Wednesday, May 22, 2024

FAR and the role of arable in agriculture

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CEO of FAR Alison Stewart chats with Bryan about her career journey and passion for the arable sector.
Reading Time: 8 minutes

In the latest episode of the Ideas that Grow podcast, Dr Alison Stewart, CEO at the Foundation for Arable Research, talks about the role of arable in agriculture, her role at FAR and delivering research that benefits growers.

She also discusses her involvement with the Kellogg Rural Leadership Programme and the importance of exposure to diversity of thought for leaders in Food and Fibre.

Listen to the podcast, or read the full transcript below.

Bryan Gibson, Managing Editor Farmers Weekly.

Kia ora, you’ve joined the Ideas That Grow podcast, brought to you by Rural Leaders. In this series, we’ll be drawing on insights from innovative rural leaders to help plant ideas that grow so our regions can flourish. Ideas that Grow is presented in association with Farmers Weekly.

My name is Bryan Gibson, Managing Editor of Farmers Weekly and this week I am talking to Dr Alison Stewart, CEO at FAR, the Foundation for Arable Research, and a regular speaker on the Kellogg Rural Leadership Programme.

Bryan Gibson: G’day Alison. How’s it going?

Alison Stewart, CEO FAR: Yeah, great. Thanks for having me.

The current arable context

BG: Great to have you here. Now, you’re the Chief Executive of FAR. What’s been happening in your world lately?

AS: Well, we’ve just had a referendum. So, every six years, our levy peers vote to decide whether FAR is doing a good job and they want to continue paying their levy. So that happened just last month. I guess for the last year, we have been focused a little bit on the referendum and making sure that the growers know what we’re doing and what value it delivers. And fortunately, yes, we got good support. 

Although I have to say getting growers to vote was the biggest challenge. They’ve just got so much happening in their lives at the moment and so much information being thrown at them that they’re almost in a situation where finding the time to vote in a referendum was not a high priority. That actually was the biggest challenge, convincing them to get onto their computer and vote.

BG: And running the organisation, what does your job entail? What do you do in a week?

The value of arable systems to NZ Agriculture

AS: My job is to make sure that everybody else in the company is doing their job really well. I’m joining all the dots. We’ve got some amazing research staff who are out there doing applied research, trying to find new management systems, new tools, new technologies that will assist our farmers. 

We also have a lot of extension people focused on trying to support them with all of the compliance regulations that are coming down the track. And then we also have to deal with the biosecurity incursions. We’re dealing with two at the moment. 

Amongst all of that, we’re just trying to promote to the general public, to the other sectors, to the government, the value of arable systems and the value that they bring to New Zealand agriculture. I jump around a lot, getting involved in lots of things, across lots of areas, at different levels of responsibility. It’s never a dull day.

BG: Yeah. Our Food and Fibre Sector is dominated by the big two animal proteins. I guess, as you say, the animal sector is as big and successful of its own accord, but in some ways plays second or third fiddle sometimes? 

AS: Oh, very much so. That frustrates me in the sense that we actually underpin the livestock sector because we produce all of the seed and the grass seed that they need to grow their pastures to feed their cows. If we go under, then the livestock sector is going to be substantially worse off. 

We also produce a large amount of the animal feed the dairy sector and the beef sector and the poultry sector need. So, I’m not sure that we ever get full recognition for the important role we play, not only in our own right through producing milling wheat and quality seed crops, but also underpinning the livestock sector. I try to remind my colleagues in the dairy and beef and sheep sector that they need us as much as we need them.

World-leading seed production

BG: I guess a lot of people do just think of fields of maize or barley or wheat, but that seed production part of things is really important, but also quite an opportunity and a success for New Zealand, isn’t it? We’re quite good at it.

AS: Absolutely. It does help that the big global seed companies can see that they can get out of Northern Hemisphere seasons and they can get seed crops being produced in New Zealand. We have really good environmental conditions. 

We have good quality certification, verification and accountability systems. We’re seen to be a very important seed producer. That’s really good from the perspective of an arable farmer because it provides a really nice rotation. 

We’ve got our foundational cereal crops, but then we’ve got the seed crops in the foundation of the rotation and that gives a nice diversity, but it also introduces the opportunity to capture another revenue source.

Alison Stewart – A CEO’s career path

BG: Now, how did you get to the position you’re in now? What’s your career been like? What did you do when you left school?

AS: Well, I mean, gosh, I’ve been around the block. I’ve always been interested in plants. Even as a child, I was always out in the garden with my mum planting and looking after plants. I did botany at university, and then I did a PhD in plant pathology, and then I came to New Zealand. 

Obviously, I’m Scottish, and I came to New Zealand, got a lecturing job at Auckland University, and it was the old Botany department. That was how I started off my career being an academic, and I had 10 years at Auckland. Then I moved down to Lincoln University because I wanted to be doing more applied research and more closer to the actual farming sector. I was 18 years at Lincoln University as an academic, running a big research centre, looking at sustainable production systems. 

Then I decided to challenge myself a little bit more and I went off to California and ran a biotech company. Then I came back to New Zealand and headed up forestry science in Rotorua with Scion. Then I moved from there and came to be the CEO of FAR.

