Depression - A Personal Story

Winston Churchill called it his black dog. Andrew Solomon called his book on the subject “The Noonday Demon.” After repeated bouts, over many years, I have come to call it “my friend”. To finally escape the torment of depression I found the courage to confront myself – to slowly, emotional-layer-by-emotional layer to scrape away and excise all that was false in me. Eric Fromm (1946) expressed it thus: mans main task in life is to give birth to himself, to become who he truly is.”

I came to see my disposition to depression as a consequence of accrued, knotted-up, unresolved feelings arising from historically painful situations and experiences, some of my own making but most arising from life’s circumstances. These, often old, emotional boils had to be lanced and the wounds healed before further inner growth can take place. It was only then that the dark, grey, featureless wall of melancholia - emotional numbness - slowly evaporated away.  A fresh newness to life began.

That is not to deny that the distressing symptoms of depression have a biochemical basis. They do. For me it was essential that the biochemical imbalance was first addressed. It was the first step towards mental health. I will, I am told, be taking antidepressants for the rest of my life, just as a person afflicted with Type 1 diabetes must inject insulin to remain alive. 

But even this first step in dealing with depression was mentally difficult. I initially rejected the advice of my doctor when he suggested medication. What me – I’m not mad – I’m not going mad! Because of my poor knowledge of the disease I directly linked depression with madness and with that unhealthy inference came that paralyzing emotion - shame.  Do nothing and especially do not share your inner thoughts and fears. Depression can be a trap.
It took me time to come to accept my illness for what is was. It comforted and reassured me to learn that the predisposition to depression is hereditary, it often afflicts intelligent creative minds, and that many famous people made significant contributions to society despite their illness. There was hope. And my mother added her wisdom also – you are lucky son that in your generation they have effective medications. She knew something of the source of my genes and the suffering of some of my forebears.

The specialist told me that antidepressants take time to ‘kick’ in and the experience is still vivid when that happened. To me it felt like the sun was now shining in my brain. Not the temporary euphoria of mind-altering drug, but the wonderful realization that I could be normal. My brain it appeared to me was now working normally. It was working the way that I thought a normal brain should – like it worked for most normal people.  At last I felt I could be myself.  No longer was my life undermined and limited by that deep, hidden, soul-destroying sense of shame - that dreadful possibility that one day someone will expose me for the weak frail fraud that I really was inside.

That was the beginning. I was to learn that those little white pills did not immunize me from further bouts of depression. They can and did return, sometimes with vengeance. I ‘bottomed’ out the year after I left my dream job at Ruakura – a better description is “walked the plank with a blunderbus up my arse” - wondering whether I was going mad or was it the new science system?

Slowly, incrementally, my emotional and mental resilience improved, a consequence of medication, wise advice, self-awareness and a determination to be true to myself. The fear of further painful depressive episodes became my motivation to ‘give birth to myself.’ Depression became my guide, my friend.

It is because I have come to see depression as a beneficial experience I no longer feel the shame which traps so many sufferers.  I now feel free to talk about this aspect of my experience. I do so knowing that for me sharing my deepest concerns and fears gives me my strongest sense of being human - not a perfect, human, just perfectly human. 


Doug Edmeades : June 14 2016

Dairy NZ

One thing I have been ‘banging on’ about since this column began more that 2 years ago is the importance of clover-based pasture to our pastoral industries – the cheapest animal feed there is in NZ – the source of on-farm profitability and the source of our international competitive advantage. Remember the ‘elephant in the room.’

This is what I wrote in October 2014:

“What the elephant has been saying since the 1950s is that our New Zealand, low cost, clover-based pastoral system, with all weather grazing in situ, is a winner.  It is the source of our competitive advantage internationally. It is the reason we can compete globally even though we are far removed from the markets.”

I also raised an awkward question:

“……. where is the leadership in this industry? Dairy NZ has introduced us, over the last decade, to the Five Production Systems typically used in NZ, on a continuum from no supplements to more than 30% supplements. But they have been steadfastly non-committal about which system is best.”

Some generous farmers thanked me for those 2014 comments but by and large I thought they would be ignored, especially by the movers and shakers. I think this stasis would have prevailed except for one thing – the now low MS payout.

Hence my huge, delighted surprise reading the Dairy News (February 23 2016).  The headline blazed “DairyNZ plans refocus on pastures”. The first paragraph stated, “The New Zealand dairy industry has lost its way on growing and utilizing pasture says DairyNZ Chief Executive Tim Mackle.” DairyNZ plans to launch a campaign next month on, putting pasture first? Bravo, bravo, bravo. Standing ovation, clapping clapping, clapping, encore, encore.

This change in focus is, it seems to me, not so much a ‘matter of necessity being the mother of invention’. Thanks to our forebears we already know about all-pasture farming. This circumstance is more Churchillian – a case of confronting the grim reality of possibly sustained, low milk product prices.

