Soil and nutrient advice company gets back to the scientific basics to help farmers optimise production.

Scientist Doug Edmeades is keeping pretty fancy company these days. Just take a look at the Federated Farmers' nominees for Agribusiness Person of the Year: Fonterra chief executive Andrew Ferrier, Ballance Agri-nutrients boss Larry Bilodeau, National Fieldays boss Barry Quale and Craig Hickson, managing director of supermarket chain subsidiary Progressive Meats.

Then there's Edmeades, whose start-up soil and nutrient advice company employs five people and, by his own admission, is a niche operation.

"I looked at that list and I thought, I'm the odd one out - I don't run a big business," he says on the phone from his Hamilton base, sounding clearly chuffed.

The award was won by Ferrier last week. But Edmeades' nomination is a ringing endorsement of his work, given the nominations are based on farmers' votes.

"It's good that farmers have recognised that I've done my best in their interests. It's very satisfying," he says.

Edmeades founded AgKnowledge in 2002 after a 20-year career at AgResearch's Ruakura centre, the last decade of which he was national science leader for soils and fertiliser.

He left the state-owned science facility in 1998 because "I thought the core values that were important to me were being corrupted. I went through the commercialisation of science - and the desire for dollars compromises the purpose of science".

Somewhat ironically, the gap between commercial science and farmers' need for knowledge created a market Edmeades was able to exploit by forming his own company.

Whereas once public scientists freely presented their expertise to the agricultural sector, now a host of manufacturers and service providers create solutions to farming problems.

The profit motive, Edmeades believes, makes much of the advice around cultivars, fertilisers and animal remedies moot. Fertiliser was until recently the single biggest discretionary capital expenditure for farmers.

"Farmers are saying: 'We don't know if these guys are being salesmen or genuine technical people'," he says. "It's created huge confusion in the marketplace and, I would argue, great inefficiency."

Edmeades' point is that once you walk past a farm gate, the white lab coat is more trusted than the business suit. AgKnowledge scientists assess the farm and pastures and take soil tests.

"When we apply good objective science to this process, we're pulling out on average $5000 to $10,000 worth of costs and, at the same time, improving productivity," he says.

Plants need 16 nutrients and if one is missing - "there's the weak link".

AgKnowledge scientists proved that one or several nutrients were missing on 70 per cent of the farms serviced last year.

"We're saving them money by applying simple science, using the least-cost products to deliver; not wasting or overdoing nutrients and optimising production on the farm," says Edmeades.

Clover pasture is vital, costing the farmer only 2c to 3c a kilogram to produce. Adding nitrogen, which is needed when the clover is missing, pushes the cost up to 10c to 12c a kilogram. Throw in feed supplements and you're talking up to 30c.

"The whole point of a fertiliser programme is to maximise the growth of pasture because that will maximise economic returns to the farmer," Edmeades says. "The key to doing that is getting the clover growing."

Clover are legumes and the nodules on the roots contain bacteria that take nitrogen from the air and convert it to protein, which makes excellent animal feed.

The grateful animal then returns the nitrogen to the soil, increasing clover production at no cost.

"It's a simple message that came from the '50s but has been forgotten and, in a way, I'm doing nothing more than repeating the same message 50 years later," he says.

The demise of pure state-paid agricultural science clearly irks him. New Zealand's system of agricultural research was once the envy of the world, he suggests.

"The whole technology transfer thing has broken down... and I couldn't live with it and that's why I left [Ruakura]."

The global financial crisis hit him as hard as it did farmers.

"Having come through the last 18 months I can now look them in the eye and say: 'I know what it's like'."

Hampering expansion of AgKnowledge - it has people and offices in Hamilton, Tauranga, Hawke's Bay, Palmerston North and Christchurch - is a lack of capital.

"Our development is funded through cash flow," he says.

While farmers can mortgage their land, Edmeades can only leverage his knowledge.

"It's not like I can go to the bank and say: 'I've got a big brain; can I borrow $50,000'," he deadpans. "The value of my business lies between the ears and you can't get credit on it. But that's also one of the reasons you shouldn't commercialise science because its true value lies in the brains of people, not its infrastructure. The true capital value of science is intangible."