Saturday, 25 February 2012

Australian Dairy Conference...The Use of Social Media by Dairy Farmers

“Consumers don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care!” This was one of the powerful messages from Charlie Arnot CEO of the Centre of Food Integrity (@foodintegrity, @charlie_Arnot) presented at the Australian Dairy conference (#ausdairy) in Warragul, Victoria, Australia. Charlie spoke of the need for all farmers to acquire a “Social License to operate” by building trust with not only the local community but in fact all consumers & customers of the food farmers produce.    
 Trying to defend farmers & farming practices by arguing with science or attacking the attackers is clearly failing. We need to demonstrate our commitment to practices that are sustainable, ethically grounded, scientifically verified & economically viable. To breakdown the urban disconnect with farmers will take a massive effort as well publicised environmental damage, breaches of animal welfare & negative public images of farming & farmers is very difficult to counter with genuine good news from farmers following “global best practice”.

Prof. John Ikerd, from University of Missouri, Columbia strongly debated the world trends of industrialisation of farming. Industrial scale farms have contributed he argued, to the financial crisis of many family farm businesses & impacting negatively on the environment & ecology. John believes this has enraged the mistrust of farming practices by non-farming people. Nor did he believe that most farmers & their families wanted to farm in that way, especially under corporate control. Perhaps it’s time to look at new relationships between farmers & consumers? John Ikerd suggested the audience at the Australian Dairy Conference (#ausdairy) seriously consider new models such as “Vertical Cooperation”….. That we look at the historical purpose of farming to move forward in a new direction. Farming has always had a multi-dimensional meaning: - a social dimension, an ethical dimension of sustainability (a genuine love of animals, pastures & soils) as well as providing healthy good quality food. Maybe it’s time to rediscover the “real culture of farming” & that “The past is the future”. These are challenging concepts to take on board as dairy farmers face increased volatility of milk prices & changing markets (the growth markets in the next decade are in emerging countries especially in Asia).

The ADC conference featured many discussions about farmer’s use of new technology & social media. There were sessions devoted to smart phone use & training in the use of twitter & blogging. Courtney Sullivan (Neilson, Australia) had surveyed Australian consumers about their knowledge of dairy farming & perceptions of how dairy foods are produced. This session about “Reconnecting the Disconnect” also included Nuffield Scholar Graeme Nicoll speaking about his efforts in “Agvocacy”.   (@hoddlecows) Graeme writes about his pasture based dairy farm in south Gippsland.

Marian MacDonald (   (@milkmaidmarian) on the last day led an interesting training session on twittering & blogs. She writes a very popular blog about her family dairy farm & she has considered ideas about how farmers can use social media such as twitter to become advocates for good farming practices. During the training she had helpful support from Ron Paynter (@payntacow) another dairy farmer using twitter.

Throughout this blog I have used the sign @(twitter names) and #hashtags (these are used by twitter to indicate grouping of similar discussion topics….or topics you can search on twitter. For example if you want to search discussion at the Australian Dairy Conference search using #ausdairy.

Finally I’d like to mention the brilliant “Cows Create Careers” Program run by Deanne Kennedy & John Hutchison. During the ADC Conference secondary school children from 5 Australian States presented Video TV Adverts aimed at getting a higher farmgate price for milk. I thought this was amazing! The Cows Create Careers program is run in schools to encourage employment choices in the dairy industry. It clearly has a very important role in Australia in Reconnecting the Disconnect between the urban consumers & dairy farmers.  

PS The best TV Video Advert was produced by Cessnock High school from NSW. I thought this was very clever & innovative……guys you were amazing!

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Smart Onfarm Management is Good Risk Management

Simple low cost On farm management changes can substantially contribute to a better environmental outcome. This is a really powerful & positive message to come out of the Massey University’s Fertilizer & Lime Research Centre’s conference held last week at Massey’s campus at Palmerston North, NZ.

Over 3 days there were papers from researchers, consultants, farmers, Regional Councils, the fertilizer industry & environmental groups…..most papers focussed on issues related to efficient nutrient management & the environmental consequences of mismanagement. The most positive take home message was that if we all work together as a community (that includes farmers & town people) we can greatly improve the NZ environment including the much discussed water quality. That’s a powerful & positive message too!

There is no better example than the great presentation by Dr Richard McDowell from AgResearch at Invermay.
Richard stated very clearly that smart on farm changes to farm business management could reduce Phosphate (P) losses at little cost to a level near the “natural” baseline. The “natural baseline” is the level that would occur if there was no farming on or near the waterways.

Essentially it is a matter of identifying P losses, locating the “sources of P loss” & then understanding the transport mechanisms e.g. runoff causing the elevated water phosphate contamination. So there are losses in the soil related to excessively high Olsen P. This will be different for each farm & soil type based on the characteristics of the soil especially the P retention of individual soils. Grazing management especially immediately prior to or during storm rain events (pugging or poaching soil surface) can increase the runoff of phosphate….again controllable by good management practices. Using water soluble P fertilizers at or about storm rain events can also increase runoff. Effluent management is obviously a potential risk that can be managed by commonsense i.e. low dose rates over a larger area away from wet soils & storm events. All of these examples can be implemented at little cost before the event by some smart thinking & understanding the risks.

So 3 clear recommendations from Richard’s paper at the FLRC conference for farmers were:-
 1. There is NO reason to go above the recommended agronomic efficient Olsen P levels for soils on your farm. Check the recommendations.

2. There is sound argument for using low water soluble P fertilizers (reactive rock phosphate) if you have suitable soils & are in the right recommended rainfall band.