I have over the years argued this point with DairyNZ staff.  Their position, or at least my understanding of their position, was that all five systems are equally profitable and hence, it was not necessary or appropriate for Dairy NZ to take a position.

In this vacuum the market for supplements burgeoned, eagerly aided and abetted from the lowest level – farm discussion groups, which focused on either per cow production or total farm production – to the highest level – a co-op saying give us all the milk you can produce. In the middle the supplement market prospered.

But as it turned all of this came at the expense of the average farmer’s profit. The figures I recall at the time was that in a 12 month period feed cost increased on the average from 80 cents/kg MS to $1.40/kg MS.

In their defense, DairyNZ say that they have always stressed pasture production and utilisation first. That may be the case but I think this qualification was drowned by the roaring sound of a $V8 payout. Those in the pursuit of Eldorado are not interested in the small print.

Nevertheless lets be generous umpires and give DairyNZ the benefit of the doubt.

This is what I now clearly and unambiguously hear from DairyNZ. All 5 farm-systems are profitable providing pasture production and pasture utilisation is optimised as a matter of priority. Supplements can profitably be added into the system providing, and here in lies the farm management rub, it is not used as a substitute for good quality clover-based pasture. All five systems leak profits if pasture production, quality and utilisation are compromised.

So I applaud DairyNZ’s new “pasture first” initiative but you will need to forgive: I am a tad skeptical, not about the initiative, but about its delivery.  As we proceed into the future by relearning this old skill, we need to remember that optimizing the production and quality of clover-based pasture is no simple matter. It requires a sound knowledge of the science of soil fertility and pasture nutrition, it requires the skill and experience to ‘read’ and assess pastures for tell-tail signs of nutrient deficiencies, and to collect soil and clover samples that reflect the underlying soil fertility. This of course requires time on farm.

These skills are no longer taught at University and they are no longer required in the CRI’s, focused as they are on environmental rather than production issues.
The fertiliser industry, historically a repository of these skills, is focused on market share, sales and the environmental threats confronting their industry. Cars, cell phones and sales targets define the job and the real important things like pasture assessment and collecting representative soil and plant samples are often delegated to unskilled staff.

These are not theoretical concerns. I see it day after day on farms from the North Cape the Bluff. The quality of fertiliser advice that New Zealand farmers are exposed to is, in my opinion, abysmal.  We must do better if we are to survive.   



Doug Edmeades : June 14 2016

When is a Co-op Not a Co-op

When is a cooperative not cooperative? And, to avoid possible complications, I am not thinking of Fonterra. My attention at this moment is the fertiliser industry. I think of them as sports team – the Blue team (Ballance AgriNutrients) and the Green Team (Ravensdown ).
According to the Companies Office, “A cooperative is a term used to describe a business organization that is owned and democratically controlled by it members,” and perhaps more revealing “A cooperative is run for the mutual benefit of its members who may purchase goods or use the services at a favorable rate rather than being established for the purpose of earning profits for investors.” 

I was driven to seek a definition of a cooperative company because of recent advertising by the Blue Team with respect to their product SustaiN. You have seen the ads I am sure. The one in front of me as I write is from the Dairy News (October 13, 2015). A full-page ad showing a farmer, Mr Shane Campbell, holding a placard claiming: MY SUSTAIN GAIN, $1013, NET BENEFIT. The ad tells us that this is the benefit from using SustaiN instead of urea. (SustaiN is urea treated with a urease inhibitor. The reader is directed to a website ( for further information which provides the reader with what are referred to as the “Calculation Variables.” 

It is assumed that 30 kg N/ha is applied per application and that 15% of the urea N is volatilized (lost to the air) and 7.5% is lost from SustaiN. Thus the inputs of effective N are 27.7 kg N/ha for SustaiN and 25.5 for urea. Applying a conversion factor of 10 kg DM/kg effective N applied means the pasture production from SustaiN is 277 kg DM/ha compared to 255 from urea. These figures are then used to calculate the annual financial benefit for the farmer of $1013.  There appears to be another “Calculation Variable.” While the ad states the benefit to Mr Campbell is $1,013, the same farmer on the website gets a benefit of $1,541

I recently reviewed all of the field trials data that I could find nationally and internationally comparing urea and Sustain on pastures and crops yields (see Fertiliser Review 34). There are 105 comparisons in the data set I assembled and the average response of SustaiN, relative to urea, was 2% with a confidence interval of about +/-1%.  The range in responses was from -11% to +23%. In other words the results straddle zero. The probability of getting a positive response is about 62%, slightly better that calling heads.  (Please note that if 100 field trials were conducted comparing a control (no treatment) with a completely inert material the results would range from about -20% to + 20% with the average at about zero. This is due to the background noise in all field trial work). 

Thus there is a hint in the data that SustaiN is better than urea but is hard to ‘see’ given the background noise. This conclusion is consistent with the view that when urea is used as recommended (typically 50 kg urea/ha per application) on temperate clover-based pastures, the losses of N via volatilization are small (< 5%).

