By Dr Alison Stewart, CEO of the Foundation for Arable Research
The Foundation for Arable Research is a small agency with limited resources that need to be spread across a broad range of research activities and crops.
We also have the added complexity of having other non-levy crops, like process vegetables or horticulture, as well as livestock integrated into our farm systems. This means that it is almost impossible for us to cover everything our growers would like from our grower levy.
Leveraging our funds with those from the government, commercial businesses and other industry sectors has always been a key component of our business model and has enabled us to keep ahead of the game. This strategy has become even more relevant in the past five years with a plethora of government environment legislation being implemented, a number of biosecurity incursions and rising costs across all aspects of the business.
Creating effective connections and collaborations with our ag-sector partners has become a necessity rather than a nice-to-have. Collaborations allow all involved to utilise their collective resources in the most effective way, not duplicate activities and, most importantly, deliver consistent messages to our growers/farmers.
Our pan-sector collaborations span three main themes – biosecurity, research and extension & advocacy.
Managing biosecurity risks is a top priority for New Zealand’s agricultural sectors. We all know the damage that could be done to our industry if a major pest or disease established and spread uncontrolled. FAR is working with 16 other plant sector groups on readiness plans for brown marmorated stink bug, a pest with a very wide host range and the potential to cause major economic losses to multiple fruit, vegetable and arable crops if it established.
Unfortunately, we have also been involved in several biosecurity responses, namely black grass in Canterbury and fall armyworm nationwide, in both cases working closely with the fresh and process vegetable sectors.
FAR collaborates on a number of large pan-sector R&D programmes that deliver mutual benefit to different sector groups.
For example, two large programmes funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment focused on the development of variable rate irrigation technology and evaluation of forages for reduced nitrate leaching. Working with DairyNZ, Beef + Lamb NZ, IrrigationNZ and several Crown Research Institutes gave us the scale and resources to be able to deliver a wider range of technologies and solutions.
FAR is also part of a large plant-based sector collaboration called A Lighter Touch. Allocated $27 million over seven years, the goal of this programme is to transition the plant sectors to a more agroecological crop protection regime.
By integrating biological products and cultural practices in crop management programmes, we are aiming to reduce the use of synthetic pesticides by 30% while still maintaining yield and quality. Collaboration with the other plant sectors, particularly process and fresh vegetables, has enabled FAR to successfully leverage our investment by 4:1.
This will deliver a suite of new tools and technologies to our growers to help them manage pests and diseases on their farm, to a much greater level than FAR could have done alone. We have also been actively involved in several pan-sector initiatives to address common weed problems and develop effective herbicide resistance management programmes.
Advocacy is always a difficult topic to address for FAR. As a research organisation, our focus has to be on conducting good research that our growers want and delivering this to them in a clear and effective way so that they can improve the efficiency and profitability of their farm business.
However, it would be remiss of us if we did not also make sure that the results of our research were communicated and used as widely as possible. This could be for the purpose of promoting the sustainability of our production system to consumers or making government agencies more aware of the benefits of mixed cropping/livestock systems or providing robust data to inform the development of agriculture-related policies.
All of these scenarios can deliver benefits back to arable growers. For example, providing Federated Farmers with arable-specific data has enabled it to make more informed submissions on the impact of proposed freshwater legislation.
Similarly, being part of the He Waka Eke Noa partnership with 12 other sectors has enabled FAR to represent the voice of arable and make sure that we are not disadvantaged by policies being set in place to address issues predominantly arising from other sectors.
This is not political lobbying, which we see as the remit of Federated Farmers, but it is advocating for the sector by providing robust science-based evidence to showcase the value of arable farming as a land use in NZ.
With a referendum now underway on the future of our levy-funded organisation – voting in FAR’s levy referendum closes at noon on August 23 – we hope that our growers can see the value of the research that we do and the leverage that we achieve through our pan-sector collaborations. We estimate that for every dollar that the FAR levy payer contributes, we are achieving a four-fold increase in that investment through our collaborations. That’s the nice-to -have.