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Illustration: Rachel Salazar
Illustration: Rachel Salazar

PartnersFebruary 3, 2022

How New Zealand agriculture is sowing seeds for global change

Illustration: Rachel Salazar
Illustration: Rachel Salazar

With an economy historically centred around farming, Aotearoa is emerging as a model of global best practice for the agricultural sector.

As a small nation in the South Pacific, New Zealand has long depended on farming for economic prosperity and growth. Much of that has come from exporting agricultural products overseas, with approximately 80% of our dairy, meat, fruit, and vegetable production shipped off to dozens of countries around the globe. In fact, the New Zealand agriculture industry was estimated to be worth more than $46 billion as of 2019.

As a result, New Zealand’s powerhouse farming sector has attracted global attention not just from consumers and buyers, but also from students eager to join an internationally recognised industry and take that knowledge into their future careers.

Shaking up Brazilian dairy

From growing up in a rural community with a family of dairy and pig farmers to spending nine years as state secretary for agriculture and fisheries in Santa Catarina, Airton Spies has always been closely involved with Brazil’s agricultural sector. Now in his 60s and retired after a professional career spanning more than three decades, Spies looks back fondly on one of his earliest career experiences: living in New Zealand and studying for his masters in farm management at Christchurch’s Lincoln University. 

“I’d just started my career at Epagri (Santa Catarina’s agricultural research and rural extension enterprise) which had a programme investing in their staff to upgrade their skills and learn all over the world, and my preference was to go to study in New Zealand,” says Spies, who already held degrees in agronomy engineering and business administration from his undergraduate studies in Brazil. 

With additional help from a New Zealand Official Development Assistance (NZODA) scholarship, Spies arrived in Canterbury along with his wife and two young sons in 1994. He chose Lincoln specifically because, at the time, it was famous for its farm management studies, and also because he was involved in the dairy industry and wanted to go somewhere “with world-class knowledge” of the sector.

Illustration: Rachel Salazar

While studying in New Zealand, one of the first things that caught Spies’ attention was just how much the country’s agricultural sector had been forced to change as a result of radical social and economic reforms introduced by the Labour government in 1984. 

“New Zealand had become a liberal economy with very little subsidies, and the industry had to make a lot of changes to adjust,” he says. “A lot of these changes focused on efficiency, and today that’s something that stands out in New Zealand. There’s no room for inefficiencies and waste – since the reforms, it’s become a very market-driven industry.”

Despite returning to Brazil after his studies to continue his work at Epagri (as well as completing a second overseas stint in Australia studying for his PhD, this time focusing on the pig and poultry industry), Spies says what he learnt in New Zealand left a strong impression on him and his career, informing some of the programmes introduced in the local dairy sector during his time as state secretary for agriculture and fisheries in Santa Catarina. 

“The Brazilian dairy sector is far behind in terms of technology and development compared to the New Zealand dairy industry, so we helped establish technology like rotational grazing through our extension network to provide orientation for farmers to establish correct pasture production, management and harvesting,” he says. “We also helped introduce new pasture varieties, setting up an agreement with [farm supplies company] PGG Wrightson to bring 33 new varieties into Brazil. After going through testing and legislation, some of these varieties proved to be successful and are now established here in Brazil. So through our policy we could provide new genetics to our farmers.”

In addition to government policy, Spies’ time in New Zealand has helped foster long-term trade relationships between the two nations. With assistance from the New Zealand embassy in Brazil, Spies helped host almost a dozen technical tours for Brazilian leaders – including members of parliament and presidents of large farming cooperatives – to experience New Zealand’s agricultural industry first hand. Spies says these tours, often focused on the dairy industry, showcased the sector from a wide range of angles. The groups visited farmers, research institutions, universities and private companies, as well as Christchurch’s annual A&P Show – the largest agricultural and pastoral showcase in New Zealand – to learn about the latest innovations and emerging trends. 

“What we need to do now is what New Zealand has already done,” he says. “The Brazilian dairy industry is making a big jump now in improving its efficiency toward global competitiveness. Currently, Brazil still protects its dairy industry because of lack of competitiveness against other countries but we want to remove this to be freely competitive with the main players in the world.”

Hands-on horticulture, from apples to onions 

Kazi Talaska moved to New Zealand from Indonesia in 2018 to study horticultural science at Massey University. Having first developed an interest in plants in high school while interning at a local nursery near her hometown of Bogor, Talaska says she decided to study in New Zealand because of its strong reputation in the agricultural sector. “I knew as a country it did a lot of this agriculture stuff really well, and I thought to myself that if I was going to learn anywhere then this was a good place to start.”

In addition to learning about the science behind the production side of farming, such as soil chemistry and plant nutrition, Talaska’s three-year degree involved learning about the marketing and business side of the industry, touching on every part of the supply chain, from logistics and shipping to its final destination on supermarket shelves. 

Illustration: Rachel Salazar

The degree also involved gaining practical experience, with students required to undertake two 13-week work placements which, in 2019, Talaska supplemented on a global scale when she was awarded a Prime Minister’s Scholarship to take part in the Massey/Lincoln Agribusiness Market Immersion Programme in South Korea – a first-of-its-kind programme to support the development of the country’s apple industry.

“I spent a total of a month in South Korea looking at how their apples were grown, what they were growing, where they were growing it, how it was marketed in the supermarkets, and what consumer behaviours were driving that,” she says. “That trip was really interesting because it was a really big validation moment for me. By then I was about halfway through my degree and I’d learnt a lot of things in theory, but actually being on the ground in a global context – looking at how fruit moves from one country to another – and connecting all the little dots from what I’d learnt in uni to what I was seeing in person was a real highlight for me.”

Talaska graduated last year and now works at Onions NZ, a representative body for 85 growers and 18 exporters of onions in New Zealand. As market access and development manager, she’s finding that a lot of what she learnt in university translates into her work today, she says. Furthermore, with Indonesia being one of the fastest growing export markets for onions in New Zealand, Talaska says her background has allowed her to not only read and translate important legislation, but bring a unique perspective on the cultural nuances driving the Indonesian market demand. 

“When I’m looking at what sort of strategies we can implement to make what’s happening on our side easier for our growers and exporters, that’s significantly easier to do once you understand the different parts of the supply chain and why some things are important and why some things aren’t,” she says. 

Illustration: Rachel Salazar

Bringing her background and knowledge from home and applying it to the local market has not only helped Talaska’s own career – the New Zealand agricultural industry is now benefiting from that knowledge too. 

“For an industry that’s global and for a country that exports a lot of what it produces, having good relationships is essential. It’s advantageous if you know another language or if you have a bit more perspective of what’s going on in the world,” she points out.

It’s that combined knowledge that makes international students such an important part of the global workforce. As a country leading the agricultural market globally with our innovations and practises, the opportunities to teach – and also, crucially, to learn – are invaluable, and as Talaska says, “we shouldn’t take them for granted”.

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