The Blue machine obfuscates this fact by claiming that SustaiN reduces volatilisation by 50%. This is true - but 50% of a small amount is a small amount!!! They also claim that when the difference between the products is calculated on a marginal basis the average response is about 5%. In my opinion calculating the difference between these products on a marginal basis, as distinct from an absolute basis, is a mathematical contrivance that makes the difference between the products look bigger. 

It is likely that the Blue team will also respond by saying that volatilisation of N from urea is variable and depends on a number of factors and in particular rainfall post application of the urea. This may, I accept, explain some of the variability – the experimental noise - in the data. Where sufficient rain has fallen post application, volatilisation will be minimized resulting in small differences between Sustain and urea. The larger differences, they go up to +23% in this data set, may be trials in which there was no rain post application and the weather was warm and humid. This explanation for the range in the positive results (the 62% of the 105 trials with response to SustaiN relative to urea in the range 0 - +23%) is tempting. But if these results are accepted as real – as distinct from expressions of background noise – what about the 48% of results which show negative responses suggesting that SustaiN depresses yield relative to urea. Are they real or are they background noise? Statistics is unforgiving. 

I can see the Green team blushing ever so slightly because I’m sure they would not like to be reminded of their promotion of their sister product, EcoN.  Remember – EcoN? It was claimed to increase pasture production by up to 20%. My review (NZ Grasslands Conference 2011) of the field trials with this product (n = 28) indicated very similar results to those discussed above – an average response of 2% with a range -17% to +17%. Once again a hint of an effect but hardly discernable above the ‘experimental noise.’  Being charitable, the ad was half correct – up to about 20%!

The interpretation of scientific trials is fraught with difficulty when the results are within the margin of experimental error, which in agronomic field research is typically +/-20%.  It is my view that both companies are playing commercial games in this space at the expense of their owners.

I have of course raised these issues from time to time with both teams. The answer is always the same. “Doug, Dougie, Douglas, Dr Edmeades”  – depending on the depth of their wound – “Our owners, the farmer, expect us to be efficient and make a profit.” It is a foolproof argument until the next question – “That is fine. I understand. But at the expense of your owners!!!!! “ 

Doug Edmeades : June 14 2016

Climate Change Sceptic

On this subject I am a skeptic. And before you throw the toys out of the cot in disgust at my apparent sinfulness, please sit down, face the front and take a big, big relaxing breath.

Let’s begin by clarifying the issue. I accept that the earth’s climate changes over time. There are natural cycles of warming and cooling. The important question to ask is: do humans have an impact upon these cycles? It is on this point that I am skeptical, in the sense: I am not convinced, based on the evidence, that humans have a practical effect on the natural warming and cooling cycles.

What is it then that makes me a skeptic? Let us begin with the geological record. In the last 500 million years the earth has gone through five major ice ages followed by warming interludes – interglacial periods. I wonder what caused these cycles to occur, long before humans, oil and industrialization? The earth emerged from the last ice age about 12,000 years ago. Since then there have been periods warmer than today (e.g., the Roman Warm Period when they grew grapes in northern England and Greenland was green) and cooler periods than today (e.g., the Little Ice Age when they skated and held Ice Fairs on the frozen Thames). I wonder what caused these changes, both up and down, in pre-industrial times?

I accept that the earth’s climate has warmed in about the last 150 years as it moved out of the Little Ice Age. I wonder what triggered this change? Taking a broad brush over this period, I accept that with the warming, ice has melted and sea levels have risen. But there is no convincing evidence that the rate of warming and rate of sea level rise has increased or is increasing over this time, especially in the last 50 years when CO2 concentrations have risen dramatically.

This warming trend stopped in 1998, according to the satellite data, despite a 10% increase in CO2. There has been no significant warming for 18 yrs. So I am again left wondering what is going on. Is CO2 really the problem?

Further doubt arises. CO2 is a greenhouse gas. So too is methane and nitrous oxide. The science is settled. But then I learn that the most important greenhouse gas is water that makes up about 80-90% of the greenhouse effect. The science is most definitely not settled on its effect — does water have a positive effect, enhancing the warming due to CO2, or a negative effect, cancelling out the effect of CO2? Seems obvious, does it not — cloudy days tend to be cooler.

But to my mind the ice-core data deals a fatal logical blow to the CO2-dangerous-human-warming theory. Drilling into ice sheets is like drilling into history from which a record of past temperatures and CO2 concentrations can be derived. The data show that when the earth emerges from ice ages, temperature change precedes the increases in CO2 by about 700-800 years. CO2 does not drive temperature!

In fact it is not difficult to draw up a list of factors, other than CO2, which can affect earth’s climate. The earth’s proximity and orientation to the sun is an obvious starter, giving rise to what are called the Milankovitch cycles. More recent theories include changes in the gamma radiation from the sun, which in turn affect cloud formation. It has now been shown that there are linkages between the earth’s temperature, the southern oscillations of the oceans, and the sun’s activity as expressed by sunspot activity or its irradiance. These alternative mechanisms seem to me to be more plausible explanations for the geological changes in the earth’s climate.

