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Eric and Maxine Watson: A Small but Mighty Industry

It was 30 years ago when arable farmers Eric and Maxine Watson moved to Wakanui, in the Ashburton District, to pursue cropping full-time. Eric was originally brought up on a mixed cropping and sheep farm in Ealing (a small town on the bank of the Rangitata River) and always had a love for cropping. In 2017, he set the Guinness World Record (GWR) for producing the highest wheat yield.

Last year, Eric managed to set a second GWR, beating his former wheat yield with an outstanding result of 17.398 tonnes per hectare of wheat. The farm where Eric grew up had been in his family for 90 years. Their land stretched across 800 hectares, stocking 5,000-6,000 ewes. Eric never really saw himself as a “stock person” and was more interested in the arable side of farming. When it came time for Eric and Maxine to sell the family farm, it came with good intentions. They wanted to focus solely on cropping and needed the right property that had good soil and a good irrigation system.

“My way of thinking is that you can't dwell on history. If something comes up that you want to do and are happier doing than what was on your original farm, you may as well go and do it. That was my farm advisor’s thoughts at the time as well,” Eric said.

It took Eric and Maxine 10 years to find their Wakanui farm, which equates to 490 hectares of total crop area. They grow a wide variety of crops, including wheat, ryegrass and cocksfoot for seed production. They also produce alternative pasture species like plantain, chicory and clover. Vegetable seeds such as spinach, radish, pak choi and Chinese kale, are other crops that you will find on-farm. Eric has planted beans, peas and linseed over the years too. There has been a high demand for spinach this year so they have 68 hectares planted. Eric didn’t specify a favourite crop but he did say that wheat and vegetable seeds do rather well. “Every crop needs to be treated equally to get the best out of it,” Eric said. The majority of their crops are grown for PGG Wrightson Seeds and Barenbrug New Zealand with vegetable seeds grown for South Pacific Seeds who sell them to retailers and companies overseas.

Eric had no desire to partake in the GWR for the highest wheat yield until he was contacted by David Weith from Bayer Crop Science. “David knew that we were achieving pretty high yields so he could see the potential. He's been a very big help as far as crop management goes,” Eric said.

David had originally helped South Canterbury farmers Warren and Joy Darling take out the world record for barley yield in 2015 and wanted to work with Eric to help him do the same with wheat. Yara New Zealand also played a vital role in helping Eric with his crops. “We test for trace elements to see whether it's deficient in anything. We don't apply anything that's not required as far as trace elements go,” Eric said. In 2017, Eric brought home the GWR with 16.791 tonnes per hectare of wheat. The average wheat yield in New Zealand is said to be around 12 tonnes per hectare. The harvest of 2020 was when Eric took out the last GWR, beating his previous record by 607 kilograms per hectare.

Eric talked about the complexities and the strict rules around partaking in the GWR. To compete, you need to have a minimum of eight hectares. Other requirements include having a registered surveyor measure the area of crop for the record before it is planted, and again before harvest. On harvest day, two Justices of the Peace need to be on hand, along with two to three independent witnesses who are involved in the arable sector or farming industry. A registered auditor is also required, and in Eric’s case, it was a Swedish audit company, SGS, who took moisture samples and recorded the weight of each load over the weighbridge off the header.

Two cameras also need to be operating constantly throughout harvest: one on the field and one on the weighbridge which needs to be certified. Administration costs are another important thing to consider in the process.

“Growing a crop, you've got to do the best that you can; you've got to look after it. There's nothing special about growing it; all crops receive the same treatment. You can't, under Guinness rules, overuse fertiliser or chemicals. In that respect, you can't use anything that's not registered for wheat in your country and you're not allowed to use over the recommended rate that it’s registered for on the chemical labels.

“I think that if you overuse fertiliser, you'd probably be looked at environmentally. Fertilisers are expensive at the moment so you don't want to overuse them anyway. We are allowed to use irrigation because it's part of our farming system,” Eric said.

For half of the year, Eric works by himself but during spring till the end of harvest, he brings in an additional worker. Eric has an independent farm advisor and values the input of seed companies, agronomists and fertiliser representatives.

Eric and Maxine usually have the opportunity to travel every year and visit their son. He lives and works in the United States helping businesses with new projects. When Covid restrictions were enforced, that was no longer a reality for them, but they are fortunate enough that their archaeologist daughter lives only 30 kilometres from them on the north bank of the Rakaia River. With both of their children being successful and driven individuals, it’s no wonder Eric and Maxine are extremely proud of them.

While Eric mentioned that cropping isn’t significantly profitable compared to other sectors in New Zealand, he did say that there are immense benefits from cropping.

“One of the big benefits is that you can see what you achieve at the end of the harvest season and whether something has worked or not. I think environmentally, it's reasonably sustainable. We know how much nitrogen our ryegrass crops require so we don't overuse nitrogen. We know how much the wheat requires and we do soil nitrogen testing at the beginning of spring, so we know how much is in the ground. We monitor all of our soil moisture levels for irrigation so that we don't over-irrigate and we’re not wasting water. I think that's very environmentally friendly.”

The majority of arable farms in New Zealand are situated in Canterbury for the climate, flat land, soils and irrigation; it’s something that Canterbury can be really proud of. “It’s a bit of an underrated industry. It's a small industry but it's extremely important. We grow quite a lot of the world’s radish seeds and other vegetable seeds. We grow all of the seeds for the pasture, dairy, sheep and export industry, as well as grain for the feed industry (wheat, barley, etc). It’s a very efficient industry because we've got some of the best farmers in the world. That's why we get to grow some of these overseas cultivars that come out here, and with our climate and irrigation which is very important.

“It’s not a forgotten industry but it's an industry that's important to the country because it has big exports. It doesn’t compete with wine, grapes or kiwifruit and all the rest of it. The dairy industry takes hype, but there’s an article in the last Federated Farmers’ newsletter, Feds News, which mentions that we underpin New Zealand's pastoral farming sector and exports are around 45,000 tonnes of produce valued at nearly 300 million,” Eric said.

Eric used Goldpine products on his stock farm many years ago. Cropping doesn't require a lot of fencing but when they have needed it, they said Goldpine were good to deal with and were very helpful. In more recent times, Maxine bought posts from the Goldpine Ashburton store to go around one of their cottages and a very stylish gate.

With the cropping world being a small but rewarding industry to be a part of, Eric hopes that the future remains prosperous. “In years to come, it could be very important as far as producing alternative proteins from plant sources—even milk and plant-based proteins for human consumption. With a rise in plant-based meat instead of meat from animals, the New Zealand arable industry could be important for producing that,” Eric said.

“If there is an overall philosophy behind our operation it is this: to farm as efficiently, as productively, as profitably and as well as possible, by being open to new ideas and practices, by continuing to learn, by paying attention to detail and getting things done on time, and to care for the land and leave it at least as good as, and if possible, better than we found it," Maxine said.