Massey graduate’s journey from ‘townie’ to a doctorate in agritech

When Dr Sue Chok left high school she had her sights set on becoming a doctor, but back then she had a medical specialisation in mind and the self-confessed “townie” wouldn not even have known what precision agriculture was.

Last week she accepted her doctoral degree in precision agriculture as part of graduation celebrations in Palmerston North, joining over 1000 other graduates.

“I thought I wanted to be a medical doctor, but it turns out I didn’t like biology that much. My interests were actually in other areas like physics and chemistry,” Dr Chok says.

“I was also passionate about the environment.”

After assessing her options, Dr Chok decided to complete a Bachelor of Engineering majoring in environmental technology, and then a doctorate with one of the country’s leading agritech minds, Professor Ian Yule.

“I didn’t have a farming background. It was a completely new topic and I was looking for a new challenge. There was a summer internship with Ian and Miles Grafton that a friend suggested I apply for. It was in assessing fertiliser quality in New Zealand”

An internship working on this project, led to Dr Chok’s PhD working with Ravensdown. The PhD project looked at improving aerial topdressing (applying granular fertiliser from aircraft) on hill country farms in New Zealand.

“Fertiliser is applied on New Zealand hill country using fixed wing agricultural aircraft. This has been occurring in New Zealand since the 1940s. There has been very little change in the aerial topdressing industry till recently.

“This technology will allow different application rates to be applied over a farm rather than the conventional blanket rate. Studies have shown that pasture and nutrient needs can vary significantly over a farm. Therefore the variable rate system will help to optimise pasture production and reduce cost by applying fertiliser where it is required.

“My particular part was to validate a model that enables the prediction of fertiliser distribution in the field and to assess the performance of a new variable rate application technology system that Ravensdown is implementing in their fixed wing aircraft fleet.”

Her research involved field work, lab work and programming.

“I really enjoyed the diversity I had as I wasn’t just doing one thing the whole time.

“The field work involved setting out a total of around 200 collectors over five experiments where aircraft would be applying fertiliser. The samples would then be collected and weighed in a lab, where the results were used to make conclusions about the system and see if the model can reproduce it.

“It’s a cool feeling as my work had real world applications where the solutions from my project is implemented by the aerial spreaders so that farmers can benefit immediately.”

Dr Chok will take up a role in the University’s new AgriTech Partnership as a junior research officer working with  the innovative Fenix hyper spectral imaging system, a tool used in precision agriculture, which was first developed for military reconnaissance and space exploration.

The project is part of the Primary Growth Partnership between Ravensdown and the Ministry for Primary Industries.

Source: Massey University

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PGP review may result in greater focus on soil and water issues

The Primary Growth Partnership may continue under the Labour-led Government but with a greater focus on soil and water issues.

Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor told AgScience:

“I have indicated there will be a review of PGP.  Millions have been invested across different sectors and of course there is good that will have come from it. But identifying that is not so easy.

“So we’ve got to make sure that wherever taxpayers are spending money across the rural and agricultural sectors, they are getting good value for that money because just as farmers expect to use their money wisely, so does government.

“And we’ve got to make sure that we don’t drop the ball.”

O’Connor said there was a need for a greater understanding of the value of soil and all aspects of its protection and development.

Similarly, with water science “there’s a  hell of a lot for us still  to learn”.

Not enough investment had been put into those areas.

On the role of state grants for research and development, O’Connor said the Government hadn’t committed to any approach, other than to boost the Sustainable Farming Fund, “which we think has been a very successful approach – we like small smart initiatives.”

With the PGP, large amounts of money often had been invested for business-as-usual projects

“We are going to balance those,” O’Connor said.

“Firstly, we will have a review and look at the system .

“I know PGP has improved over time in terms of oversight and accountability, but the question still remains what is the best way to spend taxpayers money for the future of agriculture.”

Without a vision and strategic plan “we’re not quite sure if we are spending that money in the right direction”.

 

Approval of PGP programme gives a boost to the sheep milk industry

New Zealand’s fledgling sheep milk industry has been given a significant boost today with approval of the business case for a new Primary Growth Partnership (PGP) programme between the Ministry for Primary Industries and Spring Sheep Milk Co.  The new ‘Sheep – Horizon Three’ PGP programme aims to develop a market driven, end-to-end value chain generating annual revenues of between $200 million and $700 million by 2030.

The ministry invests in cutting-edge innovation programmes through the PGP in partnership with industry.

It will be investing $12.56 million (40 per cent) into the new programme; Spring Sheep Milk Co will invest $18.83m, representing a total investment of $31.39m over its six-year life.

Spring Sheep Milk Co is a 50/50 partnership between Landcorp and a number of New Zealand investors through SLC Ventures LP.

Its co chief executive Scottie Chapman says with PGP support, sheep milk represents a unique opportunity for New Zealand to build a high-value sheep milk industry.

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New PGP programme to boost wool industry

Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy has welcomed a new Primary Growth Partnership programme aimed at lifting the profitability and sustainability of New Zealand strong wool.

‘Wool Unleashed’, or W3, is a new seven-year $22.1 million Primary Growth Partnership (PGP) programme between the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) and The New Zealand Merino Company.

The programme is expected to contribute an estimated $335 million towards New Zealand’s economy by 2025.

“The wool industry was once one of New Zealand’s highest earners, with strong wool making up the majority of this, but it has been in decline since the 1990s,” says Mr Guy.