I can see you scratching your brow. So where does all of this leave the polar bears, the receding polar caps, the white plumes gushing from industrial chimneys, the famous hockey-stick graph, Al Gore’s film, NIWA’s long-term temperature record, and the endless stream of dire predictions from the fourth estate? Therein lies the rub.

The endless flood of dire predictions, which the press dutifully print, are based on mathematical climate models. None of these models correctly predicted the current 18-year nil-warming period. We normally set aside models that do not work. Polar bear numbers are increasing since they introduced hunting controls. The famous hockey stick showing alarming and dangerous late 20th century warming, which was used to great effect in Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth” has been exposed as a scientific fraud. Those frequently ‘as seen on TV’ white plumes of ‘pollution’ are not CO2, which is a colourless, odourless gas and essential for life on earth. The ice caps are growing again and, despite what NIWA continues to claim, New Zealand’s long-term temperature record, when objectively analysed, shows no significant warming.

I accept that you think there is a consensus. That is of course what you are told day in, day out. That is how political and religious movements begin and are perpetuated — endless repetition of a mantra. And the climate change movement that theorizes dangerous, human-made global warming shows all the appropriate hallmarks of such movements — no argument can be advanced sufficient to negate it and those who dare question it are vilified and branded as deniers and heretics — poor old Galileo! But do not take my word for it. I am not a climate scientist. Mind you, neither is the Pope nor the Prime Minister’s Science Advisor, both of whom regurgitate the mantra — they of course must be believed and obeyed. 

Doug Edmeades : June 14 2016

AgResearch Two

Agricultural research, and in particular agResearch, continues to bleed. It is so sad for those of my generation to watch the destruction of what once was a proud and internationally respected institution. What lies ahead nobody knows. The appropriate mental image is from my childhood watching a beheaded rooster running desperately, around in circles.

It is short-sighted to suggest, as some have, that the problem lies with the current agResearch board and senior management. I do not share that view. The crisis in agricultural science today has its origins in the 1990s with the passing of the CRI Act 1992. The Act contains a contradiction – it requires in the agricultural context that AgResearch is to undertake public good research and simultaneously make a return on investment to its owner, the Government. AgResearch is a house divided against itself, which, as Abraham Lincoln warned with biblical authority, ‘cannot stand’.

We see abundant evidence of this duality. The Minister Steven Joyce recently proclaimed that the CRIs role is to undertake commercial research. No mention here of the legal requirement to undertake public good research. We now have, thanks to the reforms, a competitive funding regime, which ironically favors collaborative research proposals! Indeed we have science managers capable of using both adjectives in the same sentence! Recently I heard AgResearch staff expressing their desire to have greater impact. Great, but when questioned they seemed uncertain as to whether the impact was to be directed to their political masters, the stakeholders – how I loath that expression - or the farmer. The headless rooster not only cannot see but he knows not where to run.

It is not just the divisive CRI Act that is causing confusion. Current science policy settings are designed to encourage R&D investment from industry. The intention is admirable but the reality is something else.

The Government’s Primary Growth Partnership (PGP) fund seems to me to be based on the notion that we cannot trust scientists with money – they will just squander it on their own pet ideas. The way to make science relevant and immediate is to give the research dollars to industry – we trust them, after all they make money - and they know what their technological constraints and hence science needs are. The problem is that most of the industries serving NZ agriculture do not have the science ‘grunt’ to ensure that the money received is spent on sound science. 

I am involved in two PGP projects. I was brought in to add some scientific rigor to the projects. I now find myself, my company I should say, subsidizing both projects because the PGP dollars do not trickle down far enough. Just where it goes I do not know – perhaps it evaporates as it passes through middle earth management.

I have seen some of the technology emerging from another PGP project and it is science ‘lite’ reflecting the fact that commercially driven companies focus on the short-term - they want gimmicks, gadgets and widgets to increase sales and hence profits. Science and scientific rigor is not their strong suit. Until I can be convinced otherwise I think the PGP ‘experiment’ is a waste of money, money that should have gone to real science.

The same applies to two other funding pots: The Farmer Initiated Technology Transfer fund (FITT) and the Sustainable Farming fund (SFF). Both are predicated on the principle that if science is to be relevant it is best initiated by industry or groups of farmers. Some of the ‘science’ I have seen coming out of these funding pots is light-weight, junk information of little merit.  The rooster can’t see, does not know which was to run, and quacks like a duck.

Whichever way I look at it the science reforms, which began in the early 1990, have all but killed agricultural science in New Zealand. We know from surveys that the morale of scientists is at an all time low and that they have little confidence the current system and its management.  Staggeringly, just over 50% of agResearch staff have been employed for less than two years, according to the NZ Association of Scientists. 

