Nuffield in the Great White North – March 7-9

After a couple of days in Washington, we boarded Air Canada for the Great White North – Winnipeg, Manitoba!  After almost 4 weeks away from Canada, it was great to be back in familiar territory.  I had been talking up the cold weather in Canada to my Aussie travelling companions and the weather didn’t disappoint.  It wasn’t cold by Canadian standards, but we were able to experience –15C with a solid wind chill.  Much different than the +45C some would be experiencing at home in Australia. IMG00143-20120309-0857After one cold day, it warmed up to a nice +5C.  My wife Carie sent Canadian scarves for everyone, which were much appreciated!

Thanks to Wally Doerksen, Nuffield Scholar and retired farmer from Steinbach, Manitoba, we had several meetings with farmers and P1080653organizations that showcased innovation in Manitoba agriculture.  There are major changes occurring that affect the structure of wheat marketing in Western Canada.  It was interesting to meet with a CWB official to learn about their plans for marketing wheat in the future.  The Australians went through a similar process that  deregulated their wheat marketing system a few years ago.  We had some lively discussion among our group. It was refreshing to talk with farmers that have first hand experience moving from a single desk to open marketing of wheat.  We can learn a lot from farmers in other countries about how they have dealt with change and survived marketing turmoil.  Do we do this enough?

While in Manitoba, we had our first real discussion about the beef industry.  Canadian beef farmers are finally seeing decent prices and optimism after almost 10 years of struggles as a result of BSE in Canada disrupting export markets.  I spent close to 10 years working in the beef industry before switching to grains.  Its nice to see the industry getting fair returns what I would consider the best food in the world – nothing beats a Triple A Canadian steak!

P1080650Through my travels, I am continually impressed by farmers from around the world. They all seem to possess similar traits – things like quiet optimism, modesty, acceptance, family values, and integrity. No wonder the general public ranks farmers among the most trusted professionals, ranking up with doctors and nurses!  It’s kind of like those stories you hear about twins that were separated at birth.  When they are reunited as adults they share incredible similarities.  In the case of farmers, it can’t be genetics that cause the similarities, so it must be their environment.   Perhaps it’s because farmers around the world face common challenges, such as weather dependency, volatile markets, independent, asset based business and often isolating work.

I heard this comment this week: Farming is like a poker game, once you put the seed in the ground, you are all in.  I can identify.



Nuffield Arrives in Washington, DC

On March 4th we said goodbye to Europe and headed West to North America.P1080624 We hit the halfway mark in our Global Focus Program while in Washington, DC.  After a short night’s sleep, we started the morning on March 5th with a meeting at the Canadian Embassy.  It was interesting to have both a Canadian and Australian Trade Councillor in our meeting at the same time to discuss trading partnerships between our countries and the US.  I always knew that the US was Canada’s biggest trading partner, but hadn’t really contemplated the significance of trade to both countries.  Did you know that there are reports for each US state and Canadian province that outlines the Canada-US trade and the most significant products for each area?

While in DC, we learned a lot about the US Farm Bill and proposed changes for the next 5 year programP1080600, starting in 2013.  The amount of dollars in the US Farm Bill is staggering, but we learned that about 80% of it is directed toward domestic food aid and nutrition programs.

In Canada, we hear a lot about the US Farm Bill and its impact on Canadian agriculture.  I found it really valuable to see first hand where some of these discussions take place and speak with US government staff that are directly involved with developing the programs and negotiating budgets.  One of our meetings was held in the US Senate Committee on Agriculture room.  This was an impressive room with a balcony overlooking the US Capitol Building. P1080625 The decisions made in this room have shaped US Agriculture and the impacts of these decisions have had global reach.

We did a fair bit of walking around Washington to get from one meeting to another.  Some of my Aussie friends were fascinated by the squirrels running around the parks.  Apparently they don’t have squirrels in Australia!  Another first for 3 of our travellers was SNOW!!  It happened that we were standing outside the White House gate when the first flakes came down.  This photo was snapped within a minute of these guys seeing their first flakes.P1080642

Agriculture in the UK

I’ve just arrived in Washington, DC after spending the past four days in London, England at the second leg of the Nuffield Contemporary Scholars Conference.  We spent March 1st at New Zealand House – on the 18th floor with a panoramic view of the city of London.

london pana

We had many thought provoking speakers that really highlighted issues facing UK farmers.  For example, there are a number of charitable organizations in England that get involved in agriculture that are not necessarily farmer driven.  A couple examples are the Soil Association and GM Freeze heard from these organizations and learned about their goals for agriculture.  Although the views of these groups are often controversial and polarizing, they mostly want the same thing as everyone on the planet – a healthy, affordable food supply grown in a sustainable way.  The differences come in how the words healthy, affordable and sustainable are defined.   As farmers, we often are so caught up in our own business, we forget how those that aren’t farmers view our industry.  We should be ready and willing to talk about how we farm and the benefits that new technology brings to a more sustainable food supply.  I think a lot of issues around genetically modified crops and pesticides come up through the fear of the unknown.

On the evening of March 1st, the New Zealand High Commission hosted a reception for us that the Nuffield patron, HRH Duke of Gloucester attended.  He is the Queen’s first cousin.  I had a chat with him and upon learning I was a farmer from Canada, he was quite interested in the difference between genetically modified and non-genetically modified soybeans.  It appears that this issue is front and centre in the UK, even among royalty!P1080489

We had the good fortune on March 3rd to get into the English countryside and visit some farms.  We learned about the practical aspects of their farm subsidy programs.  UK farmers receive significant support from their government, but it comes with expectations.  Most of these expectations are around the preservation of a natural environment for wildlife and people.  For example, their programs include support for hedge restoration, land set aside for wildlife corridors, and winter feeding for birds.

P1080591A couple things I gleaned:

  • Lots of groups present VIEWS on issues, rather than FACTS.  It is important to understand the difference.
  • We’ve all heard of NIMBY (not in my backyard), but have you heard of BANANA’s ? Ban Anything Near Anyone Near Anywhere.
      One of the perks of being a Nuffield Scholar is that we become honorary members of the Farmers Club, located in the heart of London.  This members only club offers great dining and lodging in a historic building within walking distance of the British Parliament.  I was able to take full advantage of the privilege by having a breakfast meeting with a UK farm research manager and was able to learn about how their farmers are setting up research partnerships with government to advance their sector.




The Netherlands–Nuffield Scholars Conference Update

Almost 36 hours after leaving New Zealand, we arrived in Amsterdam at 6:00 am February 25th.  We took a train to Rotterdam, then a bus to our hotel where we met up with all of the 2012 Nuffield Scholars.  Over the past 3 days, I’ve gotten to know farmers from the UK, Ireland, France, India, Australia, New Zealand, and of course, Canada.

P1080344We kicked off our activities with a bus trip into the country side.  In true Dutch tradition, we stopped in the coastal town of Volendam for tasting of smoked herring.  We then travelled to an innovative dairy farm where they milk 150 cows and have a biodigester and a wind turbine on the farm.  The biodigester is connected to a pipeline to the local town where the gas is used to generate electricity and the excess heat is reclaimed to heat neighbouring houses.

While travelling in this area, I noticed the a huge number of large wind turbines.  If anyone is P1080370interested in understanding the impact of wind turbines on communities and individuals, this has got be the place to find out.  Many of the turbines have been up and running for over 10 years and are often situated very close to houses.  It appears that some farmers chose to place the turbines on the edge of their farm yard to avoid having it in the middle of their fields.

The most fascinating part of our time in the Netherlands has been a trip the Flora Holland, the largest flower auction in the world.  P1080391Every year, over $4.1 BILLION EURO per year of flowers are sold through this grower owned cooperative.  They process 125,000 transactions per day and ship 12 billion flowers and 600 million potted plants per year. These numbers are hard to imagine.  The stat that really gets me is that they handle more than 20,000 varieties of flowers!

We’ve met with and heard from several Dutch agricultural leaders in the dairy, flower, and hog industry.  All of these leaders have contributed to their successful business by focussing on providing a product or service that is completely in tune with their customer.  Their business have successfully adapted to evolving markets and economic situations.P1080372In the words of one of our speakers: ‘ PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR CUSTOMER, THEY ARE THE ONLY ONE WHO PAYS’.  Another common trait I noticed is that the they leaders are confident optimists.  In the words of another speaker: ‘NEVER WATER ON THE SEED OF DOUBT’.

Tomorrow night we head to London, England for the second half of the 2012 Nuffield Contemporary Scholars Conference.

Reflecting on New Zealand

At the time of writing I am in the Hong Kong airport, on my way from New Zealand to the Netherlands.  We wrapped up a great week in New Zealand this morning.  For our next segment we will be joining up with all of the 2012 Nuffield Scholars from around the world for the Contemporary Scholars Conference – 51 in total, including 3 of us Canadians.  Crosby out standing in the field

My time in New Zealand was a real learning experience.  We had 5 full days in the Canterbury region and it really whetted my appetite to come back again to see more of this great country.  The people are friendly, the landscape is breathtaking, and agriculture is their biggest industry.  What more could one ask for!

I am fascinated by the cooperative nature of New Zealand agriculture.  Their strongest businesses are co-ops. Approximately 70% of farm inputs (fertilizer, seed, chemical) are purchased through coops that are farmer owned.  Couple this with 70% of farm products being marketed through co-ops, and you’ve got a striking difference from Ontario / Canadian agriculture.  My Australian friends are also fascinated by this set up as co-ops are not dominant in Australia either.  It seems New Zealand farmers view each other more P1080144as colleagues than competition, and band together to tackle issues.  Perhaps this is because they are a relatively small nation, and being an island, are isolated from the larger multi-country continents.  It appears that they often lack competition among suppliers and marketers.  Adequate competition is essential for market driven pricing of inputs and fair pricing for farm products.  Faced with these realities, New Zealand farmers banded together and formed companies that are farmer owned and look after the needs of their nation.  These co-ops have been in place for many years and they appear to be a strong as ever.  We were fortunate to be able to meet with representatives from Fonterra, a milk co-op that is NZ’s largest company and Ravensdown, a fertilizer co-op with close to $1 billion in annual sales.  The co-op model needs another look in Canada. 

While we were in New Zealand, we observed the one year mark of the February 22, Christchurch CBD2011 earthquake that rocked this nation.  The quake’s epicentre was close to Christchurch, a city of about 350,000 people and devastated a large area of the city, including the central business district.  A year later, the clean up continues and its effects have changed this country forever.  In addition to the loss of many lives, thousands of people and businesses have been forced to abandon their premises due to irreparable structural building damage.  Discussion is ongoing about how and where to rebuild.  On Thursday, Richard Green, Nuffield New Zealand’s manager, gave us a tour of the city and arranged meetings with several people directly affected by the quake.  It was powerful to hear to their stories and see the damage first hand.  We learned about personal resilience, and the importance crisis planning. 

P1080314The most uplifting part our day was a meeting with Sam Johnson, a University student that used social media (Facebook and Twitter) to mobilize hundreds of students to help people clean up the mess created by the quake.  Sam was recently named Young New Zealander of the Year for his efforts.  This 23 year old explained that in the chaos following the quake, students were motivate to help but there was no organized volunteer network.  Sam and his friends stepped up and organized teams of students to go out and help shovel dirt and help residents.  They figure they put in 80,000 hours of work through the ‘Student Army’.  Many farmers drove their tractors to the city and started moving debris, what they called the ‘Farmy Army’.  This disaster showed the good that can happen when people go straight to task and don’t get caught up in bureaucracy. 

Some random thoughts and ideas picked up this week:

  • You don’t communicate TO people, you communicate WITH people
  • To accomplish goals, you need to identify a motivating factor and capture it
  • When communicating, you need to make your message relevant to your audience.  It works best to have a cause that people can identify with, rather than just put out a bunch of information.
  • You can’t plan for every disaster that could hit your business, but it’s important to review possible crisis scenarios and think about how your business would deal with them
  • Leadership isn’t about power, it is about purpose

The Nuffield Gang

New Zealand–Land of Innovators

Today, I am going to share some photos from our travels.  We’ve been meeting with innovative farmers and agribusiness leaders in New Zealand’s south island this week.  In addition to dairy and grains farming, we’ve talked with precision agriculture specialists, research managers, and growers of onions, carrots, currants and other vegetable crops.  Did you know that 50% of the world’s carrot seed is grown in this part of NZ?  We are getting a complete view of the industry including seed production and further processing, even meeting with the manager of a carrot juice plant.

New Zealand – Land of Innovators!

I’ve organized some photos into a web album.  The last two days were spent meeting is innovative farmers that are truly thinking beyond the traditional definition of farmer.  We had a really interesting meeting with a farmer today that runs a research farm and is building a precision agriculture business.  He grows a number of crops, including wheat.  This year’s wheat crop is expected to yield 14 T/ha (205 bushels per acre).

We have a long flight from New Zealand to the Netherlands in a couple days, and I plan to prepare more details to share while in flight.  For now, enjoy the show…

How does 175 bushel per acre wheat at $9.50 /bushel sound?

Yes, it true!  Here in the Canterbury region of New Zealand, farmers are getting ready to harvest their feed wheat and barley crop, expecting to haul in about 12 tonne/hectare which is about 175 bushels per acre.  Prices are good and they expect about $350 per tonne for their feed wheat and barley this year.  You might think farmers would be planning to expand acres, but in fact, the opposite is true. Instead, this area of New Zealand is seeing a massive expansion in dairy farming.  All through the area, farmers are converting from crop farming to pasture based dairy farming.

River valley panorama

Over the past two days, we’ve met several dairy farmers and they are extremely optimistic about the future of New Zealand’s dairy industry.  As one farmer put it to me, the Canterbury area is the most efficient place on earth to convert grass into milk.

It seems the most common configuration is a 700 cow unit, milked in a 54 or 60 cow rotary parlour twice a day.  85% of NZ dairy production is pasture based.  The system is based on intensively managed and rotationally grazed perennial ryegrass pasture, with minimal grain supplement.  Cows are typically a ‘Kiwi Cross’ – Holstein – Jersey cross.

rotary milker panorama

What is the critical factor that makes this system work? WATER!!!!  Access to irrigation water is essential to profitable dairying in this part of the world.  Centre pivot irrigation is common, and farmers carefully manage their pastures through irrigation.

New Zealand has an interesting dairy system.  The dominant milk buyer and processor is Fonterra, a farmer coop with about 8000 members.  95% of NZ dairy production is exported and Fonterra is responsible for 90% of that business.  Dairy is so significant to NZ, that it accounts for 25% of the country’s total exports!

We’ve had an intense 2 days meeting with several farmers in the business.  Every one of them has been successful at building and expanding their business and are continuing to grow.  Something I’ve learned during these meetings is that success came through taking a business approach, building partnerships with people, hard work and optimism.






Goodbye Australia, Hello New Zealand!

Its been a whirlwind so far.  We spent all day Friday at the Grains Research and Development Corporation head office in Canberra, Australia.  We learned about the status of the DOHA trade negotiations and the global status of trade policy from Tim Crowe of the Australian Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.  He described he last 11 years of negotiations like ‘…a kangaroo hopping back and forth in front of a car…you never know what side your on.’  – an authentic Australian analogy!

John Harvey, CEO of the Grains Research and Development Corporation met with us over lunch.  GRDC is the result of a unique partnership between farmers and the Australian government and is responsible for coordinating and funding research and extension activities for Australian grain farmers.  John shared some of his insights related to the scale of research in the public and private sectors.  He was insightful in his views on achieving public good through research.  Two statements stuck with me: 

1) Until research results in farmers actually changing a practise or doing something different, its value is zero.

2)  The best way for the government to help farmers implement practices that have an aspect of public good (such as environmental protection) is to find ways to make it improve their business.

These statements may seem obvious, but I believe our Canadian system should pay more attention to them when reviewing policy.  We need to focus on IMPLEMENTABLE RESULTS and ACHIEVING PUBLIC BENEFITS THROUGH STRONGER FARM BUSINESSES.

Saturday was a travel day.  We left Canberra early in the morning and after a couple of connecting flights and an hour’s drive, arrived in Ashburton, NZ, in the heart of some of the most productive dairy and crop production in the world.  Sunday will be spent on farms – can’t wait!

A rainbow outside the GRDC building, Canberra, Australia

Rainbow outside GRDC building

The countryside outside Christchurch, New Zealand

Descending on Christchurch, NZ

Australia in Focus – Day 1

After almost 24 hours in flight and in airports, I’ve arrived in Canberra, Australia, the nation’s capital city of about 400,000 people.  The highlight of my first night was meeting the group I’ll be travelling with for the next few weeks.  This is an impressive group of Australian farmers.  Our group is very diverse, and includes producers of many commodities, including dairy, sugar cane, dates, grains, fish, sheep and beef.

We spent day one learning about Australian history, culture and politics, and finished the day with supper at the Parliament House with Australian Senator Chris Back, his wife Linda, and Opposition Agricultural critic MP John Cobb.  They understand agriculture and are passionate about its future in Australia!

It is absolutely fascinating to learn how Canadian and Australian agricultural issues align.  Today, we had discussions about declining government support for agricultural research and development, the impact of strong currency on the economy (I paid $118 CDN for $100 AUD), impact of food imports and domestic competitiveness, and the decline of funding toward agricultural education in the University system.  We tend to think of these issues as isolated to our own country.   Perhaps we can benefit from more global understanding.

Here is a photo of our group with Senator Back and his wife.  Nuffield Australia CEO Jim Geltch (far left) was an amazing guide today.  Thank you to Jim and Nuffield Australia for inviting Canadian participation in this program.  It is much appreciated!