Opportunities in Horticulture

April 2016

Paul Olsen is a Young Farmer making the most of his opportunities in the primary sector

Paul Olsen grew up with potatoes. His family have been growing potatoes and dairy farming in the Opiki area for 65 years, Paul’s the fourth generation to farm there. Upon taking over the day to day operation of the family dairy farm and potato growing business with his brother Shaun, the young men doubled the business within a few years.

Paul could have settled for what he knew, but he was driven to seek new opportunities as he believes in making the most of the opportunity at hand. Leadership scholarships with Kellogs and Hort NZ generated in Paul an appetite for personal growth and development. That saw him apply for the Nuffield Scholarship. He embarked on the scholarship expecting to bring home a silver bullet but what he brought back to New Zealand and his business was an attitude shift and a determination to develop new markets and a desire to change the face of the industry with better education and a new story to bridge the urban/rural divide.

Paul and his brother Shaun took over the day to day operation of the family business in 2006 as Olsen Partnership/Okunui Agriculture. The family business was set up by his parents and paternal uncle. On his father’s death (when Paul was 8 years old), Paul’s mother continued the business in partnership with his uncle.

Shaun Olsen runs the dairy farm while Paul takes care of the cropping (chicory and beets) and potatoes. Paul also has his own land parcels where he’s growing potatoes and they lease some land for potato growing. So 50% of the potato crop is family and 50% is his own.

Since taking over the operation in 2006, the Olsen brothers have doubled the land size and operations. This year he has 80 hectares planted in potatoes across the family business and his own.

Paul also works as an agricultural contractor and runs silage trucks and does some cultivation for local farmers. He is quick to point out that potato growing is seasonal and you need to generate an income in the off-season, as he says, “I’m not one to sit around, you’ve got to make the most of things”.

Paul has a diverse operation that allows him to manage risk and to ride out market fluctuations.

The potato crops increase the fertility of the soil, so after the potato crop they go back to pasture for the dairy herd or they put in chicory or fodder beet crops (which in turn utilises the agricultural equipment).

Also Paul finds lengthy crop rotation periods are important for increasing crop yields, so the dairy operation allows the luxury of a lengthy rotation period without land lying fallow and not generating income. Paul said on his Nuffield a lot of growers were also coming to similar conclusions and increasing rotation to 6-8 years.

The diversity allows him to balance out market fluctuations (“spreading risk”). For example in the last few years they’ve decreased the potato crop while upping the dairy herd but this year the potato crop has been slightly increased.

The potato yield for the main March-August crop is the NZ standard yield – 50 tonne per hectare. The early potatoes are presently about 40 tonne per hectare.

They’re planting a “mixed bag” of varieties.  The early harvest of Ilam Hardy and Moonlight are planted in the first two weeks of August and harvested in early January. Then the main crop of Moonlight and some Agria are planted across October for harvesting in March-August.

Paul says, “You might as well give everything 100%”. Paul was the NZ Young Farmers President from 2011-2013. He has also completed Hort NZ and Kellogs leadership programmes and a Woolworths Business scholarship (in Australia). He said these “generated an appetite for personal growth and development” that motivated him to apply for the Nuffield. “You’re benchmarking against your peers but also looking for the next opportunit. I believe success breeds success so you need to surround yourself with positive and enthusiastic like minded people.”

Paul said his original expectations of his Nuffield was that he was going to “go and look at all these big fancy potato operations overseas and come back with a silver bullet but this wasn’t the case”. The ‘silver bullet solution’ he refers to was for more profitabilityand less inputs such as chemicals etc.

Right now consumers worldwide are demanding “nearly organic” produce but as cheap as possible. The issue is that with psyllid and blight, growers need to spray.

At present Paul sprays about every 14 days. He uses a crop monitoring programme run by Fruitfed to monitor pests and works to a high threshold before spraying, partly to avoid increased expense but also to reduce use of sprays. Paul says overseas there are much tougher environmental regulations re these chemical inputs and indeed in the UK they now have a 3 crop rotation regulation in order to minimise disease. Paul talks of “playing in a global space” and says, “whether we like it or not we will eventually follow suit” with tougher regulations, so he’s making changes now to start meeting tougher requirements.

Paul’s Nuffield research suggests that new genetic technologies need to be looked at in order to increase pest resistant crops that will result in less use of pesticides, but he acknowledges this in turn is a hard sell. Paul spoke of the Canada consumer backlash that saw MacDonald’s withdrawing from use of GM potato supplies.  He also cites the case of the blight resistant crop developed by scientists in the UK that has been unable to get approval for growing there, but has ironically been ok’d for growing in USA. Paul believes consumer education on use of genetic technology will be key if there is a solution to be found here.

Canada, UK etc. were more tech-focused and he is keen to make use of GPS/auto-steer tech in order to increase efficiencies especially around planting and molding. As such he said their next tractor purchase, he’ll be insuring they have the tech they need – GPS etc.

What really impacted on him from his study and travels was “how good we’ve got it here”. Paul said that regulation is nothing like in places like the UK and we are not hamstrung by small land parcels like many Chinese and overseas farmers.

“Before I left I was happy, doing what I’d always done and we were achieving great results”. Paul speaks of the intangible effect/attitude the Nuffield gave him. In experiencing different cultures and realizing how good we have it in NZ he came home with a different perspective – “wanting to roll up my sleeves and just get into it”.

Paul has been looking to different markets with a view to getting higher returns. Notably as a Manawatu based grower, the Auckland market is difficult for him due to competing with Auckland growers and freight costs. He now has early plantings to meet a gap in the market in January. While the early plantings have a lesser yield due to soil temperature and winter growing conditions, there are significant gaps in the early market for growers.

He’s also “testing water” and developing relationships within the export markets focused on the islands and Fiji.  Paul speaks of the need to build trust – they need to know you will deliver a consistently good product and it will be delivered on time.

The Nuffield has also grown his network both at home and internationally. An example while overseas was that he was able to travel through UK and Ireland and stay with fellow scholars which gave real insight into their potato industries. For example potato demand is reducing and Irish efforts to turn this around have identified that people don’t have time to prepare them. Now you can pick up ‘Mash Direct’, a ready made mash at your local Irish service station on the way home. This concept is also being developed for the English market.

At home he is working with FAR (Foundation for Arable Research) and is now taking part in trial research with FAR and Crop & Food. FAR is a Nuffield sponsor.

FAR have GPS’d a plot in a particular paddock and taken soil samples that have been sent off-shore to test for the presence of soil born disease. (There are a number of growers from each region participating.) They’ve also taken some of his seed crop that has been planted as a control crop. In monitoring his crop and the control, they’re looking at the implications of soil born disease on end yield amongst other things

For Paul he is able to participate in bettering the industry but also will get valuable data on his soil and crop.

Paul is germinating an idea around “the story” of potato growing. Better educating consumers about agricultural practice, as per the plate to table story seen in the meat industry and how they can leverage off that to increase profits but also bridge the rural/urban divide. He also feels strongly about showcasing the opportunities in agriculture to young people and getting them onto farms. Every year they host Massey third year students on either the dairy farm or the potato farm and take them through management and cash flow exercises.

“I am keen to get into industry governance positions to not only give back to a positive dynamic industry but also further develop my skill set and further build networks.”