May 7, 2024

Growing the Global Network: Western Growers Visits New Zealand and Australia

Our mission was simple: Foster international collaboration for biologicals and identify innovation opportunities to support specialty crop production back home. This past February, Dennis Donohue and I traveled to New Zealand and Australia to advance biological inputs for specialty crops at a global scale, enhance partnerships with our agricultural allies, and get a front seat view at developing ag tech from innovators Down Under.

Elevating Local Ag

Upon arrival in Auckland, we were greeted with a barrage of signage warning travelers to be wary of potential agricultural threats, particularly the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (BMSB). Although the BMSB has not made its way to New Zealand, its wide host range has the potential to devastate local agriculture. During our visit to the Plant and Food Research (PFR)campus in Auckland, we learned that PFR has been working on understanding the life cycle and egg laying habits of the Samurai Wasp, a tiny predatory wasp that has a preference for BMSB. They even let us take a look up close with their electron microscope!

This kind of cutting-edge research is done to elevate and protect New Zealand agriculture to the highest degree. PFR also develops delicious specialty fruit varieties, including ‘EarlyBel’ raspberries, and ‘Jazz’, ‘Envy’ and mini-sized ‘Rockit’ apples. They continue to develop varieties that are heat tolerant, increased hardiness and early season. It was a great opportunity to share with their team about Platform 10, WG’s international, multi-year collaboration to accelerate promising biological solutions for global specialty crop production.

There and Back Again

Like California, New Zealand is a big exporter, particularly for fruit and dairy products, and producer of local vegetables. Finding biological solutions to these pressing pest concerns is a shared key priority for Vegetables NZ, the largest vegetable grower association in New Zealand. We visited their research station in Pukekohe, the largest vegetable production region. The fertile volcanic soil supports 80% of the bulb onion production, 80% of the fresh market potato and is the largest area of glass house production to include tomato and cucumbers nationally. Driving past the fields of fruit vegetables, we felt right at home; even the major pest priorities are not dissimilar, including thrips, diamond back moth and army worm.

Of course, a trip to New Zealand wouldn’t be complete without a stop in Te Puke, the kiwi fruit capital of the world. Improved kiwifruit variety development is a key priority for the Kiwifruit Breeding Centre (KBC), a joint venture between PFR and Zespri, the world’s largest marketer of kiwifruit. As we huddled under the dense kiwi orchard canopy, we learned that this past season was exceptionally challenging due to extreme weather events, a ‘new normal’ growers have been experiencing around the word. As the industry faces new diseases and impacts from climate change, leveraging new tools and technologies is critical to building resilience and producing sustainably.

Outlook from the Outback

The Evoke ag conference in Perth, Australia, is the largest ag tech event south of the equator. We presented the work of WG in Biologicals to a group of UK, New Zealand and Australian state, federal and private agricultural interest and research groups. Our Platform 10 event was kicked off by Karen Ross, who emphasized the importance of ecosystem health, human health and economic viability for agriculture in California.

This trip was an outcome of groundwork that was laid out at the 2023 Salinas Biological Summit; an opportunity to reciprocate the commitment to partnerships that our international collaborators demonstrated to accelerate global development of biologicals. We are so grateful for the generous hospitality of all of our hosts and for these opportunities to develop this platform to exchange ideas and build collaborative partnerships at a global scale.