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Ben Hancock: Global Focus Programme

Ben Hancock
Ben Hancock, 2019 Nuffield New Zealand Scholar

United States – Czech Republic – Bulgaria – Romania – Qatar – Kenya

 

The Global Focus Orogramme (GFP) was an incomparable opportunity to see a diversity of agriculture in across a variety of countries. We were given candid insight into our hosts businesses, operations, motivations for being in agriculture and what they want to give back, even bringing our group of nine scholars into their homes for a cup of tea, meal or a drink.

These frank and open conversations were some of the highlights for me personally, where some hosts would openly discuss some of their business and personal challenges in agriculture. I found these moments golden, particularly in the middle of a leadership development opportunity as the Nuffield Scholarship. But it was gratifying to give back to some hosts in helping in their current challenges with the varied opinions and experiences of the nine scholars.


Travelling with the group of Nuffield scholars was invaluable experience and formed friendships that will last. After seeing some amazing and challenging aspects of global agriculture, the opportunity to discuss this with a diverse group of young agricultural leaders from different sectors and countries – Brazil, Canada, USA, Ireland and Australia (and Tasmania) – drew so much more out of the experience. We all had our different backgrounds, contexts and perspectives to bring to these discussions, and we need not agree – I’m writing this in the home of one of the scholars that we have some disagreements on fundamental elements of agriculture.

There was so much to see during the GFP  through Washington DC, Kentucky, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, Qatar and Kenya. It would be difficult to concisely describe just the highlights from each country so I have focused on a couple overarching observations from the two countries that were probably the most different from New Zealand – Qatar and Kenya.

Qatar

The context we were given on arrival to Qatar – other than the immense wealth of the small gulf state – was the shadow cast by the blockade. The blockade by many of Qatar’s neighbours has been in place since June 2017, impacting their previous food supply chain through countries such as Saudi Arabia. Food security was a major driver the majority food production and supply businesses we saw due to the very real and near threat of not being able to import food in a small desert nation.

After the initial awe of seeing some of these amazing agricultural feats – such as dairy farming and growing fodder in the desert – I got the impression that there was prestige than production in these operations. This was reinforced when we saw the largest grain importer and miller that had impressive logistical, processing and storage capability to maintain supply and volume – production was not a part it. Does livestock production count as food security when it is limited by the volume of imported feed? Would it not be simple to utilise the more efficient production from around the world and advance the logistical solutions and storage capability?

If you removed the heat and oxygen, some of the production might be what one would imagine farming on the moon may be. This pushing the boundaries of production are worth taking note as a demonstration of what is possible but, in the context of a variety of growing global social concerns around agriculture, may be limited in its impact.

However, in the position that Qatar has been put in, the prestige of these feats can be understood. Drawing a line in the sand, so to speak, to show what they can do despite of the imposition by their neighbours. Qatar’s response to this situation appeared to create a national pride and social inclusion in the achievements being made.

Kenya

An afternoon spent with Kenyan smallholders that are part of a collective, similar to our discussion group, set me straight on some of my assumptions that I had developed. We frequently saw some agricultural practices through central Europe and Kenya that would not be generally accepted in our own farming industries, but this group changed my view I had formed of smallholder and subsistence farming. The intensity and diversity of what they were able to do on such small plots was remarkable – but this may be also be a limitation – and were organised and actively seeking ways to improve their production and position.

We held a panel session with the smallholder collective and we were asked directly how they could become farmers that were able to travel the world like ourselves. A common view from our Nuffield group was simplifying their production to what works well and not trying to do everything and anything – one farm had dairy cattle, sheep, honey, pyrethrum, fruit, vegetables, chickens and fodder with the excess to be sold. However, as smallholders they were more exposed by a crop failure and require a level of diversity for security.

On reflection, I saw the infrastructure and economic limitations created by political climate was a significant hindrance on developing production and ability to trade. This is not a simple fix as impacts the wider economy and, despite some the frustrations we me have in our own countries, gave me a great appreciation for context we are able to operate and trade.

