A topic he says he picked due to its controversial nature, Marr used his Nuffield Scholarship as an opportunity to further his understanding of glyphosate and its application in NZ’s primary sector.
After travelling the world looking into different farming systems and glyphosate applications as part of his studies, Marr found that our unique climate and agricultural systems give us a point of difference in the use of glyphosate-based herbicides.
Listen to the podcast, or read the transcript below:
Bryan Gibson (BG): My name is Bryan Gibson. I’m the managing editor of Farmers Weekly. And this week on the show we are talking to Canterbury Arable farmer Hamish Marr.
G’day, Hamish. How are you going?
Hamish Marr – 2019 Nuffield Scholar (HM) Good thanks, Bryan.
BG: And where are you calling from today?
HM: I’m calling from Methven, about an hour, southwest of Christchurch. Lovely winter’s day here.
BG: And you run a farming operation there?
Five generations of farmers.
HM: Yes, we’ve got a 500-hectare mixed arable farm, 400 hectares of different cereal crops and small seed crops, and we have pasture enterprise on the side of that. So, we run dairy heifers twelve months of the year, and we have finishing lambs in the autumn and dairy cows in the winter.
BG: How’s the year been for you so far?
HM: Well, it’s been mixed. I mean, we had a tremendous harvest with great weather at harvest time and good yields across the board, and a pretty good autumn. So Canterbury is flush with feed this year as opposed to other seasons just gone.
BG: That’s good to hear. And have you been doing that for a while?
HM: Yes, our family has been on our place since 1873. I’m the fifth generation. If any of my children decide to carry on, they’ll be 6th generation. So, you were here for a wee while.
BG: It’s great to see a farm that’s handed down through the generations and is still thriving.
HM: Yeah. I mean, me personally, I did a BCom Ag in the late the late nineties. And then was a Field Officer for Ravensdown Fertiliser for four years and then came home to the farm in about 2005. So, I’ve been farming not quite 20 years now.
The Nuffield experience.
BG: You were a Nuffield Scholar a couple of years ago. How did you find that experience?
HM: Look, there’s probably not words that can describe it. A once in a lifetime, life changing, very humbling, eye-opening, eye-watering year of my life. Looking at everything with food production and how we live and farming and politics and everything in one year, it was amazing. Fascinating. I think you ask every Nuffield Scholar; they would say the same thing – beyond their wildest dreams.
Glyphosate use in NZ.
BG: Now, your studies focused on the use of glyphosate, which is often a contentious issue in agriculture these days, isn’t it?
HM: Well, it’s very contentious, and that’s the reason why I chose it. I chose it because it was in the news a lot at the time, and there were rumours in New Zealand and certainly around the world, that it was going to be deregistered.
Our farming systems, certainly the farming systems in Canterbury here, and most of New Zealand, where the use of Roundup underpins how we do things and how we move between pastures and crops. If we took that away, it would completely change the way we do things. I wanted to understand how our production systems would look if we were to do away with it.
BG: Obviously, as part of your studies, you do a bit of travel abroad. What did you find out about how different nations use glyphosate around the world?
Glyphosate use overseas.
HM: I spent a year looking at farming systems all around the world, and I hate the term conventional farming, but I looked at conventional farming: organics, regen ag and inverted commerce, rice farming, horticulture orchards, vegetable production, indoor animal agriculture, extensive and intensive farming all around the world.
There’s a whole lot of conclusions, and the first one is that everywhere you go around the world is different. New Zealand is unique in the way we do things. Unique in the fact that we’re dominated by animal agriculture.
Our animal agriculture is predominantly outside, so the animals go to the food, as opposed to many countries where the food goes to the animals. Because those countries are cutting and carrying feed to animals, their systems are predominantly arable based. By very nature of that, the usage of Roundup compared to what we do here in New Zealand is significantly higher.
We have a real point of difference in this country. If you think about the Roundup story in isolation, we don’t use a lot of it just because of the way our farming system is. And also, the fact that our farming systems are pasture based is, again, another point of difference compared to a lot of other places.
BG: Do you think it’s one of those situations which quite often comes up when global conversations around food production make their way to New Zealand, that we’re not really part of the mix because we have our own way of doing things?
Glyphosate application rates in NZ are low compared to abroad.
HM: Yes. Look, I visited a place in the UK, a large place, and this was a lightbulb visit for me. They reduced their glyphosate usage on this farm. Big place. When I say big, about 30,000 ha. They reduced their glyphosate usage by 90% simply by adding sheep into their farming mix. And I suddenly thought, well we’re already doing that in New Zealand. That’s standard practice.
So, when you look down into the numbers and the application rates on a total per hectare basis in this country, we’re so far down compared to a lot of other developed countries for that fact.
I also saw the impacts of the other extreme Roundup ready crops in the Northern Hemisphere, United States and Canada, where applications of four or five times a year are not uncommon. When you multiply that up by the millions of hectares involved, it’s easy to understand how Roundup is now in the food chain in a lot of those countries.
BG: Now, despite finding out about the issues with some of those Roundup ready crops and those problems that they can have in some parts of the world here in New Zealand, while we don’t have those, Roundup is still pretty important to some of our farming systems, isn’t it?
Glyphosate as a strategic farming tool.
