Crosby Devitt: Reflecting on New Zealand Agriculture

Crosby Devit is currently travelling completing his Nuffield Scholarship.  You can check out more of his trip by checking out Crosby’s blog or by reading his blog posts on

At the time of writing I am in the Hong Kong airport, on my way from New Zealand to the Netherlands.  We wrapped up a great week in New Zealand this morning.  For our next segment we will be joining up with all of the 2012 Nuffield Scholars from around the world for the Contemporary Scholars Conference – 51 in total, including 3 of us Canadians.

My time in New Zealand was a real learning experience.  We had 5 full days in the Canterbury region and it really whetted my appetite to come back again to see more of this great country.  The people are friendly, the landscape is breathtaking, and agriculture is their biggest industry.  What more could one ask for!

I am fascinated by the cooperative nature of New Zealand agriculture.  Their strongest businesses are co-ops. Approximately 70% of farm inputs (fertilizer, seed, chemical) are purchased through coops that are farmer owned.  Couple this with 70% of farm products being marketed through co-ops, and you’ve got a striking difference from Ontario / Canadian agriculture.  My Australian friends are also fascinated by this set up as co-ops are not dominant in Australia either.  It seems New Zealand farmers view each other more as colleagues than competition, and band together to tackle issues.  Perhaps this is because they are a relatively small nation, and being an island, are isolated from the larger multi-country continents.  It appears that they often lack competition among suppliers and marketers.  Adequate competition is essential for market driven pricing of inputs and fair pricing for farm products.  Faced with these realities, New Zealand farmers banded together and formed companies that are farmer owned and look after the needs of their nation.  These co-ops have been in place for many years and they appear to be a strong as ever.  We were fortunate to be able to meet with representatives from Fonterra, a milk co-op that is NZ’s largest company and Ravensdown, a fertilizer co-op with close to $1 billion in annual sales.  The co-op model needs another look in Canada.

While we were in New Zealand, we observed the one year mark of the February 22, 2011 earthquake that rocked this nation.  The quake’s epicentre was close to Christchurch, a city of about 350,000 people and devastated a large area of the city, including the central business district.  A year later, the clean up continues and its effects have changed this country forever.  In addition to the loss of many lives, thousands of people and businesses have been forced to abandon their premises due to irreparable structural building damage.  Discussion is ongoing about how and where to rebuild.  On Thursday, Richard Green, Nuffield New Zealand’s manager, gave us a tour of the city and arranged meetings with several people directly affected by the quake.  It was powerful to hear to their stories and see the damage first hand.  We learned about personal resilience, and the importance crisis planning.

The most uplifting part our day was a meeting with Sam Johnson, a University student that used social media (Facebook and Twitter) to mobilize hundreds of students to help people clean up the mess created by the quake.  Sam was recently named Young New Zealander of the Year for his efforts.  This 23 year old explained that in the chaos following the quake, students were motivate to help but there was no organized volunteer network.  Sam and his friends stepped up and organized teams of students to go out and help shovel dirt and help residents.  They figure they put in 80,000 hours of work through the ‘Student Army’.  Many farmers drove their tractors to the city and started moving debris, what they called the ‘Farmy Army’.  This disaster showed the good that can happen when people go straight to task and don’t get caught up in bureaucracy.

Some random thoughts and ideas picked up this week:

  • You don’t communicate TO people, you communicate WITH people
  • To accomplish goals, you need to identify a motivating factor and capture it
  • When communicating, you need to make your message relevant to your audience.  It works best to have a cause that people can identify with, rather than just put out a bunch of information.
  • You can’t plan for every disaster that could hit your business, but it’s important to review possible crisis scenarios and think about how your business would deal with them
  • Leadership isn’t about power, it is about purpose

My first major activity is to participate in the Global Focus Program where I will be travelling to 8 countries on 4 continents in 6 weeks with 7 Australian Nuffield Scholars. We have a jam packed agenda, meeting with farmers, farm organizations, researchers, and government officials. We will be learning about global aspects of agriculture and how we can contribute to a sustainable, productive and profitable future for farmers.
The second component of my Nuffield Scholarship is an independent study project. My project focusses on the Future of Grain Research: Maximizing Productivity Growth through Partnerships.

Wake up with RealAgriculture

Subscribe to our daily newsletters to keep you up-to-date with our latest coverage every morning.

Wake up with RealAgriculture