By Ewan Campbell
Over the last five years, myself and related company Probitas have gained much publicity for the work we have done in the soil fertility and animal production fields. Some articles showing the great results that have been achieved have been published and a more controversial aspect with the Commerce Commission deciding that both myself and Probitas were misleading the public. (to get a real look at what went on go to TV3.co.nz 60minutes achive and look up “What on Earth”)
Although the original approach might not be what some scientists would call pure science, the Probitas soil system was built by just what science actually is, observation of phenomena as described in the older versions of the Oxford dictionary. To date none of the science community here in New Zealand have bothered to look at what many farmers are now gaining great results from.
Over on the other side of the world the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) at Aberystwyth University, Wales, is running the 5-year PROSOIL project which is developing producer-led co-operation to test the concept that optimising soil health can improve financial efficiency and product quality on livestock farms in Wales. The project is looking at a range of approaches to soil management on commercial development farms in conjunction with ‘controlled’ field and plot studies.
Vivienne Cruickshank and I had been invited to Wales by Philip and Sarah Hughes, Probitas (UK), as Philip was involved as information and product supplier for part of the project and we headed off on 18th July after getting to watch the last 20 minutes of All Blacks vs Australia.
After about 36 hours total travel we managed some rest for a day before heading up to the Royal Welsh Show held in Builth Wells in the middle of Wales. The show is held there every year and is quite the old style show with a great emphasis on livestock, from goats, sheep, pigs, cattle through to horses.
There is also a very well run shearing competition. From the crowd you could see the great comradeship between the shearers, mostly from Wales and New Zealand with a smattering of other countries represented. New Zealand rugby jerseys were nearly more common than Welsh ones, but it was easy to be confused as too which country they belonged to as an increasing number of young Welshmen travel to NZ for farming experiences and return with rugby memorabilia. Some I ran into had spent time at my farm early on in February after working at Mt Linton over the summer of 08/09.
There were huge numbers of stalls selling all manner of farm equipment through to wet weather gear which was certainly needed as it just would not stop raining. This is just some of the vagaries of British weather, as when I had visited the show three years prior it was 30degrees and hadn’t rained for two weeks and didn’t again for another two weeks.
It got so bad they actually cancelled the last day and I can see why as many cars had to be pulled out on Wednesday afternoon due the soggy ground conditions
We were at the show to be at the launch of the IBERS PROSOIL project The project is based on a paddock to plate process as Welsh agriculture like so many other countries have identified that there has to be better ways of producing food products in a more environmentally friendly way and how this will eventually transfer through to the market.
After the launch we headed up North to Corwen where we were camped for the next 8 days with our hosts, Philip and Sarah. This all passed very quickly as each day we had meetings, farm visits and product discussions.
Saturday night was a real treat as we headed for the Corwen shears which is always held the Saturday after the Royal Welsh Show. After a weekend of heats the finals started at 6.30pm and went through to 10pm. In the middle of this was the Shearing Test between Wales and New Zealand. It was like being at Cardiff arms Park watching the rugby. First the Haka by all the Kiwi shearers present and then the anthems and there is absolutely nothing like the Welsh national anthem sung with great fervor by a big crowd. Johnny Kirkpatrick and James Fagan pulled it off just by one point.
Although headed by top Welshman Gareth Evans who had them for speed the second welsh shearer Nicky Bynon just couldn’t match the pace of the other three and the combined totals came down in favor of the Kiwis. James Fagan managed to pip Uncle David by a whisker in the open final and looks like we will see the name Fagan in the shearing ranks for some time to come.
Watch the video for a birds eye view when we get it loaded on the mag.
Monday was spent at Aberystwyth University with myself and Viv putting up our work on what had been achieved in NZ and how this could be relevant to welsh agriculture plus a visit to one of the field study plots on the University farm.
The next day was working on product development for Probitas UK. Due to weather conditions this was a very difficult job getting product to spec when it’s almost always raining. A new screening device certainly helped and after a few hours knocking material about we came up with a way to mix Probitas properly and blend in the other necessary ingredients.
The afternoon was spent with Daffyd Evans who is involved with Probitas UK looking at properties in North West Wales. It was great to visit Llyr Humphries on his parent’s farm. Llyr had spent a couple of months helping us out on my home farm last year. We moved onto some real Welsh Hill country. This includes land call the Freeth which is generally unimproved country with heather, old pasture species, moss and scatterings of Welsh Black cattle and welsh mountain sheep. Although these animals didn’t appear to have a lot to eat, they were certainly in great health. An interesting observation was the huge number of fungi in many different species, yet when you moved to the so called improved area there were none and there was quite a noticeable change in the natural vigor of the stock. Although they still looked OK they lacked the real shine and bloom of the unimproved country.
The fungi digest minerals from the soil for the pasture and to me there is also a further interaction with the animals as well. These fungal spores must have an interplay with digestion in the animal and as we have supposedly "improved" land using fertilizers and sprays these natural processes have been knocked out.
What followed also knocked the digestion process as Welsh hospitality had Scotch Whiskey flowing in larger quantities than required. My reliable driver for the day got caught as well and we both had to be rescued some hours later. I am told that we got away lightly as the record for this property is three drivers having to be rescued as each one succumbed to the hospitality.
The following day was slow but very intriguing as Dr Paul who is one of Britain’s leading experts on Truffles entertained us with the intricacies of infecting oak or hazelnut trees with the right spores to create truffles.
Very interesting to see Country Calendar feature pretty much the same thing on the other side of the world just a week after we returned. This was just another insight into what is possible when people are willing to try out new processes.
Many questions were asked regarding fungal species, how they grow, the conditions required for certain process’s to take place and all I can say is that it just brought about more questions than answers as, from what I can see, we still have very little idea of what is truly going on beneath our feet and the experts are actually willing to admit this.
The day was concluded with our presentation to about seventy farmers in Denby. What started off as very slow discussion turned into a really good evening as the Welsh farmers opened up to having the same issues as we have here in New Zealand. Poor conception rates, more inputs to retain production and generally not really knowing what is happening to their farms.
The hospitality was great again but I was well away from taking on more as I was still feeling the effects of the night before.
One thing I know for sure is we shouldn’t be making out that the farmers are the issue in our trade battles overseas as their issues are the same as ours which is usually the marketing and the SUPERMARKETS. They certainly can be our friends in a seasonal supply approach as this is better for farmers on both sides of the world.
The last work day was spent being shown through one of the most up to date meat plants in Britain. The plant included killing and processing down to modified atmosphere consumer ready packs priced and labeled which I haven’t seen before. The plant runs seven days a week supplying all Sainsbury supermarkets through out Britain as their sole beef supplier. Just about all the 700 hundred staff are from Poland and Bulgaria, my, my doesn’t that sound familiar when you want work to be done it quite often comes down to foreign nationals.
We were also given all the figures on British and Irish Beef production and the forthcoming shortages as production continues to fall in Britain and Ireland. This is very relevant to us here in NZ as opportunities approach to supply this high value market. At present the focus is on South America where one of the major supermarket players has invested heavily in processing in Uruguay. The site is supposedly 250acres in total just to try and keep up with market demand.
The inside running on quality from South America was not good but at present there are no other serious suppliers looking to take up the shortfall.
There are opportunities there and we have been invited to send product up for consumer testing before Christmas. This to me was one of the highlights of the trip.
A train ride back to South Wales followed with a bit of golf with my father in law and visiting the other relatives which was really great followed by another 26 hour flight home.
All in all a fantastic although tiring trip which opens even more doors for Probitas and the farmers of NZ to supply outstanding quality beef and lamb to a market which is well worth cultivating.