HM: I think in that sense we are a real outlier. That starts from the simplest of things. We’re a small island nation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, so we’ve got this lovely temperate maritime climate. A lot of our competitors are continental countries. So in its simplest form, their weather patterns are completely different. And the weather patterns dictate what you do.
The way people farm, say in Europe, it’s evolved over 2000 years. Well, agriculture in this country, we’ve only been really at it for a couple of hundred years. We’re a very young country compared to a lot of other places. With that, when some of the things aren’t ingrained in us as a population of people.
BG: And then you have the flow on effects of tilling the soil, which has been found to be bad for soil loss and releases carbon.
HM: Yeah, all that stuff. The nuts and the bolts of it is that we can’t on a global scale or even a national scale, do away with that as a strategic tool. Because what it does in sort of broad-acre farming, and I term pastoral farming in this as well, is that it reduces the amount of time in between crops because it takes away the work that cultivation used to do prior to its use.
Prior to Roundup’s use the way to control weeds and to establish a new pasture or a new crop, it involved about six-months-worth of cultivation because it was the cultivation that killed the remnants of the pre-pasture, as it were, or crop. Roundup does that in one application, and you can sow your next pasture or crop or whatever it is that day. So, to go backwards away from that, you think about take six months of production out and that has huge impacts. I’m not saying that’s true in every situation because it 100% isn’t true in every situation, but it is a reality in a lot of cases.
BG: How did was the report received? Once it came out?
Taking the Nuffield research to the people.
HM: Well, I have done probably between 50 and 60 little talks around the country and town halls and to Lions clubs and to farm groups. I’ve been to two garden clubs. All sorts of different groups have been interested in what I have to say.
I think I just tell the story of exactly how farming systems work and how all these things that we do on farm work and why we do them. I found myself, in a lot of cases, having to compare farming to your vegetable garden and to think about a cropping farm as a vegetable garden, and your dairy farm or your sheep farm as your lawn. Your lawn stays down for infinitum, as does a lot of pasture. So, we don’t actually do anything to them.
Your vegetable garden, on the other hand, is being turned over all the time into something new. There’s a very clear rotation involved and all of those things I had to think about things a wee bit, but hopefully I got the story across.
BG: Now you’ve completed your report. What’s life been like for you since then? You back on the farm?
Nuffield, Kellogg and giving back to the Sector.
HM: I have been on the farm, and that keeps me very busy. But also, I am the Vice Chairman of the New Zealand Seed Authority. That’s an industry good group involved in setting policy within the certified seed industry. I sit on that board as a representative from the herbage seed subsection of Federated Farmers. We, as the name suggests, represent the farmers that grow herbage seeds: ryegrasses, clovers, cocksfoots, fescues, etc.
I’m involved in two groups at the foundation for Arable Research, the Research and Development Advisory Committee, and ARG – the Arable Research Group here in Mid-Canterbury. I’m on a couple of other things in our local town, so, no, I keep pretty busy, to be honest.
BG: They don’t call it rural leaders for nothing, I guess. Certainly sets you up to be one.
HM: Yeah, it’s a privilege. It’s a privilege to represent farmers on those things, and I do enjoy it.
Anyone involved in food production should consider a Kellogg or a Nuffield. It opens your eyes to so many other things and it challenges your perspective. I went away with these preconceived ideas about what we do and why we do it, and then went and looked at all these other things and came home with a completely different understanding and perspective of how things are done. Also, how things fit together and what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong.
BG: Just before we wrap up Hamish, what are some of the issues you’re facing right now as an Arable farmer?
The main issues facing arable farmers.
HM: Well, that’s a great question, Bryan. I think the first one, and I think every arable farmer would agree with me on, is one of viability. I mentioned at the start we had a great harvest, and we did. But we face, like a lot of other farmers, increasing costs, and very static prices for our produce at the other end. So, yes, our prices have increased a wee bit, but nowhere to the extent that our input costs have. And a lot of crops we grow now, we are barely breaking even when you consider our fixed costs of production.
We grow a lot of high value small seeds in this country for our own export, but also for domestic use. Our domestic production takes up about 20% of the total produced of the 80% that’s left. Prices have really fallen away, and demand has fallen away over the last twelve months. To the extent that there is seed sheds full of seed that would have been exported, that is not going to be exported in the next twelve months.
Those supply chain issues will have effects on the ground for farmers, and there will be challenges with what arable farmers do produce on their farms in the next twelve months, two years, three years, because these things take a little while to unwind.
“It’s not all beer and skittles out there.”
Options for cropping farmers in the next two years are going to be challenged by not only profitability, but actually by options as well. It’s not all beer and skittles out there.
It’s interesting, we had a wonderful harvest, as I said, but that wonderful harvest has filled up the stores in this country, and we’ve seen prices drop domestically for grain because of the surplus. So, what’s good on one hand is not so good on the other. The industry has got its own challenges.
I would finish that by saying now, of course, that the world wants plant-based food, so the future variable farming I see is rosy. We just have to get there.
BG: Hopefully just a matter of waiting out this next couple of years and you can thrive after that.
HM: Yeah, that’s it.
BG: Thanks for listening to Ideas That Grow, a Rural Leaders Podcast in partnership with Massey and Lincoln Universities, AGAMRDT and Food HQ, this podcast was presented by Farmers Weekly.
For more information on Rural Leaders, the Nuffield New Zealand Farming Scholarships or the Kellogg Rural Leadership Programme, please visit ruralleaders.co.nz