New Zealand growers tap market for seed

RIDGETOWN, Ont. —North Americans who consider New Zealand probably conjur up images of a flightless bird, sheep and dairy cattle or possibly a fine bottle of wine.

However, Graeme Jones, arable business manager of PGG Wrightson Seeds, says we should also think of seed production.

“New Zealand produces about 45 percent of the world’s carrot seed,” Jones told the Southwest Agricultural Conference Jan. 5. “Kilo for kilo, our farmers earn 30 percent more from growing a proprietary crop over a commodity crop.”

He said his country isn’t a low-cost producer of seed.

However, consistency of supply and quality has helped make his company, which focuses on grasses, legumes, brassicas and herbs, the largest company of its kind in Australasia.

The company, part of PGG Wright-son Ltd., also invests $10 million a year in its forage and endophyte programs. Endophytes are bacterium and fungi that live within a plant without causing it harm and sometimes provides an agronomic benefit.

New Zealand has only 500,000 acres of cultivated land, compared to 30 million acres devoted to livestock, primarily beef, dairy cows and sheep.

Prices for arable land are strong. In the Canterbury Plains area on the South Island, for example, arable land seed production and other high value crops sell for about $15,000 per acre.

The Canterbury Plains have rich agricultural soil, but it is an arid region, located east of the country’s Southern Alps. Jones said more than half of what’s cropped is irrigated with water drawn from mountain-fed rivers and delivered through lateral and pivot systems.

“Basically, the irrigation is insurance for us, and it’s about quality as well,” Jones said.

“This is a very intensive cropping area, especially when it comes to small seed production.”

Jones said New Zealand’s agriculture sector has flourished since the removal of government subsidies 30 years ago, although land prices initially plummeted and there was turmoil in the beginning.

“Since 1986, productivity in the New Zealand agriculture sector has increased by about five percent a year,” he said.

“Basically what you find is our farmers are the first adopters of new technology and innovation.”

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