A leading young swimmer needed to find a meaningful career out of the water and now has his feet firmly on the ground. By Elaine Fisher.

Blake Gunn’s career is all about the land and what grows on it, but it was the aquatic world which, one way or another, led to his current role as award-winning forage systems specialist for Agricom.

Blake, the winner of the Farmax Emerging Rural Professional of the Year for 2022, has also enjoyed a successful swimming career, winning a silver medal at the 2016 Oceania Swimming Championships in Suva, Fiji.

It was his love of swimming which influenced Blake’s decision, after leaving Marton’s Rangitikei College, to attend Massey University so he could continue to train with the Kiwi West Aquatics Club in Palmerston North.

“Throughout high school it was up at 4.20am for the 40-minute drive to Palmerston North to train for a couple of hours, then back to school, then swimming again in the afternoon. Going to uni at Massey cut travelling down to 10 minutes each way,” Blake says.

While swimming was his passion, Blake’s older sister Jardine suggested he needed to think long term and study for a meaningful degree which would ensure his future after swimming.

“Thanks to that advice, I studied for a Bachelor of Agricultural Science majoring in agriculture.”

When he graduated in 2015, Blake continued competitive swimming and spent the summer driving tractors making hay and silage before joining Agricom in April 2016.

“Agricom was awesome in supporting me to continue swimming, by offering part time hours which meant I could still train for 20 hours a week. Never in a million years would I have thought I could find an employer who would support me to continue swimming alongside my career.”

That support paid off when, as part of the New Zealand team, Blake won silver in Fiji.

“That was a highlight of my swimming career. Then I got glandular fever which stopped my swimming in its tracks. I was so lucky to have a cool job I loved, and I went full time with Agricom in January 2017.”

A career in agriculture was probably always on the cards for Blake, who was born in Northland where his mum Denise was a teacher and his dad Gordon a police officer. “We also had a small avocado orchard at Houhora which was my first introduction to the rural scene.”

While Blake was at primary school the family moved south to Marton where his parents bought a dairy farm, furthering Blake’s interest in agriculture.

His first role with Agricom was as lower North Island extension agronomist but he now has the title of forage systems specialist. This role involves providing support to Agricom regional territory managers and helping them keep up to date with the latest research.

Blake also works closely with the company’s clients including agricultural retail companies, as well as rural professionals, from fertiliser specialists to regional councils, and catchment groups to industry organisations.

Agricom researches, develops and markets a wide range of proprietary pasture and forage crop seeds to the agricultural industry. Its core business is described as: “investing in the research and development of forage options and in the advancement of endophyte technology to increase the profits returned back to farmers”.

An aspect of his role which Blake particularly enjoys is working with farmers in on-farm trials to compare different forage cultivars under a wide range of environments around New Zealand.

“I like to conduct trials across climate conditions and soil types to see how different cultivars perform under different farming systems.”

This included, in one case, growing forage crops within 300 metres of the ocean at Opunake in Taranaki. “There’s no point in conducting trials in an environment where you have control over everything as that doesn’t happen in the real world.

“We have some really good trial farmers who are passionate about trialing and happy to have up to 26 different rye grasses growing in a single paddock and keep detailed records of how they perform. We try to get animal interaction with the cultivars as well.”

Agricom has a team of plant breeders and Blake benefits from working with them to understand what plants are in the pipeline and the benefits they could offer farmers. Bringing a new variety to commercial release takes around 12 years and many plants in the breeding trials don’t make it through the process. While agriculture is eager for forage crops which could help reduce the impacts of livestock farming on the environment, including N leaching, Blake says there are solutions among the plants already on the market. These include Agricom’s Ecotain plantain which Lincoln University lysimeter studies have shown to reduce N leaching from the urine patch by up to 89% depending on sward blend. Agricom describes Ecotain as a “natural, environmentally friendly forage solution and the only product currently proven to reduce nitrate leaching as modelled by Overseer”.

Blake believes research into existing forage crops, including Ecotain, may demonstrate some plants have a different impact on the digestive systems of livestock, and may reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“It would be great to think we already have tools in our toolbox to address some of our environmental issues.”

Continuous improvements within agronomy and agriculture, plus working closely with farmers, is what gets Blake out of bed every morning.

“The available land for farming is decreasing and we must make the most of what we have got without degrading the environment. What spins my wheels is adding value to a farmer’s business by helping convert science to the real world as smoothly and quickly as possible so they can enjoy the benefits.”

To that end Blake will use the funds he won through the Farmax Emerging Rural Professional of the Year award towards increasing his knowledge of agronomy. That may include utilising Agricom’s global network to view some international forage systems first hand or to attend an international grasslands congress where topical scientific papers are published.

“Agricom is part of a global company DLF seeds; this allows us to have contact points across numerous countries which vary a lot in climate and pastoral challenges,” Blake says.

“It would be great to spend some time with the international team. A lot of the germplasm used within ryegrass cultivars in New Zealand have heritage leading back to areas of northwest Spain, so perhaps there’s some learnings to be had over there.”

NZ Institute of Primary Industry Management (NZIPIM) chief executive Jo Finer says: “Once again, we’ve been thrilled to partner with Farmax to recognise young talent in our sector and support their professional development. Blake is a very deserving winner, and we see him as a great ambassador for rural professionals and our industry. We wish him well with his career.”

Farmax chief executive Gavin McEwen says the number of entrants in the award was hugely positive for the industry, as it “means there are more incredible young people fueling New Zealand’s agricultural sector and more being recognised for their hard work as well”.

“Young people bring vitality, courage and new perspectives in the face of challenging times for our industry, and without them we simply wouldn’t be able to flourish.

“Congrats to Blake – a very impressive young professional – and to all the nominees who made it hard for the judges to choose just one winner.”

Blake’s win was announced during the NZIPIM national conference awards dinner in Hamilton in August.