Last Thursday, Jacqui and I were delighted to be invited to visit the ASB Bank MAGS Farm in Auckland. There, we joined Tim Kay, Director of Advancement, and Peter Thorp, Chairman of the MAGS Foundation, to learn more about some of the significant re-development plans being hatched for the farm.

Some history first. The ASB Bank MAGS Farm was originally established back in 1932. It’s an 8.1. hectare model farm situated next to Mount Albert Grammar School, close to Auckland’s CBD. This location is significant. Ask many urban kids where milk and eggs come from and they will probably say, ‘Countdown’. Their perception of farming is probably shaped by the urban myth that agriculture is all about manure covered gum boots, poor environmental controls and dirty rivers.

A view of the new ASB Bank MAGS Farm development site

A view of the new ASB Bank MAGS Farm development site

The reality is that agriculture accounts for 70% of New Zealand’s export income and the industry needs an additional 50,000 workers to double export earnings by 2050. The ASB Bank MAGS Farm presents a unique opportunity to re-shape these kid’s perceptions. It can demonstrate the ways in which new technology is being used in farming production systems and highlight new initiatives that ensure the sustainable management of the environment and our waterways.

What then of the proposed ASB Bank MAGS Farm initiative? The plan is to create on site, a world class teaching facility and experience centre. It will demonstrate the innovation, science and environmental best practices used on farms across New Zealand. It will also be the driver for substantially increasing the number of MAGS students studying agriculture from 160 to perhaps 400 – 500.

The Farm will focus on the ‘commercial’ farming operations of dairy cows, beef cattle and sheep. Its horticulture area will be expanded to 1 hectare and Plant & Food (a Crown Research Institute) will provide a plan to best utilise the facilities. Grapes, pip fruit and citrus trees will all be planted.

The Experience Centre is intended to provide a ‘laboratory’ learning environment including a fully equipped classroom facility, an exhibition space, a theatrette and viewing area.

Little wonder then that industry partners have emerged to support this initiative. ASB, KPMG, Fonterra, Landcorp, Te Tuma Paeroa, Plant and Food, and NZX Agri all agreed to co-fund the business case for the re-developed farm. KPMG has completed the business case and on Thursday, Jacqui and I were able to view some of the draft plans for the proposed building construction and its development.

The next step is to begin the consent process with Council and secure the funds necessary to complete the project. It’s at this point that I am reminded of the saying – ‘Rome was not built in a day’.

Timing they say is everything and a conference call with the US on Friday quite unexpectedly highlighted some of the opportunities such an initiative would offer wider NZ. Inc. More about that in the weeks ahead.

Back to Thursday. The ASB Bank MAGS Farm visit was hugely instructive. Given Wharf42’s own interest in the growing intersection between digital technologies and agriculture, this initiative provides New Zealand’s largest urban population with the opportunity to see and learn just how this sector is evolving. It is hoped that eventually farm visits will enable up to 40,000 people annually to visit the Farm and the Experience Centre.

Given that the Ministry of Primary Industries estimates that at least half of the additional 50,000 workers required to double export earnings by 2025 will require a tertiary education qualification, generating interest in the sector at school age is crucial. St. Pauls Collegiate School in Hamilton is developing an open access curriculum in Agricultural Science and Business which MAGS and other schools around the country will implement as part of the curriculum certified to NCEA achievement standards by NZQA. Its purpose is to better prepare those students who are interested in pursuing a tertiary qualification in agriculture. This is just another great initiative.

Once the new ASB Bank MAGS Farm redevelopment is complete, it would be great to see a model connected farm in action. Real animals with real horticultural activity working alongside robots, sensors, drones and large screens relaying aggregated real-time data from those digital devices to those visiting and viewing the operation. I can think of no better way to enthuse those students and change any pre-existing perceptions they might have of the agriculture sector.

This is one initiative that justifies real support.