This fact exposes another of the many unforeseen consequences of the 1990s reforms – the loss of institutional knowledge and wisdom.  We can all agree that the AB’s need Ritchie, Dan, Tony, Kevin and Ma’a - the centurions - because they bring a rich depth of understanding to the institution of NZ rugby, which gives the whole team the knowledge, understanding and belief to win and continue to win. Apparently managing science is different. 

Take those old farts like Dr Jock Alison and Dr Clive Dalton, to name two who still exercise their cheeks, what do they know – they would only hinder progress?

Old farts maybe, but they remember when agricultural research was about farmers and farming. They remember when farmers were involved in setting research priorities and planning science projects. They remember when farmers were actively engaged in the science process and technology transfer. And they remember when farmers turning up in their thousands to field-days and conferences.  Stakeholders be damned – they were called farmers!

So to Chairman Sam Robinson and CEO Tom Richardson I say take heart – this mess is not of your doing, after all it was not the rooster who made the decision to cut off his head! 


Doug Edmeades : June 14 2016

Adding Value

It seems like only yesterday when the dairy industry was much admired, Fonterra was the best cooperative ever developed in New Zealand and selling commodities was clearly a wise business strategy. 

In the blink of an eye all this bonhomie has evaporated.  The flames of blame are engulfing the Fonterra Board. Every wise-after-the-event commentator tut tuts – “adding value is the only way to add value” - as if the dictatorial machinations in Europe and China have nothing to do with the downturn.  Oh how myopic we can be. It is precisely this type of systemic amnesia that many politicians rely to get re-elected, as in – really, with a cigar!

I have no doubt that adding value is a good idea. I recall surprising my then father-in-law back in my more youthful days with the argument: we have heaps of wool in the NZ, we have heaps a coal energy in New Zealand, so why do we sell wool to Britain and buy back woollen jumpers? He saw a flicker of entrepreneurship in me and suggested I start a business. Sadly for him ideas and not business has, and remains, my motivation.

I have no doubt that there is currently a lot of resources in New Zealand being poured into getting more value out of a litre of milk, a kg of meat and a strand of wool. It is, I can appreciate, slow going, as is all research and development. But this is not really my beef. I’m more interested in the question: how can we add value on-farm?

Some commentators argue we should move to organic farming because there is a premium on organic food. I am sure there is an add-value component on organic produce but this only exists because the great unwashed have been told a lot of porkies – an orchestrated litany of porkies - to borrow a helpful phrase. There is no evidence to support the argument that so called ‘organic’ food is better than conventionally produced food, either in terms of nutritional content or the presence of chemical residues. Similarly, the science tells us that at the same level of production per unit area, organic farming does not offer better environmental outcomes than conventional farming.

And it gets worse. To date my advice to farmers and growers has been, “by all means get into organics if the margin is such that you can make more profit, but remember you will not be saving the planet.” Recent analysis by Prof Rowarth (Waikato University) suggests that despite the current margin for organic milk the long-term financial viability of organic milk production is dubious - the margin for organic milk is typically offset by the lower production and higher costs and this is exacerbated in drought years. Thus the whole edifice of organic farming appears to be crumbling under the weight of its own bullshit.  Move along please, move along – no values means no value.

The more enlightened are suggesting that we could add-value on farm by marketing our produce as natural, clean and sustainable: natural because the animals graze outside all year round and we use clover as the primary source of N to drive production; clean because we have implemented all the BMPs that science has developed to minimize the environmental foot print, and sustainable because we care as much about our resources as we do for our economic wellbeing. 

I can warm to this. It has integrity – it is based on the application of sound science, and it marches us confidently forward on the foundation of our agricultural strengths – in situ, all year grazing on clover-based pasture with no brought-in supplements.

Our meat sector is already in this space and the current dairy downturn is going to give some farmers confidence to return to pasture-based production. With current technologies and management skills and a little N fertiliser many farmers will be able to achieve 1000 kg MS/ha and remain profitable irrespective of the payout.

And if the latest report on the Clean Streams Accord is to be believed were are well on the way with the ‘clean’. Indeed it amazes me how far we have moved down this path in about half a generation. Yes there is more to do but it will not be too long (several generations) before we will be able to put hand-to-heart and say, mission completed.

The same applies to the concept of sustainability. This word only entered our lexicon a generation ago and a measure of its impact can be gauged by what we now, do not do: putting dairy shed effluent directly into rivers, pugging pastures, draining swamps, clearing steep sidelings to grow grass, throwing beer bottles and tins out of our car windows! We change and change and change again. It is called improvement. It is the strapline of mankind’s progress.

And yes we will eventually embrace GM. It will become just another routinely used tool in our scientific armory and it will be an integral component of clean, green and sustainable agricultural vision. Scientists have already developed a “green” grass that will help reduce emissions and this is just the beginning. Bring it on, I say - deeper rooting pasture and cropping plants (more efficient use of water and nutrients, less leaching of nutrients) and nitrogen fixing grasses (reduce fertiliser N use) to name but two examples.

Progress is not limited by the lack of imagination or technology, but by irrational fear. 


