how to make the most from every drop of water.

This began the Precision Ag journey for their cropping arm, and it’s where Agri Optics played a key role in Greenvale Pastures’ evolution.

Their understanding of the productivity of the various types of soils across the farm grew, but their ability to apply fertiliser, chemicals or irrigation according to the known soil productivity was limited.

That is when Agri Optics, now Vantage NZ, was born.

While travelling the world on his Nuffield scholar study tour, Craige gained an insight into a wide range of technologies and how they would fit into NZ farming systems.

One of the greatest things he saw was the potential to reduce costs, environmental pressure and greenhouse gas emissions through more precise management of inputs. 

This sparked an interest in some specific products that he introduced into the family’s arable enterprise.

In the same year daughter Jemma Mulvihill, co-founder and director of Vantage NZ, completed a study abroad at Colorado State University as part of her agricultural science degree.

She completed papers looking at several aspects of precision agriculture and realised the potential the technology offered in increasing the efficiency and sustainability to farming systems across NZ.

Agri Optics, launched by Jemma and her parents in 2010, was the result.

The company rapidly developed due to its ability to provide clients with quality solutions delivering real value.

The company rebranded to Vantage NZ Agricultural Solutions Ltd in 2020 with the client base now encompassing arable, horticulture, pastoral and viticulture, along with council infrastructure and amenity management.

Looking back Craige says apart from yield mapping from the combine harvester, precision ag was limited to the larger landmasses of Australia, USA and Canada where the benefits of GPS could be seen and understood in the use of large tractors with auto-tracking and overlap control.

“There didn’t seem to be any benefit for the smaller, more intensive farms typical to NZ.”

His 2008 Nuffield studies on understanding carbon footprint in farming systems changed that perception and since then Greenvale Pastures has embraced the farming technology revolution, its profitability and environmental impact have improved while also hoisting Craige onto the global platform.

Two years later he and Roz were runners-up in the Lincoln University Foundation 2010 Farmer of the Year, followed in 2013 as supreme winners of the Canterbury Ballance Farm Environmental Awards, going on to win the coveted Gordon Stephenson Trophy national award.

Craige is the former chair of the NZ Precision Agriculture Association, now Agri-Tech NZ, and a former board member of Precision Ag Australia and a current representative to the International Society of Precision Agriculture.

He is involved in a number of industry research initiatives in both the cropping and dairy sectors and sits on NZ Government technical advisory groups in the areas of water allocation and quality and Smart Agriculture. 

He was invited on two occasions, 2012 and 2014, to sit on the Global Farmer Roundtable in Iowa, a side event to the World Food Prize.

In 2016 Craige was awarded the International Precision Ag Farmer of the Year in St Louis, US and more recently appointed to the Global Farmer Network board.

One of the greatest honours though is closer to home when the Mackenzies received recognition from Environment Canterbury with an Outstanding Contribution Award for excellence and innovation in farm practices. 

“That was a real surprise and a real honour.”

With no shortage of options when he moves off the land, he is also a trustee with the NZ Rural Leadership Trust that runs Kellogg and Nuffield and is the NZ delegate on the Nuffield International board.

Craige has no regrets in his farming career.

“You take an attitude to be in control of your own destiny and positive around the changes in what you are doing.

“I have enjoyed the challenges of innovations, they have been both stimulating and rewarding, and that won’t go away as I continue to be involved in many spaces.”

Meantime, the Mackenzies are building their new home in Methven while also looking forward to more time with family and exploring more of the country on their e-bikes.

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