Rob Suisted

Farming for our future

As things stand, the land can’t endure our enterprise much longer. If it’s to sustain our grandchildren, we have to change the way we think and cultivate. The Our Land and Water National Science Challenge is helping us forge a new accord with the soil beneath our feet.

Written by       Photographed by Rob Suisted

Stop by to interview a farmer, and three things will happen: first, you’ll be offered a cuppa; second, a sentence will begin with, “I wouldn’t call myself a greenie, but…” and third, you’ll end up on the back of a quad, touring the farm. Farmers love talking about land almost as much as they love land itself.

A Hawke’s Bay beef farmer once said to me: “People think we farm animals, but we don’t: we farm soil.” By which he meant that farming is about earning a living, not from livestock, or produce, but from the potential of the land beneath our feet. As he saw it, his skill—his responsibility—lay in deciding how to exploit that potential most wisely.

The question of how best to use our land is one of the most important of all. If we treat it right, it will return the favour. If we abuse it, it will sicken and fail. And with it, businesses, communities, economies and ecosystems.

A pivot irrigator on isolated Haldon Station leaves polka-dots of pasture on the dry alpine plains of the Mackenzie Basin, which were carved by glacial outwash. In the background is Lake Benmore. The tough rules around development introduced by the Mackenzie District Council were fiercely contested for 10 years until a legal appeal was withdrawn in June 2017.

Efforts have begun to better understand how to keep our demands on land reasonable, to work within the limits of what both nature and society will brook.

That will inevitably mean learning to grow the right things in the right places—in some places, perhaps, not growing anything at all. It will mean getting to know our land more intimately, as a miscellaneous mosaic rather than a monoculture. And knowing when to turn off the irrigator, dial down the fertiliser, let the land rest.

Increasingly, producers are being held to account for the true costs of keeping us fed. The clear inference is that we, as consumers, are part of the problem, and the solution. But the bill must be paid somehow, and that will mean realising more profit from enterprise. In short, we must pursue value, not volume.

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How odd that this place, in plain sight of so very much water—snow-fallen, frozen and flowing—could be so arid. So dry that the skies above are a gin-clear window on the heavens. And so remote that a sheep rustler could once graze his abducted flocks here at no risk of detection. James Mackenzie left his name here, and even after he fled to Australia, sheep remained on the pasture-country he had found—thousands of weather-beaten merinos. But it’s hard going. If it’s not the meagre annual drizzle, it’s the marching ranks of wilding pines, or the hieracium, or the damn rabbits, nibbling the place to the nub. In the early 1990s, only seven per cent of the nation’s dairy cows grazed in the South Island—and none of them here. Then, in 2009, three companies sought consents for 16 new dairy farms in the Mackenzie Basin, housing 18,000 cows in ‘cubicle stables’ 24 hours a day for eight months of the year.

A palpable shudder went through society as it sensed a line had been crossed. Today, strewn across the floor of the Basin between Twizel and Omarama are giant discs of exotic pasture grass, some two kilometres across, brilliant green against the dun of normal. They bloom beneath fake rain, showering from the clockwork arms of giant pivot irrigators. The water is taken from nearby rivers— the Ahuriri, the Ohau—by the Benmore Irrigation Company, which in 2016 sought consents to virtually double the extent of the Mackenzie under irrigation—another 1250 hectares of native vegetation (and an estimated 81 threatened species) would yield to the Friesian.

This landscape-scale industrial transformation is part of New Zealand’s bid to be the world’s cheapest producer of milk powder.

“If ever there was a place in New Zealand where we should say ‘no more dairying’, this is it,” says Gary Taylor, chief executive of the Environmental Defence Society. “It’s high, cold, and has thin natural soils. It is not a natural environment suited to intensive farming.”

Indeed, the Mackenzie has been called the closest thing we have—or had—to a desert. Is this really the best use for the land?

The crop circles of the Mackenzie are monuments to a zeal for “taming the land”, says Taylor, that should be consigned to history. “New Zealand is a very young country. We’re only now starting to come out of that pioneering thinking, where we had very few people and lots of land, and we could rip, shit and bust without consequence. Now, there very much are consequences, because we’re pushing against environmental limits. We need more sophisticated drivers for land use than we’ve used historically.”