Doug Edmeades : June 14 2016

In Memorium

He has gone to ‘heaven’. My mentor and friend, Mr Mike O’Connor, is no longer with us. This column is written in his memory.

Let me share with you some of the important things he taught me. You may find them useful next time you take a farm walk and you will need to bend over and look closely into the pasture.

Mike taught me to ‘read’ pastures for signs of nutrient stress. You need to understand that clover, because of it weak root structure, is a poor scavenger for soil nutrients, relative to grasses. For this reason it has a higher requirement for all nutrients.  It is the first to suffer if just one of those 16 essential nutrients is missing. In terms of soil fertility, clover is the canary in the coalmine.

Lesson one: Look for the clover. A good pasture should have about 30-40% clover, with the balance predominantly ryegrass. The clover should have a dark green color, look vigorous and should be present throughout the sward. Looking out across the pasture, you should see a uniform dark green color. Sure, the pasture will not be of uniform height because of the excreta patches, but it should be a uniform, rich green color.

Lesson two: Animal excreta is rich in nutrients. So if the dung and urine patches are standing out like dogs balls, it is a good sign that there is an underlying nutrient deficiency. So look at the composition of the pasture, in and around, the excreta patches. Is the clover more abundant in these patches? Is it greener, healthier and more vigorous than the clover growing between the excreta patches? Compare and contrast the composition of the pastures in, and between, the excreta patches. Where are the flat weeds growing?

Lesson three: What do the pastures look like if no fertiliser N is applied? Do they look sick, lack vigor and are slow to recover after grazing? Without bag N do they become a mosaic excreta patches with dull yellow-brownish lack-luster pasture full of flat weeds growing in the non-excreta patches?

Lesson four: Compare the composition of the pastures, and especially the clover content and vigor, in the areas around the gateways. Does the clover content decline as you walk towards the middle of the paddock and especially at the back-end of the paddocks. Animals and especially dairy cows move nutrients towards the gateway. The same logic applies when comparing the pasture composition in the stock camping areas with what is growing on the sloping aspects. Go figure.

Most importantly Mike taught me why ‘reading’ pastures was an important, indeed essential, skill to all those offering fertiliser advice.  “Never believe a soil test result,” he would say, “until you have inspected the pastures!” He was adamant about this and for very potent reasons. To explain: a soil sample, the bag that goes off to the lab, consists of about 15-20 soil cores.  Soil cores collected, accidentally or otherwise, from nutrient rich excreta areas (either excreta patches or around gateways, troughs and hedges), will inflate the test results. This is especially a problem with the K test because new, K-rich urine patches cannot be seen, but it applies albeit to a lesser extent to all soil tests. The same issue arises when soil sampling in rolling country – do you include the nutrient rich camping areas? Where the soil test transect is placed within the landscape is of vital importance in terms of the results.

Because animals do not return nutrients evenly, and move nutrient around the landscape, soil test levels are variable. Typically we talk about the ‘degree of accuracy’ of 20-30% but it can be much higher. For this reason the only way to ground-proof the soil test results – to know that the soil test results are valid - is to inspect and assess the pastures. The soil test results should match the visual assessment. If they do not match, throw the soil tests out. Many, many times I have been presented with soil test results which indicate good fertility only to find that the pastures are terrible!

This problem, in my view, is rampant throughout New Zealand because most of those offering fertiliser advice to famers have not heard of, been taught or have otherwise ignored, my Mentor’s wisdom. And it is not a skill you can, or will, learn at University. 

Consequently famers today are being given fertiliser advice based on incorrect, inflated soil test results. The disturbing outcome is that they are not applying the correct amounts, or balance, of nutrients to ensure they are growing healthy vigorous, persistent clover-based pastures. Many farmers intuitively know that their pastures are not pulling their weight but are repeatedly told it is not a soil fertility problem! They are forced to go looking elsewhere for the cause of their dilemma – blame the drought, blame the cultivar, blame the insects, blame the misses. Worse, it drives some into the arms of the quack merchants. Mike O’Connor hated that possibility. RIP o’l chap.

Doug Edmeades : March 13 2015

Fair Trading Act

Caveat Emptor, that grand motif of laize-faire politics, gave modern businesses the license to put any old junk on the market, supported by any number of unsubstantiated claims – to hell with it – ‘let the buyer beware’.  This has been a particular problem in the fertiliser industry and is exaggerated in these new-age environmentally sensitive times.  You know the patter; “my new fertiliser product or soil additive is so good it enhances soil health, plant health, human health and does not pollute the water.” In short it does everything. You almost get the feeling it is better than rocking horse poo.  Bob Dylans famous song now applies “..…the times they are a changing.”

There has been a seismic change in the Fair Trading Act, which came into force in June 2014. A real life example will help to explain the ground-breaking change. 

