The top 10 innovators in agribusiness

New Zealand is bristling with innovators – especially in agriculture. But we asked our panel to find the stars. So after numerous emails, phone calls and heated debates – plus the toss of a coin – Primary is proud to present the top 10 innovators in agri-business. Top 10 Innovators is part of an ongoing series: the Farm 40. Compiled by Dwight Whitney.

Firstlight Foods 

Firstlight Foods owner and MD Gerard Hickey

Firstlight Foods owner and MD Gerard Hickey

There are many ways Hawkes Bay-based Firstlight Foods qualifies as a great innovator in the primary sector, but one of the main ones is its ‘producer group’ model which effectively means the company’s suppliers are directly responsible for supplying exactly what retailers want. 

This means Firstlight has pre-emptively addressed one of the issues that was highlighted in the Red Meat Sector Strategy written last year: the traditional model, in which farmers sell to abattoirs, who then sell to importers who sell to retailers, means no one takes responsibility for the end product – unlike Firstlight product, which is all about branding and differentiating its product. 

The company, which started operations in 2003, was responsive to market concerns from the get-go; it began by supplying venison to UK retail chains who were after farm-assured product (i.e. could be assured where the product came from, who grew the animals and the like). 

Firstlight supplied 52 weeks’ worth of chilled product of a uniform quality – unlike NZ venison of the time that was varying ages and sizes. Firstlight also ensured it could back up claims of being sustainable and humane in its farming practices – something markets at the time were increasingly looking for (and are now, in many cases, demanding). 

Wagyu was added to the Firstlight roster shortly thereafter and the company pioneered feeding and finishing the stock on grass (as opposed to the normal grain-fed beasts) and educating local farmers on the finer point of growing Wagyu – smaller herd sizes and stock fed to ensure constant weight gain are just two of the finer points of the production process. The product now goes to the US, Europe and Japan, markets that, again, demand very high animal husbandry standards. 

Firstlight’s Belinda Sleight says the company prizes innovation very highly – “right along the value chain: from genetics, to farming systems, to processing technologies, to new product development, new shelf life and packaging technologies to marketing, in order to keep ahead of the game".

 “This has become increasingly important as we have some competitor companies that are fast followers. However it’s a good sign that the meat industry as a whole is looking at itself and how to make improvements for better returns.” 

Firstlight will be adding lamb to its line-up this year, and expects year-on-year growth of 40 percent with the new product line.

Professor Ian Yule 

Professor Ian Yule and the C-Dax Pasturemeter

Professor Ian Yule and the C-Dax Pasturemeter

Precision agriculture is one of the hot agricultural terms of the moment. It’s more commonly associated with crop farming overseas, but here in New Zealand the practice has revolutionised pastoral farming, in great part down to the efforts of one man, Professor Ian Yule. 

Director of Massey University’s Centre for Precision Agriculture, Professor Yule spends his working life developing innovations that give farmers a greater understanding of the physical features of their farms, allowing them to use fertiliser and irrigation more judiciously. Money saved is another outcome (as a cost to the average farm, fertiliser is second only to interest repayments), while a farm’s carbon footprint is reduced. 

With his team, this year Professor Yule has been showcasing a brand new innovation that promises to make precision agriculture even more precise. The group have been using an Australian-made hexacopter on a number of projects – a remote-controlled gadget fitted with cameras that can take time-lapse photos, video footage and infrared images, promising farmers quick and precise data about their own topology. 

Innovation is not only a theoretical concept for the Scotland-born professor, but a practical skill. He was, for example, co-inventor of the 2011 New Zealand Innovators Award-winning C-Dax pasture meter, a device towed behind a farm bike that senses and records the amount of pasture grass in any given area, limiting fertiliser waste. 

He’s also contributed to a number of other major innovations covering everything from soil mapping and dairy cow-tracking through to taking an active role in helping the hill country farmers improve the utilisation of fertiliser applied by aerial topdressing. 

And, to top it all off, Ian and his team have just agreed to work with Lincoln Ventures Ltd., a wholly-owned subsidiary of Lincoln University, to collaborate on all sorts of precision projects and ventures including farmer education and attracting graduates to the precision agriculture field.

 One of the joint venture’s first tasks is to tackle precision irrigation; Yule’s team has done a lot of work in soil mapping and variable rate irrigation, while Lincoln brings to the table expertise in sensors for soil moisture and radio networks to transfer information around a farm. It is thought as much as a fifth of water used could be saved with the right application of precision technology.

