Unbelievable diversity, vast opportunities and incredible people are what make global agriculture so interesting, but everywhere faces challenges. Travelling with 8 other international Nuffield Scholars from Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and the Netherlands, I have over the past 3 months been spanning the globe on a Nuffield Farming Scholarship agri-focus programme visiting the US, Mexico, Brazil, New Zealand and the UK.
As a group we looked at everything from cereals, beef, lamb and dairy through to coffee, tomato and citrus production, and debated the growing opportunities for global agriculture and explored how farmers, industry and government are all gearing up to tackle key challenges such as sustainability, succession and food security. Providing a brief flavour of my travels, I summarise a few key themes which were discussed with farming hosts along the way.
Scale and diversity in California is incredible. The state alone accounts for 65% of the total US non-citrus fruit and nut production, and 73% of the total US national value. With a Mediterranean climate and rich soil, California is the most productive almond, walnut and pistachio growing region in the world. Non planted bare land, with irrigation is actively being sought by large agri-investment companies paying up to US$30,000/acre (£21,300/acre) with an agenda to plant, grow and harvest nuts. Once planted and a third nut crop has been produced, land with walnut trees could be achieving anything in the region of US$45,000/acre (£32,000/acre).
The dairy and beef sectors are also huge. We visited a dairy farm managing over 11,000 head of Holsteins. The milking facility consisted of four 13 unit double-up herring bone parlours milking 3,500 head within seven hours. The whole dairy operation employed 65 employees.
On another visit, we went to a beef feedlot measuring one square mile with cattle held in outdoor pens with shade from the intense sun. On the day we visited, there were 85,000 head of cattle, with an expectation that as summer comes along and spring grass disappears, the unit will fill up to their full capacity of 125,000 head.
Water, or the lack of it, and labour are two key challenges that California faces going forward. The state relies heavily on snowpack each winter to resupply surface water stocks, and with this being at an all-time low, supplies from aquifers are pumped to make up the shortfall. Aquifers are rapidly depleting and without real investment in more efficient water technologies and infrastructure, California’s water uncertainty remains a huge problem. The agri-sector has a strong reliance on a manual workforce, predominately Mexicans. Legislation has recently been passed raising the minimum wage from $10 to $15 an hour by 2020, after just increasing from $7. The implementation of more mechanised processes in order to keep overheads down was a key challenge that many farmers discussed with us.
Visiting Brazil, you cannot help but be amazed by the sheer speed on which the agri sector has developed. In 1993, Brazil’s share in world exports by volume was just 15% for soyabeans, 8% for sugar and 13% for poultry. Today these figures are 41%, 47% and 34% respectively. There is no doubt Brazil is well on her way to becoming an agricultural superpower, but there are big ticket items that need to be addressed, such as political stability, investment in road and rail infrastructure, and education, especially within the rural areas.
A highlight was visiting a 7,000 hectare arable farm in south Brazil growing soya and maize, with three crop rotations achieved per year. Working on a no-till system that had been in place for the last 15 years, our host prided himself on the organic matter content of his soils. One host commented that “Brazil is the land of the future, but always will be”. With ample rainfall, warm climate, good soils, innovative technologies and novel cropping rotations, Brazil has undoubted opportunities, but her challenge lies in tackling the big ticket items so that her agricultural potential can be truly realised.
Since the removal of subsidies in the mid-1980s New Zealand’s agricultural industry has had to adapt to market needs, which led to a difficult period during the nineties, before sheep and beef rose as the dominant sector. Numbers have been in decline over the last 12 years as dairy farming has boomed predominantly driven by Asian demand. The dairy industry now has a debt level reaching NZ$38 billion, we learned from Federated Farmers; the farmers national union, that almost 1 in 10 dairy holdings are under pressure from banks over their mortgages.
Attending discussion groups, I asked farmers what they believe the biggest challenge facing th industry is going forward. Succession topped the list, closely followed by getting new entrants into farming.
Share farming is a well-known model in the New Zealand dairy sector, but there are other structures emerging. On our travels we visited mixed units and arable holdings incorporating innovative equity based partnerships, all with a remit to encourage, motivate and embrace young talent, and not necessary family siblings. Farms are run like companies, with regular board meetings among shareholders. It was refreshing to see young farmers getting a chance to move up the ladder to farm ownership.
Throughout my travels, I asked several businesses, ‘what is the most important question a business should ask it’s self? No matter where you are in the world, the most successful and forward thinking organisations answered “happiness, when people in your business are happy, profit will follow”. The best quote which I picked up on my travels was “Culture will eat strategy for breakfast any day” and when you really think about it, it is so true. Incredible people are what really turn the wheels of global agriculture and what makes this industry so fascinating to be involved within.
As I continue my Nuffield farming scholarship over the next year, I will be specifically exploring the issues surrounding short-term land occupation and will be questioning whether our most valuable asset, the soils in which we rely upon to supply food is progressively coming under strain as businesses look for short-term gain in an era of increasing price volatility and uncertainty within the market.
If you would like to find out more about the Nuffield Farming Scholarship Trust, please visit www.nuffieldscholar.org