The second major eye-opener in Kenya also related to this political climate. We visited farming operations that had been established for a long time – whether multi-generational family farms, internationally funded agri-businesses or NGOs – which have invested in their local communities and introduce adapted and sustainable production methods to Kenyan agriculture. Each of these had either been or were currently involved in land invasions by graziers or land grabbers that can have violent or even lethal outcomes. The political climate often exacerbates or can drive these conflicts.

However, Kenya has a young population that is more and more educated, and, while there was some significant signs of poverty – such as the largest slum in Africa – there was large growth in relative affluence. The combination of increasing wealth and a young educated population coming through generates huge potential for their economy – if they can overcome some of their institutional handbrakes.

 


The GFP has been transformative for myself. It has raised more questions than were answered of my understanding of global agriculture, but my understanding and empathy of the situations in which these questions are formed has expanded immensely. While not perfect, I have a greater appreciation of the circumstances that the New Zealand agriculture sector can operate in and that we can deliver to the world.

 

Follow Cam Henderson on Twitter @BenOfTheWai

 

Follow the links below to read the rest of the Global Focus Programme Reports from 2019:

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Hamish Murray: Global Focus Programme

Proposed new freshwater rules
Hamish Murray, 2019 Nuffield Scholar

Singapore – Philippines – Hong Kong – China – Germany – United States

Reflecting on six weeks traveling around the world with our China GFP group and the opportunity to contrast Asia, Europe and America, I am struck not by the differences between countries or continents but more importantly the similarities. I observed relationships and trust are common to success anywhere in the world and the importance innovation and adaptability has for surviving and thriving.

Singapore

On the 5th of June I joined nineteen other scholars in Singapore for a brief introduction of South East Asia and it was quickly illustrated the size and impact the region has on our current and future markets. Singapore has and is positioning itself as an independent and secure hub to facilitate trade in the area. It was also the start of forming a bond with a group of diverse individuals from different backgrounds spanning different production systems and seven different countries.

Philippines

Manilla and the Philippines was the breakaway, providing our smaller group of ten a brief but exciting stop, not only for the cheep beer and food but a quick insight into what much of the SE Asian region is still like, managing its way through developmental projects as it lifts population out of subsistence. Visiting the International Rice Research Institute we learnt that over four billion people every day rely on rice as a stable challenging me to consider my own lack of knowledge of such a significant part of the worlds food equation.

Hing Kong, SAR China

Hong Kong into the middle of Human Right protests gave an insightful view of the main event China,  and our building anticipation continued. Our group had begun to form into a cohesive unit, efficient use of public transport, coordinated logistics, more concentrated questioning and inquiry and the ability to adapt to the challenges presented, showed we were becoming a great team holding us in good stead for the remainder of our travel.

China

Having visited Shanghai once previously it was exciting to see many of the groups perceptions shattered on discovery that it is a clean, organised and developed city (albeit with 26million people).

Introductions with MLA, ADM etc amongst the others from the ANZ, Cotton Inc, JWM, CBH and Syngenta over the last ten days had given the obligatory introductions so with the excitement of kids is a toyshop we rode a bullet train at 315km/ hr for Qihe in the Shandong province.

The size and scale of China became evident as we witnessed the changes moving north and inland. Highways with several lanes in either direction, multi number high rise complexes popping up and the efficiency of nearing 30,000 km of high speed rail network built in the last decade were all on show making the fact that China has used more concrete in the three years than the USA the did in the entire 20th century very real and relevant.

The realisation that there are two separate economies in China, became evident as we confronted the existing subsistence of small holdings in rural areas contrasted with enormous dairy farms and processing facilities. This acted as a metaphor illustrating difference between the large developed coastal cities and large parts of rural China growing at quite separate rates. We learned that in 40 years China has gone from 17.9% to 58.5% urbanised meaning a shift of some 640 million people to urban areas. Following a similar trend of urbanisation, another 15-20% means approximately another 220-250 million shifting to Cities in the ten years (equal to about two thirds of the current US population).