Professor Michael Hedley 

Professor Michael Hedley

 Those in the know think of Massey’s Mike Hedley as the ‘silent creator’. His fertile mind has been at work as director of The Fertilizer and Lime Research Centre and is the practical brain behind much of New Zealand’s ground breaking soil research, particularly around fertilizer application, nutrient run-off and greenhouse gas emissions management. 

 With over 33 years’ experience in research and teaching, he has taken a hands-on approach in solving plant and nutrition problems in Canada, the United Kingdom, the Philippines, Ecuador and now New Zealand. The myriad of PhD students he has guided continue to spread his work around the globe.

 Professor Hedley has also been instrumental in pioneering duration controlled grazing. Not only is this work scientifically gratifying and robust, it is also helping the New Zealand dairy industry fight off the invectives of being labelled polluters and land and waterway destroyers. The practice involves standing cows off pasture, protecting them from adverse climatic conditions (not a major concern in New Zealand but certainly offshore) while at the same time increasing production, reducing tread damage to pasture and soil and minimising the loss of nutrients to waterways. The benefits of this approach have been taken to market in the form of Herd Homes—a Northland dairy farming couple’s creation that is akin to the Club Shed’ experience for bovines. 

Not surprisingly given his interest, Mike Hedley is breathing new meaning and life into Biochar research. This 2,000-year-old practice converts agricultural waste into a soil enhancer that can hold carbon, boost food security and discourage deforestation. The end result of the process is a fine-grained, highly porous charcoal that helps soils retain nutrients and water.

 In his spare time he has also pioneered the development of a whole herd of professional development short courses so prized and desired by the agribusiness sector. Of particular interest, given the current climes, have been those in the area of nutrient and greenhouse gas emissions management.

Professor Alison Stewart 

Professor Alison Stewart, scientist

Australian fruit flies may grab the headlines, but equally devastating are the range of other threats—such as soil-borne fungal pathogens—which, if left unchecked, could create mayhem in our horticultural sector. 

Standing in their way as scientist and team leader extraordinaire is Professor Alison Stewart. Her approach of utilising naturally occurring micro-organisms—in particular the fungus Trichoderma— has led to three commercial biological products both planet-saving and wealth-generating. 

 At the end of 2011 Alison handed over her Lincoln University-based position as director of the Bio Protection Research Centre to take up the position of Distinguished Professor of Plant Pathology at Lincoln University and help drive the New Zealand Bio-Pesticide Alliance. 

Hardly a sideways move, it has instead freed up her time to multitask across a variety of projects and positions spreading the word of bio-protection. In fact, the new incarnation is the perfect fit for someone who has successfully brought several biologically based products to market and who has strong links with researchers, industry groups and policy makers throughout New Zealand and Australia. 

Links are also being forged into Asia thanks to team member Dr Robert Hill, whose Trichoderma based bio-inoculants are netting huge reductions in chemical use alongside increased survival and plant growth in forest nurseries. 

 The whole resurgence in bio-pesticides, in part linked to this work, has seen global sales triple to around US$1.5 billion in the past decade with predictions for the figures to continue trending northwards. 

Alison’s end game is to position New Zealand researchers and businesses for this predicted growth, ultimately increasing uptake and successful commercialisation, downstream royalties, and, importantly, investment in New Zealand bio-pesticide research and development. 

 In her down time she continues as scientific editor of Phytopathologia Mediterranea, is a director of Better Border Bio Security and the Waite Research Institute, University of Adelaide. She is a member of the MAF BNZ Cross Sectoral Advisory Group and the scientific programme committee for the International Congress of Plant Pathology 2013. Professor Stewart is also the research leader for the FRST-funded ‘Sustainable Bio-Protection of New Zealand’s Productive Ecosystem’ program me.

Vijay Ganugapati

Vijay Ganugapati

 Thanks to Fonterra’s Vijay Ganugapati and the cross-functional team of scientists, engineers and technologists at the Fonterra Research Centre, New Zealand is a worldwide player in the game of functional milk proteins. 

Milk protein concentrates have been commercially available since the 1970s, but the old incarnation was hardly mouthwatering. Traditional use of the concentrates was largely limited to cheese applications and even then it was fraught with the issue of ‘cheese nuggets’: undisolved protein particles resulted in hard lumps forming in the cheese.

 It wasn’t until Vijay Ganugapati got on board that it became possible to produce soluble milk protein concentrate. The major break-through came when he discovered he could increase the solubility of milk protein by changing its mineral environment. This was done without losing the nutritional value of the protein and, most importantly, without adding any chemicals. 

