Steve Harcourt is AgResearch’s new Science Group Manager (SGM) – Digital Agriculture. His arrival comes during a time of unprecedented technological change for agricultural research and the sectors it serves. 

Steve Harcourt is steeped in the business of agriculture. 

Having already forged a career in fundamental, applied and commercially focused research and product development, he knows the challenge farmers and the agricultural sector and its stakeholders are grappling with and the expectations placed on leaders in the technology space. 

It’s why he took the SGM Digital Ag job. 

His primary role is to enable the organisation to stay ahead of the technology curve; to make sure we have the necessary skills and capabilities for our research to be both effective and efficient, while remaining world class. 

But Steve has other ambitions too. 

“My aspiration for AgResearch is that we are widely recognised and valued for the unique and indispensable contribution we make to sustaining the livelihoods of pastoral farmers and food producers. 

“I want to help ensure that primary producers not only get a fair return for their labours, but that they can stand tall and speak with pride about the vital role they perform for their communities, our country and the world.” 

Steve’s passion for the industry is obvious. 

After starting his career as a research technician for AgResearch “many moons ago”, he got involved in genomic research in dairy cows, which led to opportunities to lead the biotechnology programme, then commercialisation and industry relations with Livestock Improvement Corporation. From there he ventured into the fields of automation and sensory technology product development. 

But Steve isn’t just a technophile. 

Steve grew up on sheep, beef and deer farms in South Westland and the Bay of Plenty. He retains deep personal connections with many people whose livelihoods and family wellbeing depend on the success of our rural communities. Consequently, he’s interested in, and feels driven by, how farming contributes to New Zealand’s success, because it plays such a large part in his life.    

“I’d like us to advance past the ‘social license to farm’ discussion and shift the focus to our efforts to develop productive and profitable farm systems that leverage our natural resources in harmony with the natural and cultural landscapes in which they exist.  

“Some may feel these goals are mutually exclusive, or it’s asking too much to have our cake and eat it too. However, I believe that through the intelligent application of science and technology by skilled farmers and committed rural communities, we can achieve these apparently diametrically opposed goals and lead the world in sustainable, high intensity and efficient agriculture. In many ways our natural advantages, in terms of abundant sunshine, rainfall and fertile soils, as well as our temperate maritime climate, means we are uniquely placed to have our cake and eat it.” 

Steve has been heartened by what he has seen so far at AgResearch. 

Digital technologies are embedded across the organisation. Scientists are collecting and analysing huge amounts of data from across farm ecosystems, catchments, and regions. The availability of these new and higher frequency data, enabled by advances in sensory and IoT technology, coupled with improving farm connectivity, is changing the way we do research. AgResearch has diverse in-house capabilities in genomics, bioinformatics, statistics, modelling, computational science and software engineering, which is now augmented by access to the high-performance computing (HPC) resources of the New Zealand eScience Infrastructure (NeSI) collaboration. The digital mahi is integrated across our science programmes and now complements the world leading physical science capability that AgResearch is known for. 

That means Steve is involved in all parts of the business. 

“And that is what makes us unique. All those capabilities, tools and technologies are deployed in a special context, the diverse farm systems across New Zealand  agriculture.  We can, and are, making a big difference. Maybe not just in the way some farmers are used to seeing when they pick up a pack of zinc bolus’ or a new plant cultivar from their stock and station agent.”  

Steve believes digital solutions are every bit as impactful on farm as physical products and will only increase in utility and value to farming businesses. 

“Our job is to apply our intellectual capital to help frame the potential application and value of emerging technologies, for example, how Artificial Intelligence can be utilised by scientists and farmers, and then provide thought leadership to help usher it through the farmgate and deliver real value to farmers. 

“Whether that's an algorithm inside someone else's software, a software module that's integrated through an API (application programming interface) or some genotype associations blended into a breeding program. However you want to cut it, we are ready to help. 

“We're going to deliver nuggets of innovation that make a difference for people out there serving farmers. 

“We take a business to business approach to delivering research and technology to people who serve farmers. 

“So to be successful we've got to know their businesses bloody well and also seek to understand the needs of the customers they serve.”  


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