Seeing the importance of trade within China between its people and regions, and accounting for the fact China has approximately 1.4 billion people and only 7% of the worlds arable land. It became evident we need China as much as China needs the world. We encountered willing and open people, doing good business in the ways similar to all of our countries. Sharing a formal meal with a group of officials it became obvious the importance of relationships and how they are formed. Like anywhere in the world the level of that trust facilitates the exchange, however it is the cultural diversity or rituals around the way in which that trust its formed that differs between people.

European Union, Germany & Ireland

Inner Mongolia and Beijing rounded out China before jumping into Europe and the precision and efficiency of Germany. We were fortunate to see some of the contrasts between east and west as we travelled from one to the other. This allowed us to gain some insight into the challenges facing further eastern bloc countries and when overcome their potential for large scale production of food.

The role of the EU was evident as we toured Germany and Ireland but what became obvious was that successful enterprises has mastered their production in a two to three areas and continued to innovate at the edges. I was particularly impressed by the way these  successful businesses demonstrated fast feedback loops created providing useful information to launch or pivot when changes arose.

Washington, DC

Our two GFP Groups combined once again, this time in Washington DC to come face to face with the position the USA has and continues to play on a global geopolitical spectrum. It was cool to catch up with a similar Nuffield group and share our experience as it highlighted how much we have seen and how close the experience of a Nuffield GFP brought our particular group together. A welcomed rest day could have been used to recharge or some time to ourselves but we unconsciously chose to  come together, spending the time riding lime scooters visiting the sites of the Capitol!

I will never understand the complexity of the US and its political system, especially in three short days but some context from meetings with Senators, lobbyists and the USDA allowed insights not many get the opportunity to have. However, I came away thinking again that USA is an enormous engine with many hierarchical layers, entrenched views and complex processes of government so that like an aircraft carrier it has very little ability to change direction and when it does only one degree at a time.

Texas, United States

If Iowa was the start of our Nuffield in March, Texas provided the perfect book end. Over six weeks we met many proud and passionate people sharing their businesses and stories. None more so than Texans which highlighted an observation that a strong sense of identity provides real power in a market. The Chinese had very a strong sense of being Chinese despite incredible diversity, the truly Irish – Irish brand capturing value for what we recognise from Ireland, and Go Texan slogan all illustrating shared history and values for those regions. My observation is that we are all individuals but get a real sense of motivation and engagement from belonging to a team and in these last two cases has translated to market positioning from combined effort.

Over six weeks visiting farm businesses, industry bodies and political institutions were heard talk all over the world of the challenges being faced with environmental regulation, the growing disconnect with agriculture, human resource limitations, no succession planning, undervalued food or lack of profitability in our farming enterprises just to name a few,  which brings me back to where this started. I am struck by the similarities the agricultural world is facing.

The problems and challenges all over the world over are the same, just they are dressed in different clothes.

I have been very fortunate to contrast seven countries and three continents in six weeks with a group of intelligent agriculturalists. They have helped me to look at things from different angles and to process what we have seen, at each stage challenging me to ask a better question with new information gathered!

We could never hope to have understand the world in that time, or find the answers to questions but what I am incredibly grateful for is the knowledge, experience and insights gained to continue learning and asking better questions!

Follow Cam Henderson on Twitter @hamemurray


Follow the links below to read the rest of the Global Focus Programme Reports from 2019:

Click here to go back to the newsletter.

Cameron Henderson: Global Focus Programme

GFP Brazil: Seven International Scholars, Six Weeks, Five Countries

Washington DC

At the conclusion of the Nuffield conference in Iowa, our GFP group left the melting snow and ice for Washington DC. The political engine in the US is both impressive and scary. We met with many agricultural lobby groups and the US Department of Agriculture. Trade is at the top of the agenda with many still supporting the full fair and free trade message despite the pain inflicted on the rural communities by the current trade war with China. Interim subsidy programs are in place to keep farmers happy but on the day of our departure the administration announced cuts to farmer support programs, including crop insurance, in an effort to cut spending. My key learnings came from the experienced Washington players.