“The W3 PGP programme aims to reverse this trend by delivering higher premiums for New Zealand’s strong wool sector.

“This will be achieved through connecting strong wool farmers with markets, increasing on-shore processing, developing new and niche products and sharing best practice information across the wool industry.”

The programme will build on the success to date from another PGP programme—the New Zealand Sheep Industry Transformation Project—also led by The New Zealand Merino Company, which is focused on fine and mid-micron wool.

Mr Guy said:

“PGP programmes must be aspirational and transformational in nature. They must look beyond business as usual which The New Zealand Merino Company has demonstrated with its leadership in the merino industry and helping to establish the Te Hono Movement – a collaboration of primary sector leaders.

“Wool has lost its competitive edge as a fibre globally. We have the opportunity to make New Zealand strong wool and strong wool products relevant to select end users globally.  The W3 PGP programme will be a key contributor towards this, and will set the stage for a sustainable wool industry well into the future.”

MPI and The New Zealand Merino Company have signed a contract so W3 can formally begin.

The PGP aims to boost the value, productivity and profitability of our primary sector through investment between government and industry. It provides an essential springboard to enable New Zealand to stay at the forefront of primary sector innovation.

Government and industry are co-investing $746 million over time into 21 PGP programmes (two completed and 19 under way).

Decisions on whether to approve a programme are made by the Director-General of the Ministry for Primary Industries, under recommendation from the independent Investment Advisory Panel.

More information is available at: http://www.mpi.govt.nz/funding-and-programmes/primary-growth-partnership/

 

 

New funding balance for PGP programmes reduces Govt share of co-investments

The Crown’s investment share in new Primary Growth Partnership programmes will shift from 50 per cent to 40 per cent from 1 December, but  overall annual funding remaining the same.

Announcing the change, Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy said the PGP – about five years after being set up – was being aligned to other Government Funds such as the Callaghan Fund.

The Government also believes the commercial benefits of the PGP are higher than the public benefits, “which makes it only fair we tweak the formula”.

Current PGP programmes are not affected by the change. The 40 per cent Crown investment ratio will apply to funding approved for new PGP programmes or for funding extensions of existing programmes approved by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) from 1 December.

The change will not affect the minimum total amount that industry must co-invest in PGP programmes, which will remain at $500,000 over the lifetime of the programme (or $71,500 a year for a seven year programme).

The PGP has 18 programmes under way and a total of $724 million co-invested.

A 2014 report by NZIER estimated that PGP programmes will add at least $6.4 billion per annum to New Zealand’s economy by 2025.

Improvements are also being made to simplify the application process to encourage smaller sectors to apply, including:

• introducing simpler reporting requirements;

• providing assistance to applicants for business case development; and

• exploring opportunities to assist smaller sub-sectors to access the PGP.

The PGP aims to boost the value, productivity and profitability of our primary sector through investment between government and industry.

PGP programmes are generally long-run programmes of five to seven years’ duration and are subject to oversight and monitoring by an independent panel (the Investment Advisory Panel) and MPI.

Monitoring requirements include programme steering groups, quarterly progress reporting, annual plans, financial audits, and progress reviews, along with evaluation of the overall programme. Government funding is only released to programmes on receipt of invoices for work completed in accordance with programme plans.

More information is available at: http://www.mpi.govt.nz/funding-and-programmes/primary-growth-partnership/

Fresher is better when it comes to N in effluent

The fresher the N the better is one of the findings of new research which shows available nitrogen from farm dairy effluent diminishes the longer the effluent is stored.

The study by AgResearch for Ballance Agri-Nutrients is part of their Clearview Innovations Primary Growth Partnership programme. It shows both timing and technique can increase the amount of nitrogen available to support plant growth when farm dairy effluent and manure are used as nutrient sources.

The research was carried out in the Waikato and confirmed earlier findings that the longer effluent is stored, the greater the nitrogen loss that can occur in storage.

Ballance Science Manager, Aaron Stafford, said that in one trial, farm dairy effluent stored for 81 days lost 61 per cent of its nitrogen content, primarily via ammonia volatilisation.

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PGP is found to be generally working well

The Controller and Auditor-General, Lyn Provost, has completed an examination of the Primary Growth Partnership initiative, which aims to increase overall investment in innovation and the economic growth and sustainability of primary sector industries.

As at 30 November 2014, the Crown and industry partners together had committed $680 million to PGP. The Crown had committed $322 million to 18 multi-year programmes, $129.5 million of which had been spent up to 30 November 2014.

In her report, Provost says:

PGP got off to a mixed start and initially encountered a number of challenges. In my view, PGP partnerships are now generally working well and the management of them has improved in the past five years. More is required, in particular, to achieve clear, simple, and understandable public reporting on individual programmes and the PGP portfolio.

Six programmes reviewed by the Audit Office have a combined Crown and industry commitment of $491.3 million.

These programmes are showing some encouraging results.

But the report says it is too soon to observe the economic benefits of PGP programmes “and it will be at least five to 10 years before we see the extent to which New Zealand’s primary industries achieve the anticipated economic benefits”.

The business cases of the six programmes examined by the Audit Office showed a range of economic benefits expected to be achieved by 2019 and beyond.

Recommendations for improvements in the management of PGP related essentially to matter of transparency and the need for clearer reporting.