Saturday, December 9, 2023

Helping farmers make green dough

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A team of agricultural innovators wants to help farmers take clever ideas to market across at least 100,000ha of mixed Kiwi farmland. Tim Fulton reports.
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The self-described social enterprise-plus, Leftfield Innovation, is helping farmers explore alternative land uses and contracts.

Funding the enterprise mostly from trust grants, processing companies, farmers and science funds the co-founders Nick Pyke and Susan Goodfellow and four colleagues are exploring commercial opportunities for farmers to convert low-yield farmland to grow high-yield crops.

Pyke, formerly Foundation for Arable Research chief executive, said they’re about capturing more value from farms and processing and from the wholesale and retail sectors.

“It could be a mix. 

“We’re not advocating for only plants or crops or only animals. 

“We’re saying ‘what does the consumer want and what are the high-value food products that we can make for market?’”

Leftfield’s initial market study looked at milling wheats, cereal, ancient grains, pulses, fresh and processed vegetables and plant oils as well as supply chain and manufacturing and processing capability.

Goodfellow said they could see industry silos in New Zealand farming aren’t helping farmers find real, market-led opportunities. 

Any proposition has to be environmentally-sustainable, financially rewarding and enduring. And it also requires trust, in so much as farmers are expected to reveal their on-farm data.

As a result of the initial market study Leftfield has several initiatives at various stages of development from concept, to plants in the ground for the 2019-20 harvest. 

For milling wheat and ancient grains Leftfield is working with a globally owned milling company and has established grower groups in Canterbury and Wairarapa to meet increasing demand for high-quality, locally sourced wheat and ancient grains across NZ. 

Establishing grower groups provides certainty of supply for the next phase of development, which includes novel premium food products from speciality wheat varieties for export.

Insight studies identified demand for locally sourced pulses, including GM -ree varieties for novel food product development for local and export markets. Leftfield is working with plant breeders to source specific seed varieties and aims to have growing trials under way next year.

In fresh and processed vegetables, following an in-market assessment in Dubai to assess fresh and processed vegetables opportunities, Leftfield is identifying opportunities in a range of Asian markets, which could see the expansion of vegetable growing options across Canterbury.

Arable industry leader Brian Leadley, a member of Leftfield’s Future Grain Growers Group, said grain growers often see themselves as producers of commodity products with few links to the supply chain beyond their broker or miller. 

Farmers are good at ensuring product leaves the farm in good condition so the next logical step for farmers is to identify higher-value crops and contracts that reward arable expertise, he said.

Goodfellow said Leftfield’s strategy allows farmers to transition to sustainable land use options immediately, doing what they know but better. Lessons learned from the best practices will be shared among the groups, scaling the environmental benefits faster.

Capturing on-farm data will enable the provenance story to be told through the use of data to prove how the food was grown – including the carbon footprint, water use and impact on biodiversity.

“We’re developing a traceability piece to allow that information to be relayed to the consumer. This whole provenance piece is really important and it’s something that anyone in our group has access to through our work.”

While the value capture strategy helps farmers transition to more sustainable land use options in the near future, Leftfield is focused on creating new value, Goodfellow said. 

The work includes a feasibility study looking at a nutritionally dense water plant that has the potential to soak up nitrogen directly from water. The food opportunities for both people and animals are potentially considerable, not to mention the environmental benefits, she said.

Leftfield originated at a FAR meeting at Sheffield, a mixed dryland sheep/beef and cropping area that was weighing up how to make best use of Stage 2 of the Central Plains Water (CPW) scheme.

Goodfellow, CPW’s environmental general manager at the time, asked Pyke to talk about ways to make irrigation pay.

Many farmers taking water from Stage 2, the scheme’s largest land area, were multi-generational cropping farmers who did not want to go dairying.

They were telling they were all competing for the same grower contracts. 

“And this is where you get the prices undercut and no-one wins.”

It was evident that while farmers could potentially plant a variety of temperate-climate crops, no-one had the markets sorted or looked like making money from the alternative land use.

In the CPW scheme area, where irrigation is relatively expensive, it begged the question: what might a farmer actually do with their irrigated property?

Pyke suggested farmers might have to look at their farm and catchment differently.

“Our initial concept, at the end of that day when we realised something needed to happen, was ‘what would you do if CPW was a 60,000ha farm?”

Pyke and Goodfellow agreed they would operate a farm on that scale totally differently, perhaps breaking it for all sorts of land uses. In the same way, individual farmers could look for alternative income from all or part of their land, as contributors to a much larger farming landscape.

At that moment Leftfield Innovation was born, based on the use of at least 100,000ha nationwide.

Pyke said many of Leftfield’s producer groups are irrigators looking for ways to offset the cost of the piping, pumping, shares, supply and maintenance. 

“They’ve invested so much money in the water infrastructure that you can’t just rock up to them and say ‘hey, you’ve just spent $10,000 a hectare on water, why don’t you spend $10,000 a hectare on the next opportunity for your farm business.”

Over time Leftfield will create spin-off companies like Leftfield Innovation Land, Food and Digital. 

“That will create licensing that will continue to fund us to continue to search and understand and develop more opportunities,” Pyke said.

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