When Covid-19 hit, around 75 Nuffield scholars from around the world were on Moreton Island, 40km off the coast of Brisbane, for a conference that would kick-start an exciting year of travel and agriculture research.
Most of the five Kiwi scholars spent just 24 hours on the island before rushing back to Brisbane Airport on March 13, to make it home before forced isolation was implemented.
They soon realised their scholarship year wouldn’t go ahead as planned.
Scholars Tracy Brown from Matamata, Phillip Weir from Te Pahu and Whakatane’s Shannon Harnett are back to normal life at home and work – which is rather different to their original plans.
Tracy was meant to be in India, Phillip in China and Shannon in Israel. But, the three remain in good spirits. “We had so much fun on the Island despite our short stay,” says Shannon.
“We were a group of likeminded people getting ready to embark on a great year, so everyone was really excited.
“To get to the conference, us Kiwi scholars did a road trip from Sydney to Brisbane. It was an awesome experience, and definitely not a wasted trip.”
Farm owner Phillip says despite the circumstances, he enjoyed the lockdown period. “I have three young kids, so it was nice getting to spend the time with them. Being on a farm, it became easy to forget what was going on in the world – you had to drive to town to remember a pandemic was happening.”
Tracy, a farm owner who is also involved in a number of off-farm roles, is grateful to have more time to plan her Nuffield travel. “The delay means we have more time to make connections with other scholars around the world who will help us set up key visits and meetings.”
Nuffield organisers have extended the report deadline from the end of this year to next year, leaving a hopeful window open to the possibility of travel. “There are plans for us to do some travel within a trans-Tasman bubble later this year, and a shortened version of Nuffield’s Global Focus Programme in 2021 if other countries manage to control Covid-19,” says Tracy.
True to the Covid world, whether or not this will happen is uncertain. But regardless, the scholars are marching on with their research virtually.
A sustainable way forward
Tracy’s research looks at how policies, processes and mechanisms can lead to positive environmental change for dairy. “New Zealand’s dairy industry is a world leader in sustainability, but I want to also take learnings from other countries and apply them in our context,” says Tracy.
While Covid-19 didn’t change her topic directly, she says it has proven the robustness of NZ’s supply chain. “We’re a country of five million people that can feed more than 40 million. When the world shut down we still managed to feed ourselves and continue to export our products.
“My vision for NZ is to become the world’s producer of choice by having the best products, the best people and the most sustainable practices.
“Covid-19 has proven how quickly human behaviour can change when we reprioritise what’s important.”
It’s positive to see how Covid-19 has bridged the divide between producers and consumers, says Tracy. “For a moment, farmers felt wanted and respected again for producing food. That’s a great place to build from.”
More efficient research
Phillip’s study will look at barriers that prevent collaboration in the primary sector – and, more specifically, the structures that support farmer representation, advocacy and research.
The topic fits in exactly with his expertise – he worked for AgResearch NZ before getting into farming and is now a Beef and Lamb New Zealand farmer councillor.
“There are many organisations providing research, advocacy and support to the primary sector, so I’m interested to see if the system is optimal and if they are working together as effectively as they can.
“I want to see how farmers in countries including Australia, the US and Europe are represented politically, and how they interact with those that support them including the research organisations.”
Plant variety rights
For her research, Shannon is drawing on her expertise as a chartered accountant and partner at Rural Accountants, and from sitting on multiple boards relevant to horticulture.
Shannon’s study will look at Plant Variety Rights, known as PVRs, which allow growers to have exclusive producing and selling rights over new types of plants. “NZ being a commodity grower is not sustainable. “Let’s make Kiwi-grown goods a premium product we can control the supply of,” says Shannon.
“I’m interested in how other countries PVRs work, particularly in the US.”
She planned to visit San Francisco, where an American company, called Plenty, grow vegetables in a closed vertical system.
“At this stage, a meeting with the NZ scholars in Christchurch is going ahead this month, so I’m looking forward to that.”