The ability to manipulate the construction of milk proteins is unique, as is the commercial flow-on effects as new applications are taken to market.  The proteins have proven highly successful and can now be added to a variety of foods to achieve a number of beneficial functions. They are now used globally to increase cheese yields, improve the flavour and texture of cultured dairy products, reduce sodium content of processed cheese, increase protein content of sports beverages to assist muscle recovery and deliver essential protein nutrition in medical beverages that aid convalescence.  

 Vijay Ganugapati obtained his PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Queensland in Australia before taking up a post-doctoral fellowship at Massey University studying Casein protein kinetics. Joining the New Zealand Dairy Research Institute in Palmerston North in 1992, he began working on the functionality of milk protein concentrates.

Shoof & COWaPATCHé  

Shoof and COWaPATCHé Fieldays

It is a dark, dank, wet and muddy winter’s evening. The herd is coming in for milking and the job at hand is to ensure those cows currently producing colostrum or those receiving any form of notifiable treatment have to be identified and herded out. 

Problem is that the spray paint used for marking has faded and against the damp and mud-caked side of the animals can’t be clearly seen. Frustrating and time consuming to say the least, but the financial damage of having contaminated milk ending up in the vat, or the food chain, is the real worry. There had to be a better way and when dairy farmers Stuart Paterson and partner Melisa Jones put their minds to it they came up with the solution. It also means that farm manager, share milkers, relief milkers and farm owners can all be on the same page (or patch) with information. 

 With Cambridge-based company Shoof already having a well established beach-head in the innovative and creative end of agricultural and veterinary equipment, joining forces to spread the system only made sense. During the past 15 years, the family-owned business has built up a catalogue of more than 8000 products. COWaPATCHé would appear no more than a patch. Yet this ‘cowabunga’ invention is an information and herd management system that is simple, highly accurate and, with a touch of colour and panache, outstanding in any field. 

Farmers use a permanent marker to record any essential information that needs to be monitored, or shared. Properly applied patches have been known to weather any storm for up the three months. The elements, in turn, wash away any mud or dirt that might hide the vital bits of information. 

It is early days but clearly the eureka-moment solution has traction, winning last year’s People’s Choice Award at the National Fieldays.

Three Good Men Group 

Three Good Men export produce

 New Zealand exports almost 100,000 tonnes of buttercup squash to Japan and Korea each season, most of that from two large producers supplying mainly wholesale and processing markets. But a relatively new joint venture, called Three Good Men, is taking a different approach to these markets, looking to sell not only the popular vegetable – which the Japanese know as Kabocha – but the story of quality-assurance behind the product. 

 Three Good Men is a joint venture between major pack house and supplier NH Packaging hailing from the Hawkes Bay, Wairarapa and Manawatu, Gisborne pack house and supplier Coxco and Auckland exporters The Fresh Fruit Company. 

The story begins in 2008 when it was decided there was more value to be gained from squash sales into not just the mature Japanese market, but the emerging market of Korea. The Japanese, for example, take the safety of their food very seriously. 

This was answered in the TGM model through the creation of a brand story and ethos behind production embodied in a website and quality assurance program known as GREENgro. The story is told not only on the website, through social media, and by training local retailers on the ground in Japan about GREENgro and its benefits, it’s also literally embedded in every piece of exported Kabocha. Each squash sports a QR code that customers can scan to see pictures of where it came from, paddock details, recipes and other information. 

TGM exported almost 20,000 tonnes of produce to the two countries in the present season and has examined more options, including supplying high end processors and markets further afield including Vietnam and China. 

The TGM model – competitive with other New Zealand suppliers, and looking to grow a niche – is a philosophy that the company’s 24 growers have also bought into. They are not exporting huge volumes to drive down costs, but instead supplying on a fixed-price, fixed-volume basis and relying on value created by the GREENgro story to attract new customers and grow new markets.

Owen Catchpole

Owen Catchpole

Behind closed lab doors at Industrial Research Limited, Owen Catchpole’s 25 years of research and innovation in the area of extraction technologies is – literally and figuratively – helping others mine billions of dollars of revenue.   

 Owen’s particular field of expertise, supercritical extraction, is a relatively new industrial process using high-pressure carbon dioxide C02 to produce high-value extracts from a wide range of biological materials such as caffeine from tea and coffee and hop acids from hops. Even seemingly low-value biomass such as fish waste can be converted into high-value extracts rich in the likes of Omega-3 fatty acids using the process. 

