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Putting down new roots, part three: How Pāmu is transforming New Zealand farming

Our farming systems stand on the precipice of intense change. The task of how to feed a growing population that is set to reach 10 billion people by 2050 in the face of climate change, resource scarcity, and land degradation has forced innovation to spur. Scientists and technologists have blown the whistle on traditional farming methods and subsequently, new systems of agriculture have emerged. Plant-based meats have sprouted, cellular agriculture and alternative protein products have spread across supermarkets and fast food joints, and farmers have more environmental accountability. Thankfully, strides in technological development have opened the gates for a fourth agricultural revolution, but will New Zealand – with its national identity that’s deeply entrenched in traditional farming methods – be willing to move with it? In part three of a series, Findlay Buchanan talks to one of the pioneers growing the pastures of agricultural posterity.

Pāmu stands as one of the old hands in the industry, formerly known as Landcorp, the farming operations company was seeded 130 years ago and has since helped forge New Zealand's $2-billion-dollar agriculture sector. It has produced the majority of New Zealand farms – more than 25,000 – and has transformed our land from forestry into pastoral farming. While Pāmu is an incumbent in an old industry, it is eager to adapt for the future. Over the last five years, it has built new foundations to support environmental stewardship, and has battled to attach appropriate value to its products.

To begin, chief executive officer, Steven Carden, provides an honest reflection of his enterprise. He states, for years Pāmu was built  on producing as much meat, wool, and milk as possible, to exploit land for maximum profit. But while it provided productive farms, after years of dairy intensification, it came to realise that its model was broken.

“We built a model on intensive farming, which was relying on really heavily driving people who worked in those businesses, the animals that we farm, and the overall environment which we were farming,” he says.

Carden says Pāmu is currently in the midst of a shift from a large-scale, intensive corporate animal farming model, to a diversified land use model where it produces a range of specialty animal products and specialty plant-based products.

Pāmu has already sought to fulfill the wants of a modern consumer, particularly alternative dairy forms, having set up a series of programmes to provide a portfolio of plant based dairy products such as sheep milk, deer milk, and plant milks alongside others. This ties into its bid to attach more value to its products, with the view that its animal products need to be niche and premium, as opposed to being plainly commoditised.

“We’ve worked really hard to make our products different, in terms of how they are produced, so we are really interested in organics which has a system of farming with a lower footprint as well as a brand that is attached to it globally that people pay a premium for.

“We are interested in alternative and new animal products like sheep milk and deer milk, we have built a company called Spring Sheep, New Zealand’s leading sheep milk business exporting products into Asia, having developed deer milk companies which is a high end animal protein story around a superfood which is really high in protein, high in fat, that we are getting into food service in Australasia as a food desert. And potentially has some cosmetic applications elsewhere.”

Carden says despite assumptions that farmers are stuck in their ways, there is a lot of good work happening across the sector to open up more transparency.

“In the old days there was a ‘my house, my castle’ approach to farms, but all that is changing, obviously every food company around the world is expected by the consumers to much more open about the conditions with which it is producing the food they are consuming. And that pressure is applied to farmers as well.”

He says that expectations from supermarkets – and large meat and dairy companies – to accurately record farm operations has ramped up. Additional pressure is compounded by renewed changes and expectations at government level about how animals are treated, environmental concerns, along with issues of health and safety. 

Luckily, the increased pressure is met with the development of new tools to aid farmers and with that, new modes of transparency. Carden points to an example, FarmIQ, a land and animal management system as one of the best examples in the market.

“It’s a really complicated integrated piece of software which we use to basically measure what happens to every animal on our farm, whether it is where they get moved, what they eat, how big and fast they are growing, what medicines have been applied to them, and where they end up going. And also a similar level of transparency around what we are actually doing on our land. So every paddock is managed, it has fertiliser applications, pesticide use alongside what we are doing with water and irrigation. So that’s a really good tool for making sure, in a single software database, a really accurate eye on virtually everything that is happening across our farms.”

“The data requirements and what we need to report on at every level is so substantial that if you try to do it manually without the help of technology you are in real trouble”.

But how have farmers responded to such a shift in consumers’ expectations? Carden says initially, they were very skeptical.

 “They were concerned that what we were doing was both unrealistic and unnecessary. And we’ve got to push the industry to a place which was unpleasant for them, as it has been at times, unpleasant for us,” he says.

“What I think they feel now is an acceptance, that we foresaw what was inevitable for the industry, and that has become a reality. As the country’s largest farming company with 125 farms around the country across 1000 people, we have the scale to introduce the science and technology needed to make that transition. So, I think there is an acceptance that the way we produce food has to change and many farmers, including ourselves, are working hard to make that change – which will ultimately be good for our bottom-line and the environment.”

 - Read part one in this series, here, and part two, here

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