22 December 2021

New Zealand study experience helps transform Brazilian agribusiness

People & Culture

Brazilian Airton Spies is in his sixties now but remembers his international education experience in New Zealand almost three decades ago as a pivotal event in his life.

Airton is an agribusiness specialist who has helped to transform farming practices both at home and abroad, advised governments and international agencies, consulted, and shared his wealth of knowledge through post-grad teaching. But he believes that if he hadn’t studied in New Zealand, his career could have looked quite different.  

“I left home with no professional international experience and came home able to connect with the world.” 

Aged 33, and with two degrees under his belt, one in agronomy engineering and one in business administration, Airton was offered a two-year sabbatical from his job at EPAGRI – Santa Catarina state Agricultural Research and Rural Extension Enterprise - to study for his Masters in Farm Management at Lincoln University.  

With support from a New Zealand Official Development Assistance Scholarship, he arrived in Christchurch with wife Carlise and their two young boys Thiago and Thomas, in July 1994.  

Study focuses on New Zealand farm management 

Airton was keen to explore New Zealand farm management systems following the reforms of the mid-1980s which saw the country transition from a subsidised farming environment to a market-driven economy, effectively treating farming like any other business.  

He was impressed with what he found. “There was detailed record-keeping of farm indicators which compared performance against benchmarks, and decisions took into account both technical and economic considerations. This resulted in better choices being made, and more successes than failures.” 

His New Zealand experience has since helped to inform agricultural policy in Brazil. And that’s no small feat. There are 183,000 farms in his small home state of Santa Catarina, and 5.5 million across Brazil.    

“The New Zealand systems strongly influenced our way of doing business here. Farming practices have improved considerably based on the changes we brought in. We have also developed software based on New Zealand farm management principles and concepts. That has helped to set up wider networks of farm information which influence decisions made all over the state.”  

Airton recognises the value that his New Zealand education experience has brought to his career. “My management knowledge and understanding of agribusiness economics all started in New Zealand. It was also a huge advantage to study in a country with a liberal economy where efficiency matters, and where people willingly collaborate to build better outcomes. 

“It allowed me to take an objective view of our agricultural economy at home, identify opportunities and the potential for efficiencies, and to better understand the challenges.”  

Lifetime bonds built on New Zealand study experience 

It also laid the foundations of a life-long relationship with a country he loves. 

Three years after his New Zealand experience, Airton went on to study for his PhD in Environmental Economics at the University of Queensland before returning to Brazil, where he was appointed Secretary of Agriculture and Fisheries in the state of Santa Catarina in 2010. 

Retiring from Government service in 2019, Airton set up his own consultancy, SpiesAgro, which has allowed him to tap into the wealth of connections he has made in New Zealand. Up until Covid restricted travel, Airton had been instrumental in helping to organise 11 technical visits to New Zealand for top Brazilian agribusiness managers, MPs, and officials.  

“The tours have been hugely successful, giving an overview of New Zealand’s economic and technical approach to agribusiness, and have included site visits to dairy farms, sheep and beef farms, orchards, and vineyards,” he says. 

“Each tour involved up to 35 people, so think how many senior Brazilian officials are now connected to New Zealand, just through these tours alone.” 

Airton places huge value on the enduring relationship he has with New Zealand.  

“It is fuelled by my own interests in following the latest developments in agribusiness, and the great support I have from the New Zealand Embassy in Brazil and New Zealand Trade and Enterprise. But it’s all built on the two years I spent living in New Zealand, and the connections I have made and maintained since then.” 

A top-level education in a safe and beautiful country 

He knows that his positive experience has encouraged several people to follow in his footsteps. Most have played important roles in business or government after returning home from study in New Zealand.  

“I’m often asked by people about New Zealand, and I always tell them you will get a top-level education in a safe and beautiful country. 

“Importantly, you will learn in English, backed by science and innovation, and will connect with new people, see the natural environment in a new light, and be responsible for your actions as a member of a decent society.” 

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