Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Farming at their fingertips

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Mid Canterbury mixed arable farmers Gary and Rae Wilson are embracing modern technology to make farming their property more productive and more environmentally sustainable. Luke Chivers reports. 
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Gone are the days when farmers could step into their parents’ shoes and expect to follow the same, time-tested methods and be successful.


In this age of uber-production every sector is based on an application of science, research and technology that is changing at a mind-boggling rate.


Mixed arable farmer Gary Wilson knows that all too well.


“Nowadays, all of my tractors, my combine harvester and sprayer have a real-time kinematic GPS fitted,” the 52-year-old says from his Hinds property.


It helps with soil sampling, tractor guidance, and variable rate applications – allowing him to farm site-specific.


“Well, that’s what I was told when he wanted to get all these gadgets,” Gary’s wife Rae says.


The Wilsons have long been passionate about the New Zealand primary industries.


In the 1970s Gary grew up on a sheep and crop farm on the Canterbury Plains.


“It was the best childhood I could’ve asked for,” he says. 


“I’ve always loved the outdoors and machinery, so it was the perfect combination, really.”


In 1983 Gary left home to develop his skills in the rural sector.


He studied for a valuation and farm management degree at Lincoln University, which landed him a job as a property valuer for Pāmu (formerly Landcorp) in Hokitika.


During his five years on the West Coast he was lucky enough to be awarded a scholarship to travel to Britain for a six-month immersion programme, in part because of his contribution to his local NZ Young Farmers club.


“It was incredible opportunity.


“I was able to gain a solid understanding of agriculture and some of the challenges faced by farmers overseas.”

“Of course, best practice for an arable farmer in the irrigation sense, is that we apply water when it’s needed for the crops.


“We have planted soil monitoring sensors in the ground that we can look at our moisture content in real-time by our phone or laptop, which show us whether or not we need to irrigate.”
Or Gary looks at the rainfall.


“I’ll look at the weather and if there's a big rainfall coming then we don't irrigate. We are trying to keep the soil in a zone where it’s always productive.”


The soil monitoring exercise is not cheap.


“It costs about the price of a small car,” Gary says.


“But in terms of what it can offer I think it pays for itself in the crop production that we achieve from it.”


Without those earnings, arable farmers could struggle to break-even.


Gary believes if the return on investment was higher for arable land, some crop-turned-dairy-farmers would have never made the switch.


“I think many of them would’ve preferred to stay as mixed cropping arable farmers. It’s a much better lifestyle. But the dollars and cents mean that they often have to change.”


When it comes to negotiating the price we are at the whim of the international markets.
“With the way our dollar is, it really comes down to how much the international consumer wants to pay for our product,” Gary says.


“And if we don't agree to the price that we're offered, then a company overseas will likely get it produced somewhere else in the world. One of the things I guess that makes us a better option for producing these products is that everything we do is traceable.


“We’re still seen as having a clean green image. We have to record our agrichemicals and use them in a responsible way.


“And overseas markets know that our infrastructure is good and the cleanliness of the product they receive is top notch.”


So, the Wilsons are optimistic about the future.


“We do think our story of provenance will soon pay dividends and we'll receive higher value for the product that we produce.


“Right now, however, when someone goes shopping in the supermarket for bread, they usually go for the cheapest variety and quite often that’s made from imported product.


“It would be nice if more consumers start to think of New Zealand producers, even if they have to pay a little bit more for it.


“All of the technology and the environmental outcomes that we are trying to achieve with water and with fertiliser is keeping our waterways clean – but it all comes at a huge cost,” Gary says.


“Will it earn us enough of a return in the long-run?


“Well, that’s really up to the consumer.”



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