I’m probably relatively unusual in the sense that I’ve been in academia, I’ve been in the CRI system, I’ve been in a commercial company and I’m now working in an industry body. I’ve worked across horticulture, vegetable cropping, herbal cropping, and forestry. So it gives me a nice broad perspective on what’s happening, particularly in the plant-based sectors in New Zealand.

FAR – delivering the arable research that benefits growers

BG: Well, that’s quite a CV. I’m interested in your interest in applied science and knowledge transfer. That’s something that’s been talked about in our sector as something that works pretty well, but does need work, if you know what I mean. Is that something that you think is moving the dial over the years?

AS: Oh, most certainly. I mean, there isn’t much point in doing research if you’re not going to get the results of the research out, being taken up and used by farmers and growers. FAR in particular, over the last 25 years, has been an exemplar of an  organisation that has effectively delivered its research to benefit the growers. 

It’s becoming more difficult because the environment is so much more challenging for growers. I won’t say the good old days, because I never think that the old days are actually that good. But in the past, FAR would do research and it would be identifying a new plant growth regulator or a new fungicide or a better fertiliser programme. And you’d go out and you’d say, if you do X, Y and Z, that will deliver a one-ton increase in yield. 

That’s a really easy story to tell. The growers will go, that’s a good idea. I’ll do that. The growers get a one-ton increase and they think, Oh, my levy is good value for money for us doing a good job. But we’ve driven yield optimisation pretty close to the optimum.

A challenging arable environment

Now the challenge is, how do we maintain those optimum yields given all of the constraints that growers now have around input costs and compliance around fresh water and climate change. That’s a much, much harder knowledge exchange programme because you’re potentially, and quite often, telling the growers something that they don’t want to hear. So you’re always trying to find a way in which you can present that information in as positive a way as possible. 

At this moment in time in New Zealand, farmers feel as if they’re really under the pump with people throwing compliance regulations at them, their cost of production is going up. So often their headspace is not necessarily that favourably inclined towards hearing some quite difficult messaging. It’s challenging. It’s a really challenging space for the growers, and it’s a really challenging space for the labour organisations.

FAR and the Kellogg Rural Leadership Programme

BG: Very much so. Now, turning to Rural Leaders, you have a bit to do with the Kellogg Programme, is that correct?

AS: Yeah. I mean, they roll me out twice a year where I come and I talk to the new cohort of rural leaders. I’m one of these people that, and it causes me a lot of angst over the years, I tend to just say exactly what I think. That can get me into a lot of trouble! 

I really enjoy challenging young people around what they’re thinking, why they’re thinking it, and what they want to achieve in their careers. I love having discussions around what leadership actually means, because leadership means quite different things to different people. 

In New Zealand agriculture at this moment in time, with all of the challenges that are coming up, it’s really hard to be a leader because levy organisations, for example, are reliant on doing what their levy peers want them to do, and that sometimes prevents you from being able to take a true leadership position. 

I really like talking about some of those challenges, and it’s a good environment because it’s not out in the public arena. You’re not going to get hung out to dry on social media, but you’re able to have some really honest and sometimes quite painful discussions about how New Zealand agriculture needs to move into the future and the changes that need to be made. And that young cohort of Kellogg leaders are up for those kinds of discussions, and I just love it.

BG: I mean, it’s an interesting group because most of them already have a career and then they have a day job, and then Kellogg is back to school. So I guess it’s different from your previous work in academia, where it was 9:00 to 5:00 learning. And that has some upside, I think, of the Kellogg Programme, do you think?

Kellogg exposes leaders to diversity of thought and opinion

AS: I think it’s a fantastic programme because it provides an opportunity to bring multiple thought processes to the table. Scott Champion, who’s one of the key Facilitators on the Programme; he’s very well connected and he can bring quite disparate views to the discussion. 

That’s really important because if you stay in your own industry, in your own space, in your silo, then all that happens is that everybody validates preconceived ideas and it’s really good to be challenged.

I think that’s what the Kellogg Leadership Programme does. It makes you realise that what you thought you knew and what you thought was a valid belief, there may actually be alternative viewpoints. You have to open your mind to different ways of thinking and different people’s perceptions of agriculture and different conclusions that you can draw from the vast amount of research that’s out there. 

It’s a fantastic learning opportunity for young people to avoid getting into a siloed mantra of just believing the here and now and what people they tend to engage with think. It’s a bit like when you google something, the algorithm sitting in behind Google can work out what your preconceived ideas are, and therefore they tend to give you links to things that validate those preconceived ideas.

I think we’ve always got to try and make sure that we don’t get into that mentality of thinking that because we believe something now, that means it must be true.

BG: Cross-discipline research or work in real time, isn’t it?

AS: Absolutely, yeah.

BG: So, you’d recommend the Programme to anyone thinking about the big issues facing the sector, and thinking about leadership?

AS: I think you have to be prepared to put time and effort into it. It’s like anything in life that if you don’t commit and put your passion and energy into it, you’re not going to get the same amount of benefit out of it. I think you have to be prepared to come to the table and listen to those diverse views and be prepared to change your opinion about things. 

If you come to the Kellogg Programme with a preconceived idea that you’re right and everyone else is wrong, you’re not going to get the benefit out of the Programme.

Thanks for listening to Ideas that Grow, a Rural Leaders podcast in partnership with Massey and Lincoln Universities, AGMARDT and FoodHQ. This podcast was presented by Farmers Weekly. 

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