For more than a decade, students from South Dakota State University (SDSU) studying a wide variety of academic programmes such as agricultural business, animal science, horticulture, agronomy, dairy production, and pre-veterinary medicine, have been visiting New Zealand farms to gain a comprehensive overview of our agriculture.

Hewson Farms and Align Farms were the last two stops on a jam-packed, whistle-stop tour of some of New Zealand’s leading primary producers, manufacturers, and decision-makers across both islands.

Designed to give students a first-hand education on different agricultural practices, sustainable food production, preservation of native habitats, soil and water resources on farms, efficient pasture-based food production and issues facing the primary sector, the tour visited growers of potatoes, kiwifruit, and cherries, as well as sheep and beef farms, cropping and dairy farms, and stops at High Country Salmon and the Temuka Sales Complex.

For those farmers opening their doors, it provides a unique opportunity to share their stories and give back and learn from potential consumers through thoughtful questioning and insightful discussion.

Welcoming a group of American university students on-farm was a new experience for Hewson Farms. “It’s nice to be able to give something back to the next generation coming through by showing them how we farm on the Canterbury Plains and what we are doing here in New Zealand,” says Sarah Hewson.

Sarah’s father, Ross Hewson, gave the students an overview of the farm. The family-run operation farms 2,430 hectares at Chertsey/Pendarves. Ross is a third-generation arable, sheep and beef farmer. He farmed in partnership with his brother, David, in South Canterbury until 2000 before moving to Mid Canterbury to expand his arable and vegetable business.

Having farmed heavy clay dry land soils, Ross and wife Rochelle moved to Pendarves mainly to farm light, irrigated soils that offered an ideal medium for processed crops such as potatoes. The light Lismore and Chertsey silts were also more tolerant of the heavier equipment used to harvest potatoes and onions.

They started with just 370 hectares. Today, the Hewsons have expanded their land and arable production to more than 2,400 hectares. The farm is irrigated by 30 central pivot and lateral irrigators with four guns for the dryland corners.

Water is extracted from 13 underground bores, all over 150m, supplemented by water from Action and BCI irrigation schemes. Crops grown include wheat, barley, ryegrass, clover, hybrid beetroot, hybrid rape, kale, linseed, and peas. On the vegetable side, they grow carrots for seed which goes to Europe, and potatoes and onions for the domestic and export markets.

Over winter, they also finish approximately 12–14,000 lambs annually, mostly on oat cover crops, to protect and improve soil health for potatoes and onions. Incorporating sheep in arable rotations has many benefits, including controlling the early grazing of spring growth in ryegrass and clover crops and providing nutritious feed for sheep.

Aside from Ross and Rochelle and children Sarah and Joel (Operations Manager), Hewson Farms have 20 full-time equivalent employees, including Farm Manager Andrew Scott, as well as an experienced stock manager, logistics manager, office staff, seven full-time employees plus additional mechanics/engineers and truck drivers depending on the time of the year. They also have four part-time retired farmers who help when required. During potato and onion harvest, they also hire seasonal workers from the UK, Holland, Scotland, Ireland and the rest, mostly from Vanuatu, which they usually get through the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) Scheme.

From the outset, Ross has always been proactive, working to implement best practice on-farm management techniques. He pays particular attention to site and crop rotation, seedbed preparation, disease control and harvesting. His focus is on having minimal negative impact on the environment in which they live.

Crop rotations are done one to two years before they are in the ground. Grass seed and wheat are important break crops. Due to the high risk of disease, seed carrots are grown on a one-in-every-10-year rotation, potatoes once every eight years and onions once every five years or more.

“It is also pleasing to note that current onfarm practices and sustainable crop rotations fit nicely into the eight pillars being promoted for regenerative agriculture around the world. New Zealand arable farms have a wide variety of crops and include livestock to control cover crops and excess spring vegetation growth in ryegrass crops.”

Sarah says where possible, they are using the latest IT to increase economic and environmental benefits, as well improving traceability. Programs such as Trimble’s ag technology have made a huge difference. Its simplified workflows keep us up-to-date with what’s going on, increasing productivity and efficiency. By using Precision Ag, they were also ensuring each part of the paddock only got what it required rather than applying a blanket application.

“Our philosophy is to try and keep everything as simple and practical as we can; recording and collating all the data is essential in today’s farming environment. We record everything, so we can use data to make informed onfarm decisions. We know the requirement for each crop and the critical uptake times, so we plan our applications around that. Timing is everything,” she says.

The next day students visited Align Farms’ Clareview Farm, which borders the Ashburton River.

Align Farms is no stranger to having groups on farm. CEO Rhys Roberts relishes the chance to share what they’re doing. “I’m always interested to see what young, bright consumers worldwide think. It’s an opportunity to talk to different people with a different perspective. I always really enjoy that. Typically the same questions come up, but you generally always learn something. Something always comes out of these visits,” he says.

Rhys first gave the students a quick rundown of the history of Align Farms and the farming operation. Founded by John Buchanan and Rob Cameron in 2012, Align was started with a clear vision to create a multigenerational, pasture to plate, food production business with better balance for their staff, farm and the environment.

Today, it includes six dairy farms, each with its own manager, and four dairy support properties between the Rangitata and Ashburton Rivers.

The dairy farms collectively cover 2,200 hectares and are home to more than 5,000 cows, producing more than 2.2 million milk solids each year. In addition, Align Farms also owns yoghurt brand ‘Cyclops’ and a milk processing facility.

