Accolade caps career of note

Geoff Asher receives the deer industry award from Deer Industry New Zealand chairman Ian Walker....
Geoff Asher receives the deer industry award from Deer Industry New Zealand chairman Ian Walker. Photos: Phil Stewart
Growing up in Upper Hutt, a young Geoff Asher could see wild deer and pigs from his bedroom window.

That sparked his interest in deer which has led to a career focusing on the deer industry that has spanned nearly 40 years.

At the recent deer industry conference in Wellington, Dr Asher (63) received the deer industry award - the industry's highest honour.

Back in his office at AgResearch's Invermay campus, Dr Asher said he was "blown away" by the recognition, which caught him "completely off-guard".

"For the first time in my life since I was born, I was lost for words," the genial scientist said.

In the award citation, Dr Jason Archer, from AbacusBio, described Dr Asher as a `true legend" of the deer industry who deservedly ranked highly alongside many of the industry pioneers and stalwarts in terms of his contribution to deer farming in New Zealand.

Deer scientist Geoff Asher enjoys his interactions with the farming community.
Deer scientist Geoff Asher enjoys his interactions with the farming community.
In the almost two decades Dr Archer had been involved in the industry, Dr Asher had been the most prolific and influential researcher in the field.

"His passion for and myopic interest in deer means that he has always had interests of the deer industry at the forefront of everything he does, and personal advancement never comes into it.

"His interest is not only in understanding more about deer science, but most importantly in providing practical solutions to deer farming problems and opportunities.

"Not only has he done a lot of great research himself, he has mentored and co-ordinated numerous others to contribute their skills according to the needs of the industry," Dr Archer said.

Beyond his professional contribution, Dr Asher had gone about his work with a high degree of integrity and also a great sense of humour.

The deer industry's gain was geology's loss as geology was Dr Asher's other interest. He studied geology, zoology and botany at Victoria University and his career path was heading towards geology.

But in the late 1970s, there were not a lot of options for geologists - aside from working in gold mines in Australia - so he changed more towards wildlife science.

Just as he finished his masters thesis, Dr Asher was recruited by Maf to help set up deer farming work at Ruakura in the Waikato in 1980.

He had "never looked back" and he had no regrets about not continuing down the geology path, although he still had a passion for it and was an avid collector of fossils.

His work involved helping set up a small deer unit and getting involved in on-farm work, finding out what issues were facing deer farmers. While at Ruakura, he did his PhD through Lincoln on reproduction of fallow deer.

In 1993, Dr Asher moved to Invermay to work, in response to Maf becoming part of AgResearch and some rationalisation which included closure of the deer unit at Ruakura.

Moving to Dunedin was a highlight. While none of the other staff wanted to move, as they were already embedded in the Waikato, his family was young and the southern city suited him.

Invermay had been set up for deer long before he arrived and Ken Drew was his leader and mentor.

When Dr Drew retired in 2002, Dr Asher was his successor and had been project leader ever since for deer work.

His responsibility was to manage a suite of projects, funded by both AgResearch and industry, around venison production systems.

Those projects were designed to make the deer industry more profitable and environmentally and socially acceptable.

Both he and Dr Drew were instrumental in setting up DEEResearch, a joint venture between AgResearch, the New Zealand Deer Farmers Association and Deer Industry New Zealand (Dinz).

Funds were pooled and his job was to provide DEEResearch with options for going forward - talking about what were the industry needs, and talking to farmers, and from that, an annual workshop was held and options to invest in were looked at.

One problem that those in research had was that it was easy to "produce a gadget", but that was different when it was a knowledge-based output.

So he had "no idea" on what the financial implications had been on the industry over the years from those investments.

Not all innovations in industry came from science but science was there to support the industry and was part of that process, he said.

Over the years, the wider science community had been involved in the likes of feeding developments, artificial breeding technology and a raft of disease management work.

When farmers talked about what they were doing, he could often relate that back into something that happened in science.

Dr Asher believed science had been quite influential in the deer industry which had been very knowledge-hungry.

Since its early days as a new industry, priorities had changed over time. Lately, as a response from industry, farmers and society, more was being invested in the environmental space.

Invermay has its own farm, which includes a deer unit running a core herd of 500 to 600 hinds and that was where the team could do the really intensive work.

The deer industry was a very innovative one. By having Invermay as the key deer research site in New Zealand, the industry had benefited from a very close relationship.

Dr Asher had always striven to cement that relationship with industry, trying to bridge the gulf between science and farmers, and he had an ability to speak to farmers because he had worked with them since his Ruakura days.

Those in science could not do science in areas they necessarily wanted to, their research had to be relevant to the industry, he said.

Personally, he believed his biggest contribution had been to forge closer relationships between AgResearch, the Deer Farmers Association, Dinz, farmers and other stakeholders.

Highlights, from a science perspective, had been publishing many papers in international journals and attending international conferences.

He was very appreciative of the opportunities both AgResearch and the deer industry had given him. He also enjoyed his connection with Dinz staff in Wellington.

Dr Asher had signalled impending retirement to AgResearch so that succession planning could be undertaken.


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