Sustainability key to role as new AgResearch leader

Southland farmer Jeff Grant has taken over as chairman of AgResearch. Photo: supplied.
Southland farmer Jeff Grant has taken over as chairman of AgResearch. Photo: supplied.
The big thrust for AgResearch in the future has to be around farm and environmental sustainability issues, new chairman Jeff Grant says.

His focus would be continuing to build on AgResearch’s ability to deliver science that was "highly relevant" to the future of farming.

Regional council changes, in a bid to get better outcomes around land and water, would force AgResearch to provide the science to ‘‘get the answers’’ and the tools for farmers.

"I see the organisation as being the lead provider of answers that allow farmers to meet the expectations for producing high quality food in natural and sustainable environments, while also being able to run a viable business.

"It will be challenging but as long as the wider farming sector and the Crown understand science has to be funded in order to find the answers, we will get there.

"We must attract and retain the best scientists and technicians, and we also need to invest in the labs, equipment and technology that allows the science to be done," Mr Grant said.

Farmers were good stewards of the land — "they just need to know what you need to do to fix it".

Living in Southland, where his own farm was in a very high nitrate area, he needed to have those tools himself, he said.

New Zealand needed to ensure it provided capacity for the next generation to be able to operate in an environment that gave them as much freedom as possible.

"I’m on the side [where] probably we can do better," he said.

Mr Grant, who has farms at Balfour and the Otama Valley, "fell" into governance after leaving politics in 1993. He served two terms as a National MP, including the role of senior whip.

Since then, he has been involved as a director or trustee for more than 20 organisations and companies. The agri public policy area was something that had always fascinated him and, as a farmer, he had always been interested in new technology.

He is a former chairman of Meat and Wool NZ and the New Zealand Meat Board, Meat Research and Development Council, AGMARDT, Invest South and Wool Partners Co-op, while other past directorships included Landcorp, Wrightson, Agriculture ITO, the Animal Health Board and Ovita.

His current roles include chairman of the Milford Sound Development Authority, Mt Linton Station and Ospri New Zealand and a director of SBS Bank.

He is on the board of Predator Free 2050, a project with the ambitious goal of eradicating rats, stoats and possums from New Zealand by 2050. Again, science would "fix the problem", he said.

One thing he particularly enjoyed was being on the Young Farmers board for the past couple of years as a mentor director.

He was thrilled to see increase in membership of the organisation and the "real progress" that was being made around the school-to-agriculture connection with the likes of AgriKids and TeenAg.

Mr Grant acknowledged he did not do much hands-on farming these days, given his various commitments, but he tried to have Mondays on the farm. He had excellent farm managers. His new AgResearch role came after Sam Robinson, from Hawkes Bay, stepped down as chairman after nine years.

Mr Grant was appointed to the board in 2014 and has been deputy chairman since 2016.

He paid tribute to Mr Robinson for an "outstanding" tenure, leading the Crown Research Institute through some of its biggest change.

"Sam has led from the front in advocating for the important science that AgResearch does to support New Zealand’s agriculture, and we have continued to see top quality research coming from the scientists even as funding has been harder to come by."

Mr Robinson had been "absolutely committed" to seeing through the organisation’s Future Footprint programme, where he pushed strongly for investment in new science facilities in conjunction with Massey and Lincoln universities as the key to continuing to attract top graduates and shaping New Zealand’s pastoral farming sector through good science, Mr Grant said.

That programme had been particularly controversial in the South with the slashing of jobs from Mosgiel-based agricultural research facility Invermay.

When it came to Future Footprint, Mr Grant said a historic problem for AgResearch was that it had a lot of capital tied up in property.

Choosing two campuses was the best option; having two strong locations was better than  four "average" ones.

With Lincoln and Palmerston North, there was an ability to get a whole range of scientists, from a whole lot of different disciplines, in one location, and that was appealing.

While there had been comment that the move was going to make Lincoln University survive, Mr Grant said Lincoln would survive, but not because of the Lincoln hub.

Whether it became part of another university or entity, it was "not going to disappear".

New Zealand agriculture would always have something at Lincoln.

He was a strong supporter of having good connections with other science disciplines in New Zealand, saying "we’re too small a country to do it on our own."

Andrew Macfarlane was also reappointed to the AgResearch board while Colin Amer, Jackie Lloyd and Kim Wallace were new appointments. Mr Grant welcomed the three new directors. 

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