A triumph of adaptation

Sustainable farmers are not defeatist, but handle change, are innovative and efficient, Jacqueline Rowarth writes.

In Environment5 Minutes

Sustainable farmers are not defeatist, but handle change, are innovative and efficient, Jacqueline Rowarth writes.

The notion that farmers in New Zealand accept the status quo and become defeatist is extraordinary given the evidence to suggest otherwise.

For more than a century they have been working with rural professionals and scientists to create management systems tuned to the NZ environment – soil, topography, and climate, as well as markets – that are world leading in terms of least impact per kilogram of product. AgResearch scientists have done the calculations1.

Far from being defeatist, most farmers coped with a change of market focus in the 1970s and then removal of subsidies in the 1980s. They created new industries, such as deer, dairy sheep, kiwifruit, manuka honey, avocados and blueberries. They explored alpaca, buffalo, ostriches, and goats of different types. Now oat milk and leaf protein are being investigated.

In addition, all the sectors have become increasingly efficient. StatsNZ publishes data on productivity gains every year2.

Since 1978, multi-factor productivity growth (capital and labour) has increased by 2.4% a year, exceeded only by information, media and telecommunications at 2.6%.

This year the highlights on the StatsNZ website stated that “Primary industries had the highest labour productivity growth from 1996 to 2021. In 2021, workers in these industries produced 166.9 goods and services per hour, compared with 100 in 1996”.

No need to tell farmers and growers that they have been working harder – but in doing so they have been achieving more for every resource input. Precision agriculture has played a major part in productivity gains with accurate placement of agrichemicals and irrigation – and all without the subsidies common in other countries.

Capital productivity is also leading at 1.8% a year since 1978, compared with the much vaunted ‘Accommodation and food service sector’ which has achieved negative 1.4% productivity over the same time frame. There is a limit to the number of beds that can be made or tables served in an hour, and a limit to the number of beds/tables per unit of space.

In considerable contrast, farmers and growers have increased the yields of an increasing variety of products, and in doing so they are feeding more people from the same amount of land.

The increased diversity in activities is integrated within systems and increases the resilience of individual farms as well as of the national economy. Vincent Heeringa, writer and innovator, has shown that farmers have been adding value for decades3.

This year the primary sector contributed 81.8% of NZ’s export economy4. Its value increased from $47.5 billion (year to June 2021) to a record $56b.

NZ farmers and growers have made gains because they have always questioned the status quo. They were pioneers because they challenged the existing state of affairs and left home to create a better life.

The No. 8 wire mentality, developed from necessity, has transformed over the years into a highly tuned and productive national primary sector enterprise where honey, forestry, meat, dairy, grains, seeds, fruit and vegetables interact – where waste from one sector is used by another, where animals are grazed by arable farmers or vineyards during appropriate seasons; where farmers and growers are constantly evaluating options as market signals and prices change and then adopting new technologies to assist.

The NZ ag story is a triumph and gets better every day.

The facts, evidence, and data are clear.

  • Dr Jacqueline Rowarth, Adjunct Professor Lincoln University, has a PhD in Soil Science (nutrient cycling) and is a director of Ravensdown, DairyNZ and Deer Industry NZ. The analysis and conclusions above are her own. jsrowarth@gmail.com


1 agresearch.co.nz/news/telling-our-carbon-footprint-story

2 stats.govt.nz/information-releases/productivity-statistics-1978-2021

3 newsroom.co.nz/is-the-volume-to-value-mantra-true-yes-and-heres-why

4 mpi.govt.nz/resources-and-forms/economic-intelligence