Thursday, April 25, 2024

Changing crops for a challenging world

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It’s not something growers want to hear, but climate variations suggest a new approach, maize conference told.
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Resilience in agriculture is about being robust and adaptable to whatever comes. And creating that resilience is how farmers will remain successful in a world fraught with economic uncertainty, extreme weather, increases in regulations and changing market demands, Foundation for Arable Research chief executive Dr Alison Stewart says.

Speaking at FAR’s Maize Profit and Productivity conference in Hamilton, Stewart told farmers that what is happening in New Zealand is happening globally because change is moving at such a fast pace.

Becoming resilient in the face of challenges means finding ways to survive and thrive in the changing world. 

“If you’re looking at agricultural resilience, it’s not just about the ability of a farm to cope, it’s about the ability to be able to transform, it’s the ability to change and evolve in light of the crap that’s going on around you,” she said.

For a farmer, that could be a lost crop, issues with the farm business, a regional or national issue that affects the farm – or even mental health, Stewart said. 

These challenges are being felt everywhere.

“There’s no one in New Zealand saying, ‘Lets make life difficult for agriculture’.”

She urged farmers not to think that agriculture is exceptional and deserves exceptional treatment as it grapples with these challenges.

“As farmers, we need to get over this ‘we’re special and we need to be treated in a special way’.”

While agriculture is important, so are tourism, manufacturing and other industries.

Creating resilience means embracing climate-smart solutions to adapt to climate change. It means crop diversification, sound financial management and having a good network that supports decision making.

“If you focus on those, you’ll be able to see a pathway forward,” she said.

For growers, crops need to be looked at under a different lens that goes beyond yield to also take into account the plant’s tolerance to drought, heat and pest and diseases.

“It’s a package that’s going to give you a consistent yield under changing environmental conditions.”

Farmers will also have to employ different management techniques to allow their farm to be more resilient. 

“You have to know what’s out there, not just in New Zealand, but internationally.”

While crop diversification goes against the farming policies of a lot of maize growers, where monoculture has been the norm, extreme weather events mean that crop is under risk. 

This was not a prediction but a reality and is happening in NZ, Stewart said.

“You have to ask yourself the question, every year, is my business model around an intensive monoculture still delivering the profit and the benefits verses the increasing risks around losing the crop and fluctuating commodity prices.”

Diversification could manage that risk. 

Farmers also have to be prepared to learn and innovate because if they are working in isolation and repeating what they have always done, she predicts a challenging future for them.

Innovation needs to be embraced to make them resilient in the face of any expected disruptions. 

Steward said she fears NZ is risking becoming a holdover because it is not embracing change as much as the rest of the world.

“Don’t assume that what you are doing at this moment is fine, because if we truly are world leaders in agriculture, world leaders never defend the status quo because they are always innovating, changing and evolving.

“The All Blacks found that out the hard way and I hate to think that New Zealand will dig their heels in defending the status quo so much that we would lose that opportunity.”

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