In 2007 a farmer complained to the Commerce Commission, who administer the Fair Trading Act, about the claims being made for a silica based fertiliser product called Probitas.  The Commission investigated, and based on expert evidence (in this case provided by one Doug Edmeades), reached the conclusion that the claims made for the product were false and misleading. They decided to prosecute the company concerned and so off we all went to the District Court in Tauranga. In the event Justice Callander accepted my evidence and duly fined the company some $272,000 for breaches of the Fair Trading Act.

Note, and this is the key issue here, the burden of proof fell on the Commission to prove that the claims made for the product were false.  Needless to say it cost a lot of taxpayer money to take this action.

The recent changes to the Fair Trading Act reverses the situation. The burden of proof now lies with the proprietor. If a claim or claims are made for a fertiliser product or soil additive the proprietor must, at the time of making the claim(s), have evidence to support that or those claim (s). 

I must admit to dancing in the office when hearing of this news because for a long time now (going back to my involvement in the infamous Maxicrop Case in the mid 1980s), I have been making the same argument. Surely it is for the proprietor to prove his product works as claimed prior to putting it on the market. Incidentally this is one reason why the voluntary Federated Farmers Fertmark scheme is toothless. Anyone can register any fertiliser product providing it is true to label in respect to its nutrient content. Proof of efficacy is not required.

In the past, when I have challenged some proprietors on this point, they have defended themselves saying that their company does not have the financial resources to undertake the necessary research to test their product before it goes onto the market.  This may be true, but surely there is a moral argument here; why should the farmer be used as a guinea pig? Why should he take the risk? And in any case it is almost impossible for a farmer know if a particular product he has used, works as claimed.

Consider a very basic claim: Product X increases pasture and/or animal production. A farmer applies it. Production post-application may well increase. Is that because of the product or was it a better season or maybe the stock and pasture management policies where changed. Maybe the insect pressure or worm burden was less. Maybe he simply got his A into G and farmed more conscientiously. The list of possible factors can be long.  Anecdotal evidence, as in farmer testimonials, I suspect will no longer work. The only way to prove unambiguously that product works as claimed is to undertake some bone fide scientific research, which removes all the confounding factors.

How about some of the more fanciful claims made for some fertiliser products and soil additives? Product X reduces P lock up, or Product Y increases earthworm numbers, or Product Z increases pasture-rooting depth. Under the new legislation such claims will need to be soundly based before they are asserted in the market place. Such claims while readily made are very, very difficult to prove unequivocally without the need for expensive, robust, sound, science. 

So now the proprietors have to face the music. Crudely - put up (your scientific data) or shut up (don’t make claims that cannot be substantiated).  Knowing as I do the havoc that the muck and mystery boys have created in New Zealand over the years, by wasting farmers’ hard-earned dollars, or undermining their confidence, I can feel crocodile tears welling up in my eyes.

Doug Edmeades : March 13 2015

Snakes and Ladders

Sometimes I fly like an eagle and sometimes I’m deep in despair.” These bipolar words from John Denver flooded into my mind as I drove home from a recent farm visit. I see a lot of farms over the course of a year and mostly these occasions are stimulating and rewarding. Such is their impact on me that my wife can tell from my mood whether I have had a day ‘in the office’ or a day ‘on-farm’. But sometimes the experiences that farmers confide in me make me angry and upset. Here is one such example.

A small one-man dairy farm. From the state of the farm infrastructure I surmised - a small struggling dairy farm. He told me that his pastures were poor. He told me he had tried everything over many years – he was at the end of his tether. His story unfurled. First he sought advice from Ravensdown. That did not work. He went alternative, to the liquid seaweed company Agrisea. That did not work. He stayed feral and got advice from Abron. Another failure. The Ballance rep called so he took advice from them for one year, to no avail. He then stumbled into the arms of the rock dust folk at Agrissentials. None of the advice or products he used solved the problem - a real tale of woe.

As I insist on doing when on-farm – I always place great weight on assessing the pastures. In this case the problems were clear to see.  The dung and urine patches were very obvious and what clover was present, showed the visual symptoms of potassium (K) and sulphur (S) deficiency. The leaves were either yellow (S deficient) or had brown edges (K deficient).  Chemical analysis of 4 clover-only samples confirmed this initial visual diagnosis. 

These visual symptoms were so obvious than any fertiliser rep with a modicum of appropriate training, could not have failed to see them. And yet not one of company reps had noticed and recommended the appropriate remedial action. Perhaps this is par for the course for the snake oil merchants like Agrisea, Agrissentials and Abron.  But surely we can expect better from the fertiliser co-ops? Apparently not and this is what makes me so sad.

There was a time when farmers could rely on their fertiliser rep for good sound advice on fertiliser use. It appears this is no longer the case. The modern representatives from the co-ops – what do they call them now – “Account Managers”, is equipped with a car, a cell phone, a computer, and possibly a sales target. Chances are he/she is too busy to inspect the pastures and possibly if he/she did, they would not know what to they are looking at, or for! On the job training is in sales and marketing and how to use Overseer. The really important tasks such as taking soil samples according to tried and tested protocols and inspecting pastures for symptoms or nutrient deficiencies, are delegated it appears to the ‘office boy.’