Rhys has been with the company since the beginning, initially as the Operations Manager before progressing to the CEO role. He and wife, Kiri, who manages Align Clareview, had previously been share milkers overseas before returning to New Zealand.

As the students had visited dairy farms in the North Island, Rhys was keen to point out how different it was milking cows on the Canterbury Plains. “The key difference between the North and South Islands is the weather. It’s much cooler in the winter and dryer in the summer. We rely heavily on irrigation in Mid Canterbury. We apply water anywhere from 60 to 120 days, depending on the season.”

A unique strength of the area is its ability to produce consistent feed, partly due to its freedraining soil. But with more and more cows, environmental issues are appearing, which is a problem for our community and us as farmers, says Rhys.

“We need to ensure that what we are doing onfarm does not affect our community. We don’t want to be sitting around the board table in 10 years’ time and have completely lost our social licence to farm.”

With ‘regenerative’ farming all the rage in farming and food circles, he explained that four years ago, Align Farms embarked on a regenerative trial, effectively splitting Align Clareview in half (148 hectares each) running on conventionally and one with regen practices with two herds, two milk vats, and two sets of data across five key areas; financial, environmental, animal health, milk quality and social impact.

Rhys says they aimed to get some hard data behind regenerative farming rather than relying on ‘fairies and sparkles’. It was about discovering what works and what doesn’t and sharing that information with the farming community to help shape a commercially successful version of regen practices. There have been many learnings along the way.

Perhaps the biggest lesson so far has been in pasture management. Right from the outset, the regenerative area hasn’t received any Urea or synthetic nitrogen fertiliser. At the start, most of the regenerative paddocks were sown in set-up crops that included a diverse range of about 20 plant species, including sunflowers, grains, legumes, grasses, brassicas and herbs.

Over time though, this has been whittled down to about seven functionally diverse species. These include ryegrass, fescue, cocksfoot, Persian clover, large and small-leafed white clovers, red clover, chicory and plantain.

While the regen pastures outperformed the conventionally managed ryegrass and white clover in total dry matter, they struggled to get that to translate to milk production. Pasture quality was also an issue, with the hard and fast minimum 30-day round idea not ringing true.

There needs to be flexibility in the grazing with a focus on quality. Wastage had also been a problem.

Rhys says nutrient and GHG emission loss reductions have been significant, though. Align Farms was working with Landcare Research on carbon accounting for three properties over the next five years. It was also assessing soil microbe populations and ratios using Soil Food Web and carried out Visual Soil Assessments regularly.

Align Farms is also committed to improving the health of its team. While they had always supplied meat and milk, about two years ago, they took it a step further, introducing chickens to provide eggs and creating a massive vegetable garden at Clareview. They aimed to supply their team with about 60 percent of their diet from the farm. Managed by Liz Phillips, Kiri’s mum, the market garden now provides about 40 delicious, fresh, spray-free vegetable boxes to staff each week, with any leftovers sold locally.

This was the perfect way for the students to finish their New Zealand agricultural experience, ending SDSU’s fifth visit.

A university group first visited New Zealand in 2013. Led by Dr Julie Walker, professor and SDSU Extension Beef Specialist, the students spend a semester preparing for their visit through discussions and class presentations based on current New Zealand agriculture news articles and relevant topics.

Founded in 1881 in Brookings, South Dakota, South Dakota State University (SDSU) has a rich agricultural legacy, originally formed as an Agricultural College. It is the largest and second oldest higher learning institution in the state.

SDSU is separated into six colleges specialising academically in Agriculture, Arts & Sciences, Education, Engineering, Nursing, and Pharmacy.

Students can choose from 86 majors, 38 specialisations, 102 minors, 39 master’s degree programs, 16 Ph.D. programs and two professional doctorates. It includes more than a dozen four-year agricultural-focused undergraduate degrees, including America’s first Bachelor of Precision Agriculture and leading the way in agricultural research.

Last year it also opened the US$46 million Raven Precision Agriculture Centre, where students, staff and faculty have the opportunity to think and work together toward the common goal of innovation with unique learning and research spaces focused on collaboration and hybrid classroom/labs large enough to house modern farm equipment, including full-size combines.

Students are encouraged to take advantage of educational opportunities abroad throughout their time at SDSU to step out of their comfort zone and improve and expand their worldviews. They offer agriculturally-focused trips to Australia and South Africa along with New Zealand.

“It’s been an amazing trip. We’ve seen a lot. It’s been cool to see how similar New Zealand farming is but also very different at the same time,” says Kallista Roers, an animal science student from a small hobby farm in Minnesota.

“Operations in New Zealand are more diverse than at home.” Minnesota is known for growing soybean, corn and wheat and being the largest US State of turkey and pork production.

One of the big things the students noticed was the staff’s happiness. “The workers seem so much happier (in NZ). In the mid-west people live to work, whereas here, people are working to live,” commented Lily Green, a precision agriculture and agronomy student from a farm in Northern Ohio where they grow corn, soybean, wheat and alfalfa. At home, all the corn produced goes to making ethanol. It is main source of ethanol fuel in the US, she adds.

Lily thought the pasture management in New Zealand was perhaps ‘better’ than at home. She was impressed with how many farms they saw were utilising the latest technology.

“There is plenty of technology out there, but New Zealander’s seem to know what they need to get the best results.”

Dr Walker says the power of learning overseas first-hand cannot be underestimated. “The fun part is seeing how the students react, and hopefully, they came away with a much different picture of agriculture.”