Finally, they roll. Across the Canterbury flatlands, immense Claas harvesters are moving through fields of rye grass, periodically disgorging a clattering stream of seed into bins towed by attendant tractors. After a wet and cold January when the nor’wester failed to blow, the machines will work through the night, lit up like malls, the thrum of their 600-horsepower engines sounding over the plains.
For Dave Tripp, it’s music to his ears. When I last visited his farm south-east of Ashburton, towards the end of January, it was threatening rain and Tripp’s mood was as dark as the clouds pushed ahead of the southerly. In a field across the road, windrows were lying where they’d been cut to dry before the harvest was suspended.
Now, at last, action. The old line about the weather only coming good when the kids go back to school has proven right, remarks Tripp, a veteran of 36 years’ farming on the plains. “But you don’t rub your hands together in joy. It’s simply a matter of making a judgment call: can we get it in?”
Not long ago, the answer would have been no. Even with a break in the weather, the moisture content in his crop is far from ideal. Tripp is able to roll only because he has a state-of-the-art Claas harvester capable of handling a damper crop, and several gas-fired WestSteel kilns to dry it, developments that he reckons have tripled the number of harvesting days available to him. And when the big German engine roars into life, he can be confident of harvesting at least 30 tonnes an hour, six times the output he’d have expected in the 1970s.
Of course, like others on the plains, Tripp is now farming on a far larger scale. “Like the old proverb, you cut your cloth to suit,” he says.
Mechanisation. Intensification. Conversion. Modern agriculture’s rhythms are urgent, its scale corporate. Driving across the plains today, there are futuristic grain research stations, slick billboards promoting yield-boosting technologies, and the now-ubiquitous centre-pivot irrigators that extend 500 metres like pylons brought to earth. South of Dunsandel, the highway skirts the new Synlait dairy plant—a complex that once would have looked out of place in rural Canterbury, it now seems utterly appropriate.
This landscape has been a work in progress since the first Europeans settled the plains. Today, landholdings are growing and shelterbelts are being ripped out to make way for irrigators, re-opening views across the plains. Drylands have become grasslands as pastoralists convert to dairy, and water is being extracted from Canterbury’s rivers and deep aquifers in volumes that would have staggered its pioneer farmers. Even the colours are changing, the mosaic of tawny wheatfields and sheep country now broken by interloper greens and a more diverse palette of crops.
Running parallel with this landscape alchemy, rural communities are undergoing a personality change, while the scarcity of water has opened rifts between town and country.
Methven farmer Graham Robertson has both observed and participated in this reinvention of Canterbury. Standing at the edge of a wheatfield turning golden in the late-afternoon sun, the 66-year-old catalogues the dizzying change.
“The list is as long as your arm,” he says. “We’ve got a huge variety of grass seeds, clover seeds, seeds for American golf courses, legumes, lentils, oil seed and more recently a great many vegetable seed crops. One reason is that the big seed companies want to diversify from the Northern Hemisphere. We can grow a crop out of season, and Canterbury has proved adept at producing the quality they demand.”
The demise of sheep farming is even more striking. In most parts of Canterbury, few have anything to do with sheep other than fattening lambs.
“They’ve disappeared off the face of the Earth. I’d have to go a long way from my home now to find a flock of breeding ewes,” says Robertson.
Meanwhile, the economics of modern agriculture are driving farm fencelines outwards. When Robertson took over Glennifer in the 1960s, it hadn’t grown much beyond the 117-hectare block his grandfather founded in 1920. Robertson borrowed heavily and today runs a 540-hectare cropping operation and a separate dairying enterprise.
“The farms were all subdivided 100 years ago when the government brought in draconian land taxes to break up the big feudal-type estates. But farmers want to do something more than live on what these days would be a barely subsistence-level family farm. The average farm size would have doubled in my lifetime and the bigger ones are probably four times what they were.”
Robertson, however, does not lament the vanishing pastoral world.
“I admire the technology. I admire the skills of the farmers. One complaint has been that this monocultural approach would result in a dustbowl. But good management practices have meant soil isn’t blowing away.”
In an age in which harvesters carry computers to analyse how parts of a field are performing, of cutting-edge plant science and farm management, farmers are squeezing more from every hectare. Robertson says that average yields are four times higher than 50 years ago.
“In my father’s day, your productivity was largely influenced by your soil type and climate. Now we can considerably modify those factors.”
Today, it’s not plant pests and disease that kill the dream. It’s access to water. And large-scale irrigation has changed the game. A few kilometres up the road from Robertson’s place I come across a development which ushered in what you might call Canterbury’s First Age of Irrigation.
The Rangitata Diversion Race, or “RDR” as it is known locally, isn’t anything more glamorous at this location than a large ditch, five metres across, a couple of metres high and bearing a foot of turbid water.
Begun as a Depression-era work scheme, the RDR was this country’s first major river diversion, running 67 km around the foothills to irrigate 66,000 hectares of farmland. But its raison d’etre was as insurance against drought.
The irrigation dream today is more ambitious, and a lightning rod for public dissent.
The warm, brown eyes of Cow 700 stare back from among the shifting steel parts of the Lely Astronaut robotic milker. A robotic arm searches for a teat and locks on. Milk flows through clear pipes while reams of data fill a screen nearby. Cows move into stalls, cows move out, and there is not a flesh-and-blood dairyman to be seen.
Even without robots, dairying in Canterbury is a brave new world. Farms and herds are twice the average size for New Zealand, and are farmed more intensively. The region also produces significantly more milk solids per cow than anywhere else in the country.