I have said it before and it bears saying again – I am appalled by the quality of technical advice that New Zealand farmers are exposed to from the fertiliser industry, an industry it must be said, which once prided itself on sound science and technology. The situation is made worse because both companies can now be accused of putting dodgy products on their product lists marketed by dodgy claims. In their rush to compete on market share they have stooped to the lowest common denominator. Quality, in terms of products and services is no longer measured by the science standard, but the commercial standard, profit. In what sense of the word are they cooperative?

The New Zealand fertiliser industry has dropped the ball and it is high time for the referee to blow the whistle and call for a scrum back 30 years. The game needs to be restarted a) reflecting the fact that both teams, the Blues and the Greens, are owned by farmers for the benefit of farmers and b) reasserting that they are or should be driven by science.

There is a sad irony. If farmers do not get the technical solutions they need from their coops they will of course try ‘alternatives’. In other words, because of their technical incompetence the co-ops are inadvertently incubating and encouraging a ready market for the snake oil merchants. New Zealand is the loser. 




Doug Edmeades : March 13 2015

The Conduct of Science

I have been writing for some years now of the dangers of commercializing and politicizing science. We must be on the alert, watching for its symptoms.

Karl Popper, perhaps the greatest philosopher of science in the last century, argued that society works best when it is open – open that is to critical discussion and debate. In this manner bad ideas and policies are more quickly identified, discarded or improved. The fourth estate is, or should I say ought to be, an important conduit in this process. Closing down discussion and debate is the beginning of all ‘isms’ – Marxism, Communism, Nazism etc. Ideology is their dangerous endpoint.

The same principle applies to science. Science best serves society when it is open to debate and discussion - when scientists are free to speak without the fear of losing their jobs, their funding, commercial contracts or their political support.  This is the rock upon which the concept of academic freedom rests. 

But since the 1990s science in New Zealand has become increasingly commercialized and politicized. This has the effect of closing down debate and discussion. A few examples may help. 

Lysenko, a Russian biologist, supported by his political masters, rejected the new genetic theories and technology emerging from Mendel’s pioneering work. Critics were crushed and hence crop improvement in Russia was held up for many generations. The scientists working in the tobacco industry were kept silent by their commercial masters not doubt with an eye on profits.

We do not need to go international. It is most unlikely these days to obtain funding from government to examine factors other that carbon dioxide on climate change, and there are many, because government policy (i.e. the ETS) excludes them from consideration.  Dr Andrew West the then CEO of AgResearch featured on a TV commercial promoting their ryegrass cultivar AR37. Was he acting as the head of a science organisation or a commercial entity required to generate profits? The latter is likely in this case given that other science agencies had information to suggest it was not the ‘bees knees’. My career in the same institution came to sticky halt when I was told that my job as a National Science Leader was to generate revenue for the company not to inform farmers. The DCD product EcoN was promoted by Lincoln University who claimed that it increased pasture production up to 20%. The evidence did not support this claim and the sad truth is that the University is a part owner, and hence has a pecuniary interest in the patent. I once investigated the claims made by a liquid fertiliser manufacturer who cited trial data from Massey University for support. The then hierarchy refused me access to the data on the grounds of commercial confidentiality. It turned out that the trials were unreplicated and the data worthless. Need I go on?

The current science model not only stifles debate on scientific issues but also muzzles discussion on the management of our science institutions. AgResearch is currently undergoing what appears to be a painful restructuring. The staff is paranoid that if they speak openly about its merits or otherwise they would be censored. Keith Woodford of Lincoln University told his truth about the perilous state of the University in a column in the Sunday Star Times recently. It will be no surprise if he is disciplined. 

Dr Renwick a former NIWA scientist interviewed recently on Morning Report sought to trivialize a recent court case taken by the NZ Climate Science Coalition (of which I am a proud member) against NIWA. From my perspective the central issue (leaving aside any consideration of climate change) is the conduct of science.  In this case the NZ Climate Science Coalition sought technical information from NIWA regarding the long-term temperature record. The raw data indicated no clear warming whereas the adjusted data indicated a warming of about 0.8 degrees. There are legitimate reasons for making adjustments and the Coalition simply asked NIWA to provide their methodology - a simple scientific request.  We were met with a wall of obfuscation and the final resort was to apply a legal remedy. This also failed not because of the merits of the case. Even to this day there is no evidence in the public domain to determine whether the NIWA adjustments are legitimate or otherwise. If there is no objective basis for the adjustments then there is no basis for the governments ETS policy. It is a matter of considerable social and economic concern and yet NIWA failed the most basic test of a science organisation – openness to scrutiny and debate. Why?
As Elizabeth Bowen said “no one speaks the truth when there is something they must have.” Like job security, renewed funding, commercial contracts and political support.  That is why the current science model must be overhauled.   


Doug Edmeades : March 13 2015