Age is only a number

We already have a wealth of knowledge and experience in the sector; we don't have to wait for the next generation for great things to happen.


jacqueline rowarth primary magazineYouth is wasted on the young, at least according to George Bernard Shaw. The young have energy, enthusiasm, flexibility, and are free of responsibilities. Their lives are before them to dream big and achieve. In Shaw’s mind this was better than age where responsibility and joints might restrict action.

The legacy of this thinking is with us still. And it can be heard whenever this common statement is trotted out with regards to working the land:

 ‘The average age of farmers is increasing; you won’t change the industry until the next generation takes over.”

Thing is, times have changed since Shaw put his pen to paper. Born in 1850, life expectancy was under 40 at the time (57 if you survived infanthood). Those of us born in the 1950s have an average life expectancy in New Zealand of over 60, and a baby born in 2010 will probably live to over 80. Good food and healthcare means that in developed countries we are living longer and healthier lives – retaining flexibility, both mentally and physically.

Like many other sectors, farming is a sector in which the average age is getting older.  For a sector that must, as an imperative, get to grips with technology, one might think age meant a barrier to technology uptake.  But the facts show something different.

Everett Rogers, Professor of Rural Sociology at Ohio State University in the 1960s, conducted a meta-analysis of over 500 technology uptake studies, finding five different types of people in terms of how they adapted to innovations aimed at making life easier.

He found that while 'innvators' and 'early adopters' were the groups most likely to take a risk on new technologies - and they tended to be the youngest - it was also true that those who were more financially stable and confident were also more future-forward than the others (who he called the 'early majority', the 'late majority' and the 'laggards'.  These 'laggards' were generally older, yes, but poorer and more poorly connected than anyone else).

Research from the Netherlands involving over 1000 farmers on innovation also reported that younger farmers are more likely than older farmers to adopt innovation. Again, this effect was linked with education: in New Zealand education in agriculture is higher. Of more relevance for New Zealand are the findings that farms with larger businesses (spreading fixed costs for innovation) and more solvency (to pay for it) are more likely to take the risk of adoption. This suggests that it might be the older farmers that are in the best position to adopt new technologies successfully – successfully because they know their business and so are likely to pick new technologies appropriately.

Warwick Lissaman, Marlborough farmer and Vice-President of the New Zealand Grassland Association (NZGA), believes that it is the mature farmers who are the innovators and adopters in New Zealand. He has experience not only with the interaction between scientists and farmers at the NZGA conferences, but also at monitor farms and industry-led discussion groups. “Mature farmers have the confidence and discretionary resources: time and finance, primarily,” he says. “New ideas and technologies should be tested with them – the innovators of farm systems.And though the young might be the early adopters, I believe that the older demographic is the innovator.”

The overall result is good. Agriculture (with forestry and fishing) is the top performer in the Innovation Index of New Zealand, according to research involving IBM and the University of Auckland. In the decade between 1998 and 2008, the All Sector Innovation Index moved from 100 to approximately 108, but the primary sector topped 200.

Everyone, in all corners of the sector, are taking up technology at an impressive rate. Making the point, Greg Muir, CEO of TruTest, sees that New Zealand farmers are adopting electronic tracing at a much faster rate than farmers elsewhere. Certainly there is regulation to encourage uptake, but the value becoming apparent is in improving individual animal management and hence production and farm returns.

Dr Chris Kelly, CEO of Landcorp, has been vocal on the advantages of having data on individual animal performance. Knowing the animals that are performing below average allows culling, thereby improving the feed for those animals performing well. They then perform even better, and the average production rises.

For a dairy farmer the effect is obvious in the vat.

For a sheep and beef farmer the reward takes longer to appear – but it is this aspect of productivity that Dr Scott Champion, CEO Beef and Lamb, is encouraging. He points out that there is very little price difference per kg of meat between what the ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ farmers receive, so the difference in farm performance must be in productivity. Knowing individual animal performance will assist with removing yet more of the bottom performers – the challenge in the future will be to develop cost effective technologies that allow, for instance, rapid scanning of sheep pregnancy and body weight, as well as pasture measurement and feed conversion efficiency.

All this is despite the fact that over the last 20 years, the average of farmers has increased from 56.5 to 58, and farmers are being told to plan for succession. “This takes their eye off the productivity ball,” says Warwick Lissaman. We should be regarding their experience as a strength, not a weakness – physiological age could well be younger than in the past – good food and health care.Farmersin their prime should be encouraged to invest in innovative practices and create the solutions, as well.”

Pat Garden, Millers Flat farmer, and government appointee to various advisory groups and boards including the Sustainable Farming Fund, agrees. He gave the inaugural Levy Address at the NZGA conference in Gore in November and reminded the delegates that end-user innovation is by far more the most important and significant source of innovation. He also said that a critical components of end user innovation is “‘informal know-how trading’, a term coined by Eric von Hippel in his book ‘Sources of Innovation’. This is essentially a pattern of informal co-operative R&D. If we apply that to a farming context, our heritage of discussion groups, focus farms and monitor farm groups is a perfect fit.”

The answer to yet greater innovation and adoption in New Zealand is clearly partnership across sectors and generation. Interaction within agribusiness, from farm to fork, will strengthen the existing networks, improving the ideas and providing a foundation for advance. Diversity of experience is urged in governance theories to improve productivity. Undoubtedly it will work within the operational part of the sector as well.

Energy and enthusiasm plus experience will combine to ensure that nothing is wasted.

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