Having been “settled”, Aotearoa is now being “de-settled,” says Chris Perley, an affiliate researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability.

Construction is underway on the Pukaki Water Scheme, which will draw water from the stilling basin at the Lake Pukaki end of the Tekapo Canal. Irrigation in the Mackenzie Basin epitomises national conflicts over the purpose of land, because here, the switch from one use to another is particularly stark: it changes the colour of the land, from tawny tussock to tennis-court green.

“Small family-owned dairy farms are becoming a rare thing. The trend is towards investment conglomerates, and corporate models. We’ve moved from small district co-ops to vast, centralised processing plants, bigger and bigger farms. And with that comes this industrial thinking. Let’s do it big, let’s centralise our processing, and go for scale, go for homogeneity. We can’t seem to get off this madness of maximising production and treating the land as a factory.”

That relentless crusade for gain comes at a cost, and every year, nature hands us another bill that continues to go unpaid. In 2012, the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) estimated that some 192 million tonnes of topsoil—of New Zealand—slides into the sea each year—more than a thousand tonnes from every square kilometre in Northland, Gisborne and the West Coast alone.

The same year, the ministry estimated that 137,000 tonnes of nitrogen was leaching from agricultural land into lakes and streams every year, 80 per cent of it from cow urine. That volume has continued to increase by around 1.2 per cent annually.

By 2014, irrigation for pasture, crops and vines was gulping two-thirds of all fresh water taken from rivers and aquifers each year—more than five billion cubic metres.

Meanwhile, our net greenhouse-gas emissions continue to rise, by 63.6 per cent since 1990, according to MfE, thanks largely to pine harvesting and dairy. Just under half of all our emissions are produced by farm animals and the oil we use to raise them.

Perley calls it “making Mordor”, a strategy that “always ends in lower prices and margins, and choked value chains”.

That in turn puts pressure on families, communities and whole industries to do more of the wrong stuff: striving for greater scale and production, taking on debt, arguing for the right to extract and pollute.

Dairy farmers, some heavily indebted to the banks, are now critically exposed to the monthly dairy auction price, or some production spike in Uruguay or law change in the European Union.

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We need a different way of doing things. But first, we need to mark out limits and help landowners to work within them.

The technical term for this is land-use suitability, and it’s one line of enquiry being pursued by the Our Land and Water National Science Challenge: “Moving away from that historical emphasis on what land is capable of producing in terms of profitability,” says Scott Larned, “to a consideration of four values.”

Larned is an ecosystems ecologist with NIWA, and leader of the land-use suitability research programme. He says that an ideal land-use choice won’t just be about economics, but will stop to ponder the environmental, social and cultural consequences of that choice as well.

Lake Ruataniwha marks the border between the natural landscape of the Mackenzie Basin, at the top of the image, and irrigated pastures: it’s the frontier between old and new. South of Twizel, country that was previously golden brown now resembles the Waikato.
A mosaic of crops covers the Canterbury Plains, including paddocks producing wheat and ryegrass seed, at the bottom of the picture. After harvesting the seed, the remaining stubble is burned off in order to prepare the land for the next planting. Burning sterilises the land, kills pests, and removes roughage that blocks the next seeds’ germination. It releases the same amount of carbon that would otherwise seep out of the soil over the next one to two years.

“Our job is to help people understand and account for all those values, and also risks—the same land-use decision could end up favouring some values at the expense of others. Cynical people would recognise that we’re trying to figure out to what degree we might have our cake and eat it, too. Of course, the truth is, you can’t. So you have to make some hard decisions, which involve compromises.”

The first job is to give landowners the tools to understand their land, and how it fits into the surrounding environment—point out cause and effect. How nitrogen escaping from their paddocks might harm shellfish beds 10 kilometres away. Or how eroded topsoil might be smothering a wetland down-valley.

“To date, a lot of land-use decisions have focused around what the land can do, when pushed,” says Robyn Dynes, who leads the next generation systems research programme and is a farm systems scientist at AgResearch. Instead, she says, land-use suitability recognises that ‘receiving environments’—be they soils or rivers or estuaries—all have a different tolerance for contaminants and sediments.

