Kiwi farmer's global honour

By Linda Clarke

A South African dairy farmer asked Methven's Craige Mackenzie, during a global farming discussion in the United States recently: "How many cattle do you lose?"

"None," the Mid-Canterbury dairy and cropping farmer replied, puzzled.

Then he realised the South African was talking about stock stolen by thieves and those desperate for food.

Another farmer he met during the roundtable discussion worked just two days on his farm, and spent the remainder helping his large extended family and community simply survive, loaning out the tractor and plough he recently upgraded to from oxen.

Mackenzie was one of 15 innovative and inspirational farmers invited to the roundtable discussion, which was part of the annual World Food Prize (the agricultural equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize).

He is the first New Zealand farmer to attend since the event started seven years ago, and will send reports to farmers around the world about the agricultural scene in New Zealand. He says the 13 countries represented had different issues, such as stock theft in South Africa and transporting produce in the packed and poor streets of India.

Craige uses precision agriculture techniques and computer technology to map his crops, monitor moisture levels and apply fertiliser only where needed. Mackenzie says the farmers talked about tools, trade and technology needed to farm in the next five to 10 years.

The bottom line was that farmers needed to be profitable to invest in new technology, be it spray irrigation or a tractor to replace oxen. "We need to be able to continue to feed the growing world population, as well as people in our own patch," he says.

Guest speakers, including United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon, emphasised sustainable intensification.

In South Africa, farmers needed a drought-tolerant gene in corn so subsistence farmers could improve harvest yields to feed their families and communities. "Our issues are legislation that is coming in around land use and nutrient limits. How we can manage our inputs and try to reduce our environmental footprint and be able to maintain the right to farm and grow what we grow," Mackenzie says. "We are privileged and wealthy when you think about that, and the fact that some farmers in the world have to choose which of their three children they will feed in a given day."

Because of that wealth, New Zealand farmers are an important cog in the global agricultural wheel.

"We can help other people, through technology and advice, to feed their families, and then bring money to their communities. They will then be in a position to buy our produce.

"We need to be able to continue to be better at what we do, drive technology and have the ability to raise the bar. We have some of the best farmers in the world right here. Our strength is our knowledge, climate and opportunity and the challenge for us is to take it forward in a sustainable way."

He says sharing dairy farming skills with the Chinese had introduced milk, butter and cheese to their diet and a market for New Zealand's dairy produce. Although genetic modification (GM) was part of the agenda, it did not dominate the discussion. GM was vital for African farmers needing to grow drought-resistant crops so they could feed starving communities, Mackenzie says.

"There is enough gene technology going on in the multinational companies without New Zealand being involved in this space and there is potential for our scientists to help. But it is not only about GM. Our scientists are clever, like the research they are doing into endophytes in cereals.

"There are, however, benefits to GM I think we should not be too naive about that. We should carry on doing the things we are good at and have an open mind."

Craige will report on his experience at the roundtable discussions to Primary Produce Minister David Carter and government officials.

He says though people want cheaper food, farmers have to make money to invest in new technology that would help them be more environmentally sustainable. "It is important that farmers are profitable, here or in Zimbabwe. You have the ability to be able to invest in new technology and be better at what you do."

- Hamilton News

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