3. Fenced buffer strips/riparian strips along waterways & streams are essential & necessary. Stream fencing needs to follow recommended protection distances either side of the stream & ideally should include mixed tree planting to help stabilize banks & keep the stream water cool.

There were other suggestions like adopting low rate effluent applications & the possible use of constructed or natural wetlands.
Richard’s paper was clearly giving a message that smart farm management “acting carefully & anticipating possible risks” could minimise the potential environmental damage of P runoff into waterways. Identifying “critical source areas” is something every farmer can do….then seek advice as to how you can minimise the risk.
This is largely commonsense stuff but ultimately is smart “Risk Management”. The dairyfarmers I have met want to do the right thing for the environment so knowing that with phosphate most of the risk can be resolved by changes to daily management should be very reassuring.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Centre of Excellence in Farm Business Managment, Facebook & Uruguayan Agricultural Students

Hi from Massey University, Palmerston North, & Lincoln University, Christchurch, New Zealand where this blog will now be written & produced on a regular basis.
I have recently moved back to New Zealand after a 30 year period of working overseas as a dairy consultant in Australia, UK & France. The blog has been produced in Europe but will now come from the southern hemisphere.
I’ve joined the new “Centre of Excellence in Farm Business Management” which is currently funded by the NZ dairy industry & both Massey & Lincoln Universities. Hopefully the other agricultural sectors in NZ will also be involved with the Centre shortly. The Centre is a virtual Centre of Excellence (no bricks & mortar) of the Farm Management Staff at both Universities working together (a joint project) to improve the capability in Farm Management within NZ. We aim to be a serious player in Global Best Practice in Farm Management Research & Education.

I will regularly write about progress in these Research Projects & the Professional Development courses we are developing. I won’t be waiting until they are completed but report on progress to date…..why? I believe it is really important firstly that agricultural research is effective in visible change on farms….for that to happen, farmers & rural professionals need to engage all the way through the process to buffer, blunt, reshape & constructively be part of what I call “The Widget Making Team”. Otherwise the research “widget” will be deemed useless by the farmers & sent to the rubbish bin. Farmers need to both voice their opinions & have their expertise recognised & clearly heard.
My role with the Centre (CEFBM) is partly research, some teaching but mainly communication from the Universities to farmers, farming families, staff & the rural professionals that deliver professional services to the farming communities.

Let me divert…..Yesterday I gave my first my very first lecture to a group of agricultural students #BUTyouhavetolearntolaughatyourself. The students were from the University of the Republic of Uruguay.

I sadly don’t speak Spanish nor they much English. You might quite rightly think that was a recipe for disaster (for my first University lecture) but NO because we started to talk about Facebook. Facebook is the social media of the young (& not so young). A quick survey revealed that 100% of the students use facebook. Now we were on the same wavelength & both talking with passion…..we were now understanding each other!

I asked (through Massey University’s International student support team who translated) how many of their parents used facebook (Can you imagine the “what are you for real…..looks). The answer, about 10% of the Uruguayan agricultural students’ parents were on facebook! That clearly illustrates why today we need to use social media to communicate with the young agriculturists & young well educated farmers who are the face of today & tomorrows food through out the world.
The Uruguayan students & I discussed what role Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, blogs, google, wiki spaces might have in communicating global best practice farm management to farmers & the general public.
“IF I CAN TALK TO THE WORLD (by using social media) YOU ALSO CAN TALK TO THE WORLD ABOUT YOUR COUNTRY, YOUR AGRICULTURE, YOUR FARM & YOUR FOOD” In fact not only can you but you must as city separates from country & consumers become removed from farmers & food production.

Judge for yourself…..despite language differences DID we communicate with each other? Sorry Vice Chancellor….yes I did instruct them to turn on their mobile phones, cameras & make a hell of a lot of noise (probably against all the rules of the University) but it was a lot of fun….thank you fellow students! Great!
I have to confess also that when I was an AgSc student at Massey University back in the 1970s I got seriously offside with the then VC Dr Alan Stewart…..for erecting illegal ramps around the campus for disabled students access (in particular a fellow agricultural student who became a quad during his studies & struggled to get to lecture rooms because of poor disabled access (it was the 1970s)). The fact that our ramps looked remarkably similar to materials off the university farms was probably quite obvious to Dr Stewart too. However the good news is that I was allowed to complete my degree & the University erected proper Disabled Access everywhere…..& today would be very proud that they have good access for all students….little does the current admin realise it all started with fence posts knicked off the University farms!

I think it’s great that today, agricultural students get a chance to travel the world & come to NZ to look at our internationally respected farm business management. Both Massey & Lincoln offer postgraduate scholarships in Farm Business Management, so I hope some of my new best friends (NBFs) from Uruguay might consider studying here in NZ. Uruguay & NZ are already working together including AgResearch projects in Uruguay.
So getting back to my role at the “Centre of Excellence in Farm Business Management”, it’s essentially communication. I’m the interface & we intend using every social media tool available to us to talk as often as we can with farmers. We will use Facebook, Youtube, Webinars, Wiki Spaces, Twitter….you name it…if it’s effective we will use it. The Centre CEFBM will have a website shortly.
By the way the Vice Chancellor at Massey University Steve Maharey also uses Twitter. @SteveMaharey.

I strongly believe that farmers need to become “advocates” for their own Global Best Practice, their farming industries & the food they produce. We can’t rely on outside PR agencies to promote or defend farmers & excellent farm management practices. We must do it ourselves. I want to help farmers become “Farming Advocates”. If I can talk to the world YOU also can talk to the world…..& you must!