What are the big challenges that farmers and agronomists in New Zealand are facing at the moment? And how can digital solutions help solve some of these issues? To answer this question (and others), I recently spent some time in New Zealand, visiting growers and agronomists.
Coming from Australia, I couldn’t help but notice how different the New Zealand agricultural landscape is – smaller average farm size, much more intensive, and moisture availability seems to be no problem. So it came as a bit of a surprise to me that, although the style of farming is so much different, the challenges the farmers face are quite similar to what farmers in the U.S. and Australia deal with on a daily basis.
With dairy farms a fixture in the New Zealand landscape, it almost felt like I was back home in The Netherlands again… except for the size of the dairies! One of the growers I visited runs a herd of 12,000 dairy cows, plus a 6,000-replacement stock; the sheer size of this operation (and many others) just blew my mind. Where Australia is known for having extremely large farms in some areas, New Zealand’s farms are not as big size-wise but, due to soil fertility and reliable rainfall, have some very productive acres and are thus able to sustain large dairy-herds or produce high-yielding crops.
With this intensive use of land come certain challenges regarding nutrient use and leaching, which has led to regulation aimed at protecting the environment, similar to regulation seen in the U.S. and European dairy sectors. New Zealand farmers are now forced to keep track of the amount of nutrients that are applied to each field and the accumulative moisture applied (rainfall and irrigation combined) in order to track potential leaching of nutrients, mainly nitrogen and phosphorus, into waterways.
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All New Zealand farmers I spoke to used one or more digital tools to keep track of nutrient applications, irrigations, and rainfall events – this is a regulatory requirement, after all. The New Zealand government created one such tool back in the 1980s and, while some growers still use this tool, many farmers are shifting their focus to farm management platforms instead of just having nutritional information in a separate “data-silo”. They told me that, by combining nutrient and moisture information with other application data and the costs involved, they are able to comply with regulatory requirements as well as derive information that helps them improve other parts of their farming business.
Boasting a population of less than five million people, New Zealand’s agricultural sector is disproportionately large compared to the population. With an estimated 85%-90% of New Zealand’s agricultural production destined for export, international trade regulations force New Zealand’s farmers to adhere to very strict MRL and other standards. Increasingly however, food commodity importers don’t only want to measure MRL’s and other quality metrics, but know exactly what happened during the growing/production process.
One of the main certifications required for New Zealand’s fruit and vegetable growers is NZGAP – New Zealand Good Agricultural Practice – which is benchmarked to global GAP and focuses on the safe and sustainable production of fruit and vegetables in New Zealand. All fruit and vegetable growers I spoke to export at least a part of their production and therefore need to be NZGAP certified, whether they ship carrots to Indonesia, potatoes to the UK, or onions to Fiji; every country demands GAP certification for food imports.
Similar to how dairy farmers are moving away from having their nutritional information locked away in a separate data silo, fruit and vegetable growers are also wanting to store all their crop management information on the same platform. NZGAP requires growers to collect and store certain crop management data but growers are realizing that they can use this data for more than just certification purposes. By using tailored reports from their farm management platform, they can fulfill their NZGAP certification requirements but, at the same time use this information to improve their operation by having data available to support their decision-making process.
As is the case for farmers around the world, New Zealand’s farmers are feeling the squeeze of lower commodity prices and higher input costs. From dairy to vegetables, fruit and anything else – it is imperative to aim for maximum yield while keeping the costs as low as possible. Some growers I spoke to saw value in variable rate input applications whereas others told me that, due to relatively small field sizes and reliable rainfall in combination with high average precipitation, they prefer to focus on field-level profitability instead of sub-field.
Similar to what I hear from a lot of Australian and American growers, I was told that many growers want to focus on knowing more details of what is currently happening on their farm and how they can make small, profitable, adjustments. Obviously, there are some eye-catching innovations like automated apple-picking machines that show clear ROI but, many “new technologies” get perceived as just an “extra cost” by growers without being able to see a clear ROI opportunity.
All in all I found that, although New Zealand’s agricultural sector is very different from that in other countries, the needs of growers in respect to digital ag are very similar. As one grower put it to me: “We are not looking to put a man on the moon. We just want to get more visibility into our farming operation and where we can improve our decision-making process.”
Farmers in New Zealand already need visibility to comply with nutrient regulations and export requirements. To be able to use the data collected for these processes in such a manner that it can benefit the profitability and sustainability of their farming operation at the same time, seems no more than a logical next step.