  • Focus your messaging on the ‘movable middle’ population
  • Having experience being lobbied makes you a better lobbyist.
  • Politics is all about networks
  • The NZ Embassy in Washington has a great bar in the basement for networking.

Florida

Down the coast in Florida we saw a state that is aiming to take over from California as the produce capital of the US. We saw blueberries, carrots, tomatoes, sweetcorn, nuts all grown on large scale and timed to fit into a value window where, for a few weeks each year, Florida is the source of produce for the major US supermarkets. Most family farmers are at the mercy of brokers and manufacturers for pricing but a few are looking to innovative marketing ideas of their own (Satsuma chapstick anyone?).

I was very impressed with the community extension service of the University of Florida. Their experienced agents have created outstanding demonstrations, facilities, programs and guides to pass on the University’s research and knowledge to farmers and the general community. Despite the US administration’s current views on climate change, the University is performing research on GHG mitigation, particularly with animals, that we should watch closely. Key Florida lessons

  • Controlling more of the value chain is more profitable but requires more capital, risk and knowledge.
  • Focus on your window of value in the market.
  • Don’t be afraid to try something completely new
  • Farm near a beach – it helps with managing stress 
Cam Henderson, Florida GFP

Mexico

The visit to Mexico was very short with two days spent at CIMMYT, the wheat research facility near Obregon. The farmer run facility is completely a not-for-profit that develops parent genetics of wheat to breeders around the world. They also run plant breeder training programs and help the local farmers of Sonoma State with everything from agronomic advice to irrigation infrastructure. We also visited a local grain cooperative and finished off with a walking tour of Mexico City. The history of this city is amazing having being built on the ruins of the Aztec empire. The blending of the native bloodlines with the colonising Spanish is creating a modern challenge in defining the nations identity not unlike our own.

Key Mexican lessons:

  • Farming doesn’t always have to be about making a dollar (or peso).
  • There is a bright future for well-run cooperatives.
  • Pride in your identity is a powerful marketing message.

Brazil

Our Brazilian leg started in the capital Brasilia, a city of 4 million people that was just farmland sixty years ago. It was founded as the development of Brazilian land headed east away from the coast during a time when much of central and northern Brazil was opened up for agriculture. In the 1970s Brazilian farming families from the south moved north to open up farmland for cropping with new technology and financial incentives. With so much land available, family farms in this area now often exceed 50,000 ha.

With land development came pressure on natural resources, particularly the rainforest and soils. Brazilian farmers and government have responded quickly to these issues with 60% of all crops in Brazil now using no till systems and a Forestry Code that protects large tracts of the native rainforest. There is also a great awareness among farmers of how the Amazon forest contributes to the highly valued rainfall patterns in Brazil.

We saw a range of highly developed, innovative and massive farming operations that are held back by a lack of political stability and logistics to move produce to port. If these two issues were to be resolved, Brazil would rival any country in the world as an agricultural powerhouse.

Key lessons from Brazil:

  • Our natural environment is important for our own success and for our public reputation. We must work harder to protect it. If Brazil can do it so can we.
  • NZ exports competing on price or volume has a limited life
  • Genetic engineering is at the core of Brazilian agriculture development. Would we be left behind without it?

Netherlands

Our tour of the Netherlands focused on the centre of the country with visits to pig, dairy, flower and vegetable farms. To me the country was one big garden and a testament to the innovative thinking of the Dutch – intricate drainage networks, reclaimed land, robotic dairies, wind turbines, fields of glass houses (even a university inside a glass house).

Digging into the success of Dutch agriculture two key factors emerge.

  1. Animal based agriculture in the Netherlands relies on cheap imported (GE) grains through the local port of Rotterdam, Europe’s largest seaport.
  2. A European customer base of over 500 million people all within easy trucking distance of the Netherlands and all within a single customs market (EU).

