Back Good things come from small beginnings

Date: 14 April 2016

Pioneer® brand maize in New Zealand has come a long way since its early days 40 years ago. And it may never have happened if Philip Yates, the founder of Genetic Technologies Limited, hadn’t read an article in an American business magazine back  in 1975.

The story was actually about hybrid wheat but it got Philip thinking, so when he was in the United States the following month he approached three companies, one of them being Pioneer Hi-Bred International.

While hybrid wheat wasn’t at the time close to being a commercial option, he got talking to Pioneer about hybrid maize. He immediately liked the company - it was substantially family-owned and shared many of the values
and vision of Philip’s own family company at the time, Yates.

He arranged for Yates to become the exclusive distributor of Pioneer® brand products in New Zealand. Ten years later, that exclusive arrangement was transferred to Philip’s new company, Genetic Technologies Limited.

The early days of establishing Pioneer maize seed in New Zealand certainly had its challenges. Philip’s first year in business did not go well. He imported three hybrids from Australia at a time when all the maize seed produced across the Tasman was harvested by combine.

That cracked the seed, allowing pathogens to enter, resulting in a high proportion of weak plants. Local growers were upset so Philip replaced all of the Australian seed and decided the only way to ensure high seed quality was to produce it locally. Poverty Bay, with its fertile flat land, was the obvious location so a seed production facility was commissioned.

Up until the late 1980’s there was a relatively small maize industry which sold grain mainly into the pig, poultry and human food industries. While a few dairy farmers had grown maize for greenfeed or silage, most were unaware of the potential the crop held. On a mission to improve dairy farmer productivity and profitability, Genetic Technologies began to work with local contractors and merchants as well as leading dairy farmers to promote maize silage.

The early 1990’s involved a huge information transfer process. “For 10 years, we very much focused on running seminars, farmer fieldays and demonstration trials,” says Philip. “In fact, we, along with merchants and contractors,
are still talking to farmers today about maize silage – how to make it, grow it and feed it”. 

A key part of the Company’s philosophy is to help farmers improve the performance of their crops paddock by paddock.

“In the early days for example, hybrids weren’t sold with trait information about root strength, disease resistance and drought tolerance. All those things which are standard today weren’t available to the farmer until we started supplying that information”.

“Given the significant potential of maize for silage, we soon increased the range of hybrids to cover the many variations in New Zealand based on soil type, climate, and end use”.

“Today we have more than 20 high-yielding silage hybrids available commercially at any one time; back then it was three. We didn’t sell maize south of Palmerston North; today farmers are growing it in Southland”.

Asked about his favourite hybrids, Philip talks fondly of 34B23 – “that was a silage star performer”. Of the current crop, he cites P9911, one of the new Optimum AQUAmax® hybrids. “These new AQUAmax hybrids are a major step forward and have been developed by Pioneer to make the plant more tolerant to drought stress. They are being taken up rapidly by the farming community here, as maize grown in New Zealand is often subjected to moisture limitation sometime during the growing season and it’s only going to get worse. That’s why we really believe in the potential of AQUAmax to improve efficiency and productivity”.

Philip doesn’t see the sense in New Zealand importing hundreds of millions of dollars of other supplementary feed each year. “Why increase our trade deficit when we could grow it ourselves? With good planning, all the feed farmers need could be produced locally”.

“Maize provides high yields of high quality drymatter. In fact maize silage followed by annual ryegrass can produce double the yield of permanent pasture. It allows farmers to get more from their high value land”.

“Maize silage can be used to fill seasonal feed deficits. A real advantage is that it can be stored on farm and fed when the milksolids response rates are the greatest”.

“The best thing farmers can do is grow maize on their farms, especially on effluent paddocks where they don’t need to apply fertiliser. It’s much cheaper than importing other feeds and it’s environmentally sustainable”.

Genetic Technologies continues to undertake extensive research and trials every year and, via its experienced in-field team around the country, works alongside merchants and contractors to help farmers to decide on the best hybrids and systems for their particular circumstances.

“Working with Pioneer exclusively means they treat us as part of their family and make sure we always get the best-performing products”.

Relationships are also very important within Genetic Technologies. Philip’s son Will is the Company’s Managing Director, having worked his way up from the paddock to the boardroom. As a youngster, he would go on trips with
Philip around the country and overseas and there were often Pioneer people hosted around the family dinner table.

“I grew up with a strong feeling for the business and the seed industry,” says Will who did a Bachelor of Business Studies at Massey and a two year internship with Pioneer in Iowa before coming home and joining the family business 24 years ago.

Will’s commitment remains as strong today as it was back then. “I have a deep passion for New Zealand agriculture and in particular, the seed and maize industries. We have a huge amount of respect for, and close affinity and connection with the sectors of the industry we service and with those we work alongside of”.

“Making sure we resource the business through sound research, technical extension, and sales service and support, will help farmers capture the opportunities that maize is going to increasingly present them and enable them be even more successful in their farming businesses”.

As Philip says: “After the Australian seed debacle I went around every grower I had sold that seed to and made the promise I would spend the rest of my working life producing the best hybrids and finest quality seed this world can
produce. And that has been our mantra ever since”.

With several of his grandchildren heading into their teenage years, it may not be too long before another generation of the Yates family is out in the field.