“Land might be capable of having an activity on it, but is it suitable? If we put the right kind of land uses in the most suitable country, that will minimise our footprint.”

Now there’s pressure from another quarter, too. Blake Holgate, a sustainability analyst at Rabobank, says lenders are starting to ask loan applicants hard questions about their environmental performance, not just the economic merit of their business. For instance, he says, a bank might want to see a farm’s nutrient-leaching numbers.

“We need to understand the risks—for the client and for ourselves—around profitability, cashflow and equity, and environmental performance can influence that. Will regulations allow the client to operate as planned and budgeted? Are they aware of the environmental risks? Can the land support the proposed operation? This is where land-use suitability can give clearer guidance, and help us make more informed decisions.”

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What if land is then judged to have the wrong use? What if its occupation is unsuitable? Dynes is in charge of a research programme designed to help landowners make the shift. It will team up with individuals and companies whose options are starting to narrow as planning laws, policy statements and public opinion harden.

“There are places in New Zealand where those constraints are already well understood,” says Dynes. “Around Taupō, around Rotorua, some of the catchments in Canterbury—we can see clearly the kind of targets farmers will be expected to meet in those places.”

Broadly speaking, says Dynes, landowners have two choices: optimise their current business model, or adopt another.

“We often hear about our top farmers who are optimising their production, but there’s a step beyond optimising for production, to optimising for the environment they’re in.”

Technology can help with both. Precision farming lets landholders, courtesy of new-century tech, farm at high resolution, not just in space, but in time. By revealing the workings of pasture, water, and nutrients in ultra-fine detail, farmers get to see their place not as a homogeneous expanse, but as a patchwork of subtly discrete zones. Then they can plot that detail against the march of months and seasons, figuring out exactly when, for instance, to apply fertiliser to avoid runoff, or when to avoid wasting irrigation water.

Craige Mackenzie uploads a high-resolution watering map to a pivot irrigator on his Methven farm. Blue areas absorb more water than green areas before leaching nutrients below the root zone.

It’s about getting maximum value from a minimum of inputs, and Craige Mackenzie was an early adopter. Since 2008, he and wife Roz have gotten to know each of their 200 hectares of arable farm near Methven intimately. By accounting for variations in soil fertility and moisture, and fine-tuning their seed rates, precision farming has boosted wheat yields by as much as five tonnes a hectare.

“It’s made a massive difference,” says Mackenzie. “Our crops are profitable in every zone on the farm.”

Remote probes continuously log soil moisture in 35 zones.

“We have three years’ worth of data which show that no water has gone past the root zone during the growing season in that time.”

That means no nitrates or phosphates are leaching from the land, he says.

“Some of our neighbours use twice the water we do.”

Mackenzie still sprays—plant-growth regulators, trace elements, fungicides—but the doses of each are tailored in real time to the needs of each square metre of ground, informed by an array of vegetative index sensors and a Trimble GPS unit aboard his sprayer.

“Every time we spray a crop, we’re taking an image,” says Mackenzie, who recently bought a drone fitted with a multispectral camera that can tell him about the quality, cover and biomass of his pasture.

This data is based on electromagnetic soil-type mapping; Mackenzie, far right, and Paul Russell conduct a soil survey. In the foreground is a soil moisture probe.

In the past couple of years, he says, more farmers have embraced precision methodology. One study conducted on a farm in Ranfurly, Central Otago, found that variable rate irrigation could reduce downstream nitrogen and phosphorus loads by up to 85 per cent.

“People are beginning to realise that the technology is robust, and that the support’s there to help people work through the process. Because data is fine, but you need to know how to turn it into good decisions that are financially and environmentally sustainable, which go hand in hand—they’re not exclusive.”

Mackenzie says it’s vital that farmers can demonstrate to the public that they’re trying to do the right thing, and precision technology will help to secure that social licence. “We understand that people are concerned about the environment, but people forget that we’re greenies as well. It’s important to us that we look after those things. Environmental sustainability is front and centre for us, but if farming isn’t profitable, we can’t invest in the technology we need.”

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Implementing all of these ideas is another question, as regional and district councils have learned.