Supercritical C02 was first successfully used in 1986 to extract cholesterol from meat and anhydrous milk fat. This led Owen Catchpole and his IRL team to design, construct and commission New Zealand’s first commercial-scale supercritical extraction facility, built in Lower Hutt and opewrated by Supercritical Extraction New Zealand Ltd (SCENZ). That facility – the first of its kind in the country – produced high-value seed oils, herb extracts, and a recent innovation, Totarol – a naturally occurring tree extract with potent anti-bacterial capabilities. 

While Owen and his IRL team are now focused on expanding the scope of the supercritical technology in New Zealand – overcoming CO2’s limitations as a solvent with the introduction of dimethyl ether (DME), a lower pressure, broader spectrum innovation that can process wet biomass – supercritical extraction continues to bring commercial success to many local companies. Fonterra, Nutrizeal, Photonz, Manuka Health, SCENZ/Trilogy, Living Nature and Mende-Biotech have added value to natural biomass using the process.

 In fact, Owen has invented 13 patented or patent-pending supercritical extraction processes, estimated to be producing revenue of $15–20 million per annum, and on the rise. Alongside his day job, Owen leads the Integrated Bioactive Technologies Group which is dedicated to the production of high value bioactives from New Zealand’s biological resources. As well as a swathe of gongs and accolades for his groundbreaking work, Owen can boast 80 peer reviewed publications including five invited book chapters.

Kalvin Singh

Kalvin Singh

 Simple and obvious are two words that form on the lips of those who have encountered Kalvin Singh’s Maxi-Track Quattro. Not said out of disdain, but more as an utterance preceding the question, “why didn’t I think of that?” 

That was precisely the response the Otorohanga-based dairy farmer and contractor received when – after sorties to the New Zealand and Australian equivalents – he unveiled his invention at the United States Patent Office. They could see how it worked but couldn’t understand why one of their own enterprising farmers hadn’t cracked the problem. 

Kalvin puts it in his customary straight-talking style. “Everyone who sees it, whether they have knowledge of basic physics or not, can understand that this system makes common sense.”

 His simple but stunning solution – the Maxi-Track Quattro – increases a tractor’s traction abilities by pulling down on the tires, boosting its pulling power by 40 per cent and improving fuel efficiency using a chain linked to the front of the tractor. In turn an adjustable hydraulic setup ‘captures’ the weight of the trailer to pull down the front wheels. The innovation transfers the main pulling point of the tractor forward, shifting weight onto the wheels instead of the traditional method of beefing up the front end of the machine or using fuel to pump-up hydraulics to deal with extra weight. 

The Maxi-Trak Quattro was in development for over a decade before Kalvin patented it. He then spent a further four years developing a prototype for production. In 2010, the Maxi-Track won the Golden Standard Award for the Best Invention at National Fieldays. 

Kalvin says he’s still in negotiations with Case International about having the Maxi-Trak Quattro custom-installed in its machines, and he’s also spent plenty of time getting the device patented in as many as 10 different countries. He hopes to have them stocked with dealers as soon as possible. 

When not toying with the laws of physics and tinkering with inventions (of which he says he has a shed-full more), Kalvin milks 500 cows across two dairying properties.

Pramod Gopal and James Dekker 

James Dekker and Pramod Gopal

The word itself oozes a sense of health: Probiotics. Positive, natural and all about wellbeing. The definition is a little more hard to swallow: live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host. 

 But when the medium of delivery comes to mind – yoghurts, milk products and the like – the flavour returns. And good returns are also to be found for the organisations pioneering the study, and patenting, of probiotic formulas. 

Given New Zealand’s standing in the dairy world, it’s not surprising that two of the best in the business work out of out of Fonterra’s Research Centre in Palmerston North.

 The pair – Indian-born Pramod Gopal and James Dekker – have quietly created significant global opportunities for the country. 

Pramod Gopal, who has a PhD in Biochemistry from Otago University, first worked at the New Zealand Dairy Research Institute (as it was then known) in 1990. His contribution has altered the business of probiotics by pinpointing markers that demonstrate improvement of the human immune system – showing the benefits are not health food mumbo-jumbo but bona fide science. His research led to the discovery of Fonterra’s DR10™ and DR20™ probiotic strains, two of the group’s major earners in this area.

James Dekker’s immunology experience – including a PhD and post doctorate work in the genetics of asthma – has helped to focus on how probiotic bacteria interact with the human gut and how, in turn, these interactions translate into tangible health benefits. 

Dekker’s work has allowed investigation into new health targets for the products and helped the development of new and better probiotic strains. With these strains now available to consumers in infant milk formula and cultured dairy products around the world, the fruits of Dekker and Gopal’s labour have brought gains to both Fonterra and our economy.

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

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