Mid-Canterbury father and son farmers Richard and Ben Johnson are a case in point. The Johnsons converted from cropping to dairy five years ago because they could see themselves getting left behind by neighbours who’d made the switch. “We thought, ‘If we don’t go through this process we are going to stagnate and eventually get taken over’,” says Ben.
Water, which they found by boring 60 m below the property, initially provided much-needed reliability for the cropping operation and doubled yields. Now it is sustaining their dairy ambitions.
The crucial piece of equipment on the farm has become the centre-pivot irrigator, which Ben describes as a “huge improvement” in terms of efficient use of water. Soil moisture monitors stationed under each pivot signal exactly when they need to turn on the pumps.
“Public perception is that water is being wasted. But farmers think long and hard before they turn it on, because it is expensive,” says Ben.
But for those who lament the parlous state of Canterbury’s waterways, thirsty dairying is largely to blame. Murray Rodgers, who heads the Canterbury Water Trust lobby group, says dairy farms use four to five times as much water as other forms of agriculture.
Growing up in South Canterbury, Rodgers would routinely ride his bike at dusk to the Pareora River to cast a line across the darkening water. “You just wouldn’t contemplate doing that now,” he says.
According to Environment Canterbury, 80 per cent of the region’s 200-odd lowland streams are in poor or very poor ecological health, and mean flows in recent years have been well down on previous averages. Groundwater is also under pressure and becoming contaminated by nitrates.
Rodgers says the approach to extracting water until recently has been open slather, based on a misconception that those deep aquifers would provide endlessly. But falling aquifer levels affect the flow of lowland spring-fed streams. “Reduced flow means less dilution of pollutants. We’ve been getting toxic algal blooms,” he says.
He wants a moratorium on further conversions to dairying, and not only because of water demands. “During the last four years, there have been between 100 and 140 farms in serious breach of the Environment Canterbury effluent management regulations.”
Longer term, Rodgers believes that Canterbury’s “only hope” lies with the Canterbury Strategic Water Study, a group attempting to find a solution that all competing interests can live with. “But we’ve got an extremely long way to go. People don’t yet have any appreciation of the amount of behaviour change that will be required to get us to that point.”
For ecologist Colin Meurk, dairying has simply accelerated the decimation of Canterbury’s biodiversity and indigenous ecosystems brought on by the past few decades of intensified agriculture.
“It has been an ongoing process, death by a thousand cuts,” he says.
When Meurk returned to his home province in the 1980s after several years away, he was dismayed by what he found. He conducted a survey and found precious little native habitat had survived—rural Canterbury was “one of the most diminished parts of the country”.
Fire and cultivation in the early days of settlement, the draining of swampland and the planting of shelter belts in the post-war years all contributed. “Each step has taken us further away from the natural state, a mosaic of open woodland, shrubland and grassland. We were never going to return to that state, but we could have retained signatures or windows to remind us of our heritage.”
Even as late as the 90s, the drylands, although weedy and degraded, still retained some shadow of the ancient Canterbury plains. “But people brought in heavy ploughs, irrigated, put on fertiliser and seed, so that any sign of that vegetation was lost.”
Meurk isn’t so single-minded that he can’t appreciate the monumentalism of modern farming. “It has opened up vistas and put these metal structures in the foreground, these huge irrigators that are just astounding, like pieces of art,” he says. “But to cover the plains with them shows a failure of planning. I see what’s happened in Canterbury as a huge lost opportunity.”
Yet Keith Woodford, professor of farm management and agribusiness at Lincoln and author of the controversial book Devil in the Milk, doesn’t accept that modern farming is entirely a blight on Canterbury’s landscape.
“Much of the degradation you see in lowland areas is actually the result of practices dating back to the 1960s,” he says. “I can recall back in those days when you got a good nor’wester you would see soil blowing across the plains. We don’t see anywhere near that amount of soil degradation and soil blow today. The days of hit-and-miss fertiliser application are also gone. When I first started working on Canterbury farms, all the effluent went straight down the drains and ended up in places like Lake Ellesmere. There has been huge improvement in those practices.
“It’s just wrong,” Woodford adds, “to see everything in terms of it getting worse.”
In the 1970s, Ashburton was known as “Shotgun City”, a tag that should need no explanation. During the subsequent decade, hard times for farming and rural depopulation put a new twist on the name: you could fire a shotgun in the high street and not hit a soul.
But drive into Ashburton today and you find a bustling, well-satisfied rural town. Dairying has brought new wealth. However, the reversal of fortunes for rural Canterbury also owes something to the embracing of tourism and the emergence of a wine industry, as well as lifestyle trends. One hundred thousand hectares of rural Canterbury is occupied by lifestyle blocks owned by former suburbanites now living the country idyll.
“Canterbury’s small towns have massively turned around in the last 15 years,” says University of Canterbury geographer Dr Garth Cant. “Schools [that were under threat] are adding a new class every two or three years. There is a whole lot of new energy and opportunity.”
But with the transformation have come new stresses. The traditional cropping communities don’t necessarily relate well to people who work on dairy farms. “They talk about ‘gypsies’, a disparaging term widely used in the rural South Island where sharemilkers are on three-year contracts,” says Cant.
“There are also conflicts between the values of the lifestylers and the values of the communities that are intensifying their farming. Environmental conflicts and resource consents are a flashpoint.”
The modern rural workforce is increasingly sourced overseas. Filipino, Pacific and eastern European workers are common on Canterbury’s farms.
“