Councils are caught squarely in the turbulent interface between public expectation and farm-gate reality. They’re responsible for managing the environmental impacts of industry and commerce on their patch, usually through district plans. But while those plans can bribe with the odd carrot, there are few sticks in the legislation to deter those who continue to put profit before best practice. Moreover, says Gary Taylor, the plans of different councils are often at odds, and because they’re usually developed by adaptive management—trial and error— loopholes allow the best of intentions to leak away.

The Mackenzie Basin, he says, is an example of imperfect planning and patchy protection for biodiversity.

“High-country farmers began opposing planning controls in 2007, when Plan Change 13 of the Mackenzie District Plan was first notified,” says Taylor. “They brought a succession of cases before the Environment Court and the High Court, so that plan change only took legal effect last year. So they managed to hold up the imposition of controls aimed at protecting that landscape, and the indigenous biodiversity in it, for the thick end of 10 years.”

Jon Roygard knows how tough it can be. He manages natural resources and partnerships at Horizons Regional Council, the body that pioneered resource management legislation with its bold One Plan, floated in 2004. Horizons’ jurisdiction is Manawatu and Whanganui—two of the hilliest, most slip-prone regions in the country, cradling eponymous rivers that became bywords for the parlous state of our lowland fresh water.

In the background, poplars planted to prevent slips are pruned. On the Horowhenua Plains, land uses vary from grazing to intensive market gardening, cropping, protected native forest, the urban environment of Levin, at the top of the frame, and Lake Horowhenua.

The One Plan—so named because it sought to integrate the council’s Regional Policy Statement and Regional and Coastal Plans—set down rules around fresh water, air, productive land and ecosystems. Or at least, it tried to. Farmers, concerned about the plan’s provisions to limit nitrogen leaching into waterways, repeatedly took it to the Environment Court. The altercation soaked up 10 years and nearly $10 million before the plan was finally signed off.

But Roygard points out that the community is generally fine with those bits of the plan that aren’t about nutrient management: “It deals with many other things—land, air and water management through to the control of natural hazards and the protection of biodiversity—and 90 per cent of that plan is going very well.”

Horizons’ water allocation framework is up and running, he says. And then there’s the sustainable land-use initiative, which was born from a disaster.

On February 15, 2004, a cold-pool low settled just east of Hawke’s Bay, and began sucking up moisture from the warm sea. In its heart, thunderstorms raged, and then the deluge began. More than 200 millimetres of rain fell on the Ruahine Range in a single night. Ordinarily, lows move across the country at around 25–35 kilometres per hour, but this one barely crept: it rained over the upper catchments of the Manawatu River for more than 20 hours. Meteorologists compared it to Cyclone Bola, the deadliest tropical storm on record.

Across Horizons’ patch, four bridges were swept away, and another 21 were damaged. Some 2500 people were evacuated. State highways were blocked by floods and slips, and the Manawatu Gorge was closed for more than two months. It cost the region $300 million.

“The farming community understood that it had to do something to protect hillsides against something like this in the future,” says Roygard. “We needed to protect our downstream communities; make sure that our infrastructure was right, that we got the right flood protection in place.”

More than that, he says, came the realisation that change had to come to the hill country, in the form of land stabilisation. Now, 650 farms, or half of the region’s sheep and beef producers, have whole-farm environmental plans.

In some regards, Horizons is already doing what Our Land and Water’s land-use suitability programme advocates: using science to help people understand how land works, the forces that shape it and shift it, and how something like a slip on a high hill slope can affect people, and biodiversity, far away.

The Pohangina Valley has the highest sediment runoff out of any catchment in the Horizons region. Jon Roygard, left, works with locals such as Shane Carroll to combat erosion.

When nature pushes back, people start thinking differently about the way they use land. Farmers have contributed more than $22 million to Horizons’ sustainable land-use scheme, and in 2013, fully a quarter of all new plantings in New Zealand happened in the Manawatu.

“Over time,” says Roygard, “people have come to trust the programme. We’ve completed over 30,000 hectares worth of work with those landowners—that’s nearly 14 million trees in the ground—and we’re at a point now where the demand for new plans and for works is exceeding our capacity to support it.”

