New Zealand agriculture in a post-COVID-19 world

It seems that everywhere you look, obtaining sufficient safe food in a COVID-19 world is the new pastime.

The food preferences of consumers eating the produce we growand export are now increasingly  and rapidly driven by wanting to buy verifiably safe, traceable, sustainably produced food.

What is New Zealand agriculture's place in the COVID-19 sun? What do farmers have to do to earn the right to continue to occupy it?

Producers need to engage with consumers on a meaningful level. Locally, when you are a dairy farm bottling your boutique milk for sale in the local town's convenience store, this is relatively easy and the proposition well understood. But how do you scale this in a country of five million consumers? We cannot all sell our milk locally as supply would outpace demand. Instead we sell our product to the world. However, when your consumer is 15,000km away, speaking Mandarin/German/Arabic, occupying a 60m2 flat eight stories up in Shanghai/ Berlin/Dubai, it is hard as an individual farmer to engage meaningfully with that consumer. Instead, farmers look to processors to do this job for us.

Having your processor close to the consumer equates to better returns. A shorter supply chain means fewer intermediaries, fewer ticket clippers and a better ability to understand and respond to needs faster. It is replicating the local dairy farmer, scaled up ten thousand-fold.

Our international consumers want to buy food perceived as safe, produced in a safe environment –especially now. We take this for granted but increasingly, the story of "Made in New Zealand" is being sought out by global consumers who appreciate the benefits of trusted, safe food for  hemselves and their family. Right now, they are driving discerning consumers towards us. Our challenge is to turn these opportunistic consumers into permanent converts. On-farm, we all have annual audits. We comply to NAIT requirements, tag our cattle and deer and observe withholding periods.

Our processors are getting closer to the consumer through distribution partnerships, branded product consumer programmes, e-commerce platforms and business-to-business initiatives. Being relevant to that discerning consumer is everything. Hopefully, you will be paid more for your produce. At least, you will still be in the game and not left behind when consumers turn to producers who can show their audit process. Irrelevance is a slow lingering death where costs exceed income. Just ask the coarse wool industry.

In a COVID-19 world, farmers who make safe, verifiable food are cool. What does that mean on-farm? A lot of things, but some of them are best-practice management, validation, measurement and tracking. Being able to verify that your farm is compliant and using best-practice management to produce the food our consumers demand is table stakes. A head-in-the-sand mentality towards verification is stopping farmers and growers fromdemonstrating that the  produce your hard work created for the overseas consumer to consume is verifiably, certifiably safe to eat. It gives your consumers a reason not to buy your premium product and to go  elsewhere to seek out food with attributes deemed valuable.

Once gone, hard to get back. Doing the on-farm mahi to produce safe, highquality food is only part of the story. Verification is the difference between winning and losing in the world of selling our produce. Consumers are demanding it and COVID-19 has just added a whole lot of fuel to this fire.  The world has put New Zealand in the spotlight as we deal with COVID-19. Other countries we expect to show leadership have been woefully deficient. Agriculture will lead New Zealand out of the COVID-19 economic wilderness as global consumers seek out those products that they trust – and can verify. We would all do well to ask ourselves what it means for activity inside our own farm gate as we strive to deliver New Zealand's promise of healthy, safe food to our customers around the world. The world's eyes are on us and stomachs are grumbling!