The Netherlands has an input based environmental regulation (e.g. stocking rate and fertiliser rate limits) compared to New Zealand’s output based regulation (you can do what-ever you like so long as you don’t leach above a certain number). The result appears to be a tick box exercise to get the environmental subsidy without a deeper understanding of why the practices are important or what else farmers could be doing to improve environmental outcomes. For example soil moisture monitoring was not common under irrigation nor were buffer strips used to prevent sediment runoff.

Key lessons from the Netherlands:

  • Technology and innovation can overcome nearly any obstacle
  • Look for your unique advantages and exploit them.
  • Be wary of statistics – Netherlands is Europe’s largest ag exporter but only because it imports a third of that produce through Rotterdam (the Netherlands exported $500 million of bananas last year but didn’t grow a single one.)
  • Output based environmental regulation is a greater challenge to implement but creates a better long term outcome than input based regulation.

New Zealand

The final week of the GFP was spent in the Nelson and Marlborough regions touring previous Nuffielder’s innovative farming operations.

Andy Elliot (2018 Scholar) introduced us to aquaculture at the Cawthron Institute and Wakatu. Cawthron Institute is a pioneer in shellfish spat production. Wakatu, a shining example of the booming Maori economy, grows out the shellfish in the Marlborough Sounds and has developed its story into a successful brand and 500 year business plan.

Julian Raine (1997 Scholar) showed us Wai West Horticulture, a multiple family owned business growing apples, kiwifruit and boysenberries near Nelson. He is currently exploring nutraceutical applications of the fruit in China. Julian’s other projects include his role on the Primary Sector Council (a concept the other scholars were very impressed with) and Oakland Dairies. Oakland Dairies milks a small herd on the Nelson city boundary and provides most of the food service outlets in Nelson with A2 milk in glass bottles. There are also a few local vending machines which are very popular with the locals. His Aunt Jeans brand is distributing the milk nationwide.

Murray King (2003 Scholar) has strong ties to dairy and is particularly proud of his latest joint venture Appleby Farms, an ice cream producer in Nelson. Appleby has clocked up a string of successes since launching in 2017. A New Zealand gold medal ice cream award within 12 months and  is now available in 380 stores in New Zealand. I would recommend the Bad Boys and Berries (Boysenberry) flavour!

John Palmer (1989 Scholar) has had the odd governance role in New Zealand but is now focused on his family farm growing pip fruit, hops and kiwifruit in Nelson. He also introduced us to the McCashin family hop operation, an inspiring story of growth and innovation in a niche market.

Hamish Murray’s (2019 scholar) family farm Bluff Station near Kekerengu suffered massive damage in the Kaikoura earthquake but is rebuilding into a strong, multigenerational family business. As is John Murphy (2014 Scholar) who is growing family business Marlborough Garlic into a producer of high quality garlic and shallots while always looking for new opportunities (keep an eye out for Garlic Noir).

A flying visit to Wellington to visit Ministers O’Conner and Shaw to talk the future of farming, and stops at MPI’s economic research unit and Beef and Lamb to discuss strategy and Taste Pure Nature left us all feeling very impressed with the state of NZ ag and the other GFP scholars looking at the local real estate ads in the hopes of moving here!

Key lessons from New Zealand

  • Farmers tend to like working on their own but the success of the business we saw relied on strong partnerships and teams.
  • Tell your story using six words (Thanks for the advice Julian!)
  • Kiwi hospitality is second to none.

The GFP experience highlighted to me the diversity in opportunities and challenges that exist in agriculture around the world. Ultimately most agricultural markets were trying to do two things – at a macro level, feed 9 billion mouths by 2050 while at a micro level, add value to produce to generate greater profitability. And achieve both while minimising environmental impact.

New Zealand is as well placed as any nation to achieve this goal.

Many thanks to the many farmers, businesses, organisers and sponsors who made this experience possible and to my GFP travel mates who shared many insights, experiences and laughs along the way.

I look forward to my personal travel where the real work begins!

Follow Cam Henderson on Twitter @camohenderson

Follow the links below to read the rest of the Global Focus Programme Reports from 2019:

Click here to go back to the newsletter.