Otago University's hugely successful symposium for farmers.

"Dinner is worth a lot more to me than meat! When I go to the supermarket and I buy meat the package should tell me how to turn it into a delicious dinner," said Melissa Clark-Reynolds at the recent Otago University Symposium.

Otago University's New Zealand Agriculture 2050 Symposium looked ahead to the future of agriculture and despite the speakers coming from a wide range of backgrounds some interesting consensus emerged.

If you weren't there, you're square.

The organiser, Professor Frank Griffin, put 25 speakers in front of around 200 farmers and rural professionals over a day-and-a-half last weekend. The result was one of the most interesting two days I've spent. The mood was great, people were very friendly, and it confirmed a lot of what we already know about the future of agriculture and mirrored some of what we have been discussing in this column over the past two years.

"The future is already here; it's just not fully distributed yet."

No speaker wasted time dreaming up fantasies about the future. Everything that was promoted was already working somewhere in the world. That was comforting.

What is always uncertain about the future is the timing. We can say this trend is emerging, and we expect the tipping point to be here within the next five years say, but, of course, the reality is that it may take more or less time and it could morph into something else along the way.

Key trends for the future from the Symposium:

1.  'Dirt' is the new water. Dirt or soil is the next big debate consumers are going to get involved in.

The health of the soil is becoming a consumer issue in the US and Europe. Interest is moving beyond the 'organics' issue onto a healthy soils issue. We were shown mass-market consumer food packaging from the US that contained a label "Good for the Soil".

Soil science is the new frontier for health and the well-being of the planet. Soil science is becoming mainstream. The comment was made that farmers buy farms worth millions of dollars without digging a hole to look at all the soil they've bought. It is the soil that is going to provide their wealth, yet they are not all that engaged with the health of their soil.

Here are six interesting facts about soil -

  • We are losing soils. Despite the importance of soil, we have lost about half of the topsoil on the planet over the last 150 years. According to University of Sydney Scientific Director, Dr. John Crawford in an interview in Time Magazine, "a rough calculation of current rates of soil degradation suggests we have about 60 years of topsoil left".
  • Microbes Are Everywhere. There are more microbes in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on planet earth!

There are more than a million different types of soil microbes.

  • Microbes are like mini fertilizer factories. Some Bacteria fix nitrogen and other Bacteria release potassium and other nutrients locked in the soil and make them available to the plant. Fungi like Mycorrhizae, travel across large swaths of soil to hunt down nutrients and water for plants as an extension of the plant's root systems.
  • Mycorrhizae Fungi interact with trees in a forest. In exchange for sugars excreted by the trees, mycorrhizae produce thousands of kilometers of "hyphae" in the soil to mine nutrients and water for plants. These act like extensions to the roots connecting all the plants in the forest to each other.

The largest organism on earth is a 2.5-mile-wide Honey Mushroom (Armillarea ostoyae).

  • Bacteria represent many of the tiny particles that cause water to precipitate and fall to the ground as snow or rain.
  • We are more Bacteria than Human. There are more Bacteria cells in a human than human cells. There are literally trillions of bacteria cells in and on a typical human. Because of their small size bacteria make up around 3% of the total weight of a typical human.

The consortium of all microbes that live on and within humans is called our Microbiome.

2. Regenerative or holistic farming is going mainstream in the US. There are mainstream food companies in the US that will only source their products from certified regenerative farmers, and they advertise this on their packaging. Regenerative farmers focus on their soil keeping it covered in organic matter at all times, use diverse pastures and mob grazing and as a result, sequester carbon in the soil.

The comment was made that healthy soils should feel spongy or springy when you walk across them. Healthy soil contains up to 30% air. Soil needs to breath, just like us.

Regenerative pastures are able absorb more water than conventional pastures reducing run-off and soil loss.

There was a lot of talk about regenerative farming from several the speakers. One attendee thought that there was too much emphasis on regenerative farming, and I could understand where he was coming from. However, the symposium was about the future of agriculture and trends, not the current state of play where these alternative grazing systems are in the minority. A number of the speakers were confident that this was what was coming in the future

3. New Zealand farmers are the best in the world at growing delicious food ... but the worst marketers.

New Zealand food needs a strong appellation, a legally established mark that signifies where it is from and that it meets established standards. It was suggested that the Silver Fern be adopted as a distinctly New Zealand appellation mark that would be promoted around the world, to become instantly recognisable as coming from New Zealand.

Under the appellation comes individually branded food products which have been designed with specific end customers in mind. Why do we still sell food without good recipes on the packaging?

A speaker thought that there is much for New Zealand food producers to do in the area of packaging, sans plastic, of course. Packaging is a huge part of the customer buying experience and there is massive potential here for New Zealand food producers.

Food producers need to worry about how delicious their food is. Not just delicious to the food producer, but delicious to the consumer you are targeting. If you are not consciously producing food to be delicious and virtually guaranteeing that the consumer will find it delicious when they eat it, then you are missing the boat. Silver Fern Farms is making the most of this word in their branding and packaging.

4.  If we want to be more than just commodity producers and elevate ourselves to high value food producers, we must recognise the role love plays in food preparation. People prepare food to make meals for people they love.

If we play a part in the food cycle, we must care intensely about what we are doing. Without love for the food and without love and respect for the other people in the cycle we destroy value.

A successful two days well spent.

Keep asking great questions ...