That’s an example, says Chris Perley, of a community escaping a vicious circle and creating a virtuous one.

“You can actually generate productivity by reducing your inputs and allowing instead for gifts—some people call them ecosystem services, but you should think of them as being gifts from the environment. And when you build the health of your landscape, suddenly all these good things happen; the waterways clear up, you get pollination, your stock have shelter, they’re healthier, so you’re spending less on inputs. You can build a system which is less risky, more resilient, and still returns higher productivity per input. And it secures environmental gains.”

It’s about realising the full potential of a landscape, he says, not just “the mad singular goal of pushing our lands to yield more and more of fewer and fewer things. We could focus instead on market position, and realising value through treating the environment as an asset.”

The challenge is in capturing that value within New Zealand, rather than allowing it to slip through our fingers overseas.

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“New Zealand has a culture, particularly in the pastoral sector, of being low-cost, rather than high value,” says economist Caroline Saunders. “And I don’t think anything from New Zealand should be low-cost.”

Saunders, who manages Lincoln University’s agribusiness and economics research unit, has been looking at ways to extract more revenue from global markets by concentrating on quality and reputation.

According to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, New Zealand currently earns around $37 billion a year from primary-sector exports, which sounds impressive until you learn that those same products get sold in international markets for an estimated $250 billion.

“The way we produce now is generating premiums we don’t always receive,” says Saunders. “We need to figure out how we can capture value that actually trickles down to the producer—stop thinking about supply chains and start thinking about value chains.”

Some producers are already there, she says. “The classic example is Zespri kiwifruit. We get twice the going price for kiwifruit, but it’s not like we’re a niche player—we’re a dominant supplier on the world stage. Wine is another industry which has done exceptionally well.”

Saunders says the world’s burgeoning middle class is thinking harder about the environmental, ethical and social costs of the food it buys, and that creates opportunities for New Zealand.

“Animal welfare is a big concern, so there are premiums to be had, particularly in the United States, for grass-fed beef and sheep meat. We’ve found, too, that environmental quality is very important, and, curiously, it’s especially important to our developing-country market. That’s because people equate environmental quality with food safety.

“So it’s a case of finding out what people are willing to pay extra for, and giving it to them. New Zealand has some very special attributes that people overseas are prepared to value.”

Saunders says New Zealand farmers are beginning to run up against environmental constraints—the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management, for instance, gave councils the mandate they needed to set nutrient caps and budgets—and farmers won’t be able to cry off the Emissions Trading Scheme forever: “That’s going to increase their costs, so they need to be more profitable.”

Mike and Sharon Barton’s farm is also a research site, part of a Landcare Research study into nitrogen leaching. Mike Barton and Malcolm McLeod take samples from a deep-soil lysimeter facility, which collects run-off. Above ground, different plants, soil treatments and types are trialled, then the leachate is collected below ground in black drums and measured.

Mike and Sharon Barton are already doing it. They raise beef cattle on the western shore of Lake Taupō, where, in 2011, Environment Waikato imposed an ‘N cap’—strict limits on the amount of nitrogen each farm could leak into the lake. It was effectively a ceiling on stock numbers. The couple’s Charolais-Angus herd was already at maximum production, so they decided to derive more value from their meat by putting their conundrum in front of consumers and asking them to sign, in effect, a social contract.

“Eating is the final step in the agricultural process, so consumers can’t be divorced from this problem,” says Mike. “The problem is that we’ve sold food for the last couple of hundred years without ever internalising the environmental costs of producing it, so we’ve convinced consumers that food is really cheap. Now, suddenly, we’re turning around and saying that those costs must be paid. But food producers can’t meet them on their own, or food production would be stifled. We need to work with the consumer to share those costs.”

In 2011, the Bartons put ‘Taupō Beef’ on the menu at three top local restaurants, including the Hilton Lake Taupō. Restaurant staff were briefed on its backstory, so they could share it with customers. At the Hilton, the house Angus cost $38.50 a serve. Taupō Beef was pitched at $42.50, and before long, it was outselling the Angus four to one; even after a later price hike to $46.50, diners still ordered it twice as often.

Taupō Beef is today served in high-end restaurants, highbrow food stores and supermarkets around the North Island but, Mike points out, “If you really want to bring about land-use change, we have to deal with the export market, because roughly 80 per cent of all the country’s agricultural produce gets exported.”

So they did, securing a contract with a high-end supermarket chain to sell Taupō Beef in Japan.

“The first container-load is on sale over there now, and the second is on the water. We’re asking Japanese consumers to pay a premium for looking after a waterway that they’re unlikely to ever visit, so it’s a big leap of faith, but if you think about adding value for New Zealand agricultural produce, that’s the sort of leap of faith that we’re talking about.”

The couple couldn’t have done this on their own—they’re just two links in a value chain, and Mike says it needs an overhaul if it’s going to support change.

“We’ve had to reframe our relationship within the meat industry because, as it stands, it doesn’t actually create new value: it only captures value from other players when they’re disadvantaged. For example, when the weather’s dry, and farmers haven’t got a lot of grass, the meat processors make the most money—they can afford to drop the price, and so the margins go up.

“If we’re going to add value, we have to turn that somewhat cannibalistic business model into one where we agree to work together constructively to grow value, rather than capture it from one another.”

Transformational change like this, says Saunders, is best regarded as steps on a journey.

“How else do we present this value proposition to farmers, to change their culture, and change what they’re doing? It’s not an easy step for them, because it’s a completely different business model. There are all sorts of uncertainties, particularly for the pastoral sector, because they don’t sell direct to consumers. They sell to processors, so there’s very little incentive for farmers to look beyond the farm gate.”

More progressive planning laws would help, she says. “We might decide that a certain parcel of land is more suited for some other use, but at present, we don’t have the planning laws to implement that.”

Lake Taupō, glimpsed in the background, is the reason the Bartons’ farm, Glen Emmreth, cannot leach more nitrogen than it already does through its free-draining pumice soil. Mike Barton, pictured, can still add fertiliser, but must ensure it meets strict limits. The farm carries more feed than most, so that stock grazes more lightly; younger stock are chosen, because they walk more, spreading the nitrogen in their urine further, and allowing soil bacteria to break it down more effectively.

Regional plans could be a powerful instrument for change, says Scott Larned, but at the moment they focus on consequences rather than choices: “Plans used to say ‘We don’t care what you do, so long as nitrogen concentrations in this lake do not exceed X’—that’s always been a weakness of New Zealand’s environmental legislation, but nowadays, plans can set limits on contaminant loss, or require farm environment plans,” he says. “There’s more awareness of the complexities of land-use decisions. Your choice might be determined by what your neighbour chose to do upstream, and it will affect what others can do downstream.”

He credits Horizons’ One Plan, for all its birth pangs, with raising awareness of cumulative effects. And we shouldn’t be surprised, he says, that plan changes can be fraught: “Plans are essentially experiments, so they have to be agile and mutable, because those processes are happening at landscape scale, often underground and driven by microbes—they’re invisible to us, yet they’re incredibly complex.

“So practising adaptive management—where you try a plan, see how it works, then modify it—that incremental improvement is the way to go forward.”

Larned concedes that the Mackenzie Basin imbroglio might suggest otherwise.

“Councils will always be playing catch-up, because they have to make all sorts of decisions right now, based on the science available to them, and there’s always some uncertainty around that. We need to increase the scientific effort to make sure these decisions can be made with total confidence.”

Basically, everyone is talking about nothing less than a revolution—casting off 800 years of exploitative, short-term thinking and embracing instead an entente cordiale with the land, and the microbes, and the elements beneath our feet.

About farming, and cropping, and fruitgrowing, and winemaking and beekeeping sympathetically, with a regard—a goodwill—not just for nature, but for our neighbours and the community living downstream.

“It’s really fraught,” says Larned, “and really, really exciting. I’m both pessimistic and optimistic about it. One thing that is important for this revolution in New Zealand’s environmental legislation is the timing: if you’d tried these sorts of land-use and freshwater reforms in Europe, they would probably fail miserably, because that horse has bolted: the effects of historical land use are, in many cases, irreversible. In New Zealand, however, we still have the opportunity—but it’s not indefinite.”

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