Looking back while dreaming forward


Upon review, 2016 was a tough year down on Te Mara Farms. Not only did we have low milk prices to contend with, but we have an unprecedented slow start to the velvet selling season and we’re forced to enter into a mud fight, which many referred to as winter and spring. Yet, it’s not all doom and gloom. “Hard times are the best times” – Michael Hill Jeweller. It’s forced us to look at the farm and the budget together. It has made us look for opportunities to trim the fat and has motivated me to look for new opportunities to create a bigger distance between black and red within the budgets. This focus will further strengthen the businesses balance sheet in the long term to prepare for future down turns, as there is no doubt that there will be many more to come in this volatile environment.  
My current focus on Te Mara Farms has pulled the handbrake on my agritech endeavours, but I now have a much better appreciation of the true challenges that farmers can face in hard times. It has given me even more cause to continue with my passion on helping them through the communication and creation of new agricultural concepts, technologies and ideas.
I find crystal ball gazing to be inherently dangerous because you just don’t know what you don’t know. I personally try as much as possible to stay in the here and now, but if I’m honest, my mind wanders constantly and there are a number of agritech concepts out there that I find fascinating. I’m thankful for the opportunity to share a couple of insights I’ve had with you.  I hope they open your eyes to some the ideas floating around, that are now becoming realities.

Best of luck for 2017.
Hamish Clarke
-         Farm Manager of Te Mara Farms
-         Social Media Commentator on NZ Agriculture (@Griff_Clarke).

What was your key point of learning in 2016?

Championing your cause with a living legend.

My key learning in 2016 was the impact Richie McCaw has made as the Fonterra champion, and the shift it has created within New Zealand’s perception of the cooperative. Fonterra for years had been the whipping boy of the larger NZ primary industries on social media. In 2015, I was at a comedy gig in Auckland and Fonterra lightproof milk bottle was being suggested by an audience member as the best joke in NZ, which was followed by the biggest cheer of the entire night.
Now in 2017, I’ve noticed a change in the public’s perception of Fonterra; my personal opinion is that Richie’s presence has had a significant part in creating this change (if you are reading this Richie you are always welcome at Te Mara for #431am milky coffee and venison on the BBQ). The mana he carries means that the majority of New Zealanders will respect his opinion. This is something that we need more of. We need to gather more legends to speak on behalf of the rural sector. We need these legends to give the rural sector a voice; a voice that the urban population (the masses) will listen to and more importantly subconsciously respect. 

What will be a technology game changer for the industry in 2017 and beyond?

Getting the right power to the right places at the right times.

The age of apps, drones and robots is very much upon us and yet the NZ agricultural world seems relatively slow to react in comparison to other industries. Technology adoption and adaption in rural New Zealand is a fascinating subject, but before we get to that stage, I believe that breakthroughs in remote electricity generation will be essential to the automation of a large number of tasks in NZ agriculture. From my personal endeavours (if only limited and small) into agritech I keep coming to the same problem when looking at creating technology for NZ livestock farmers. How do I more economically power this to work reliably out in the middle of nowhere? As the more complex and more powerful a technology becomes, the more electricity it requires to operate, within reason.
Just look at a comparison of energy usage between old school cell phones vs the latest smart phones if you want a great example. If we want to advance technology performance remotely we need to create efficiencies in power usage or generate more input electricity. Personally in this space, I am finding small portable wind turbines fascinating. The ability of wind power to work around the clock sparks my interest as an advantage for livestock farming, given the costliness of batteries.

If you would like to know more, here is a link to an article that I enjoyed on portable wind turbines.

What is that one technology concept that you have in the back of your mind?

Fences without fences.

If I had to pick on agricultural technology that I thought might change the face of NZ livestock farming, it would have to be virtual fencing. It’s a simple concept really. Use GPS or equivalent technology to monitor the position of an animal with electric collar technology (similar to that developed for dogs) to create virtual fence lines. Now with animal welfare in mind, I think it’s important to note that this technology has the ability to actually improve animal welfare of livestock animals by giving the animal a vibration and verbal warning prior to the electronic shock. This reduces the need for an electrical shock to occur in order for an animal to recognise its temporary fence boundary.
As a farm manager I sit here and think of a number of scenarios where this technology may fall down, but equally I can think of so many more scenarios where the technology would be useful, in particular waterways fencing. That’s right, physical fencing of waterways may be redundant in the near future through this technology (insert microphone drop here). This technology really does exist and prototypes have been physically tested in Australia for a number of years. It would really make life easier for dairy and beef farmers in particular, and its immediate benefits would come in the form of replacing traditional reel and standard systems (break fencing) to break down larger areas.
Personally, I have not been keeping up with it closely, but a few years ago the main limitation of the technology was… you guessed it the electricity equation (power in vs power out). It just is not feasible to have to switch batteries on hundreds of cattle every few days. However, things may have moved on. I personally am out of the loop with how the technology has been doing as my focus has moved to my own developments, but it is still my pick as a game changer for farm management of New Zealand livestock farms. At this moment, I’m also intrigued by the possibilities of alternative technologies to GPS such as triangulation through UHF RFID (Ultra high frequency, radio frequency identification).  No doubt time will tell, but be aware, it physically exists and was possible (but not commercially viable) a number of years ago.
If you want to know more about the technology here is a links to I enjoyed on virtual fencing:

Hamish 'Griff" Clarke is a Deer and Dairy Farmer in Otorohanga, who is passionate about Agriculture, food, personal well-being, leadership and Innovation.
Follow his Facebook public figure page Griff Clarke or Tweet him Griff_Clarke.