The Canterbury food basket

The depth and diversity of Canterbury’s production means that a strong primary sector in the region is critical to the whole country’s primary sector delivering on its growth ambitions over the next 10 or 20 years. 

Consequently, some of the key priorities for New Zealand agriculture – intensification through the use of technologies, investment in irrigation infrastructure and the relationship between rural and urban communities to main the license to farm – will be also be priorities in Canterbury.

The recent 150th anniversary of an institution like the Canterbury A&P Show provides an opportunity to reflect on the evolution of the region’s agricultural economy, and its enormous role to play in its future economic prosperity.  With significant footprints in the dairy, sheep, beef, deer, arable, viticulture and horticulture sectors, the Canterbury region can now rightfully claim to be a food basket, not only for New Zealand, but for the world.

One of the fundamental messages that the industry promoted to those attending the Show is that our ability as a country to continue to pay for hospital beds, school teachers and other social infrastructure is dependent on our ability to continue to produce high quality food in a safe, sustainable and cost-effective manner.  At the same time, however, the industry needs to be able to paint a picture of what the country will be like in the future if we do intensify production, increase irrigation and migrate to a more corporate model for our farming systems.

Earlier this year, KPMG released its 2012 Agribusiness Agenda which highlighted the strong level of support amongst industry leaders for a vision and strategy for New Zealand’s primary industries.  The strategic nature of the food and agriculture assets that New Zealand holds, particularly those in regions like Canterbury, are only starting to become apparent.  If we are not strategic in our thinking around these assets we could find, as Australia has, that others have recognised their real value in a world with limited land and water resources before we do.

Industry leaders identified that an industry strategy would not only provide a roadmap as to how the sector delivers on its growth aspirations - it has the potential to provide a compelling vision to the wider population of a future based on sustainable agriculture. A vision can provide a framework for companies to collaborate, allocate resources to the best opportunities for our companies to win in global markets, and provide inspiration to young people about the ability to build dynamic, long-term careers in the primary sector.

This makes events like the A&P show more important today than they have ever been.  The Show provides an interface between the city population and the farmers in that region.  It enables the industry to showcase the technologies that are being developed and the quality for farming standards that we practice in New Zealand.  It helps the industry to explain the significant economic contribution it makes to the region and the national economy, now and into the future.

So, what actions could come out of a pan-industry strategy of specific relevance to the Canterbury region?  Here are some of our ideas:

-        The opportunities from irrigation are immense.  However, the challenges associated with getting a scheme off the drawing board and into realisation are just as significant.  We support an initiative to consolidate the many local irrigation initiatives in the Canterbury region to provide professional management and adequate resources.  Obtaining consents and securing financial backing for irrigation schemes is far too complex and far too important to the wider economy to place on the shoulders of a few dedicated farmers who are also trying to run their own businesses.

-        Running a farm business is a professional career, yet too many good farmers still underplay the complexity of their jobs.  Consequently, the industry has failed to attract its fair share of young talent in the last 20 years. We need programmes that recognise the skills required to be a good farm business manager. Tertiary institutions, including Lincoln University, have an important role to play in providing professional farm management qualifications to equip farmers to prosper in a complex environment.

-        Canterbury farmers have recognised the benefits of sourcing and applying world-leading technologies within their arable farming systems.  The primary sector lacks the financial resources to fund its entire R&D requirement.  There is consequently a need to follow the lead of the arable sector and integrate international innovation more extensively in our farming systems to deliver productivity improvements.  Reform of industry bodies to replicate the focus the arable sector has brought to innovation is a key to lifting innovation performance.

-        We also can’t afford to overlook the opportunity that the infrastructure rebuild in Christchurch provides, particularly in the forestry sector.  We would support the Government committing to a version of British Columbia’s Wood First Act, which imposes procurement standards to favour the use of timber in provincial buildings.  A similar initiative in the rebuild of public buildings in Christchurch could provide a boost to our structural timber industries and further reinforce the new Christchurch as the world’s most sustainably-designed and built city.

These are the types of issues we see as critical to Christchurch and the Canterbury region. We believe that any initiative needs to provide a framework that farmers, companies, sectors, regions and the Government can use to formulate plans that drive better outcomes for the participants in the industry and ultimately the national economy. With a bit of forethought, it’s entirely achievable.

Paul Kiesanowski, Christchurch managing partner and Ian Proudfoot, Asia Pacific head of Agribusiness, KPMG

 This piece originally appeared in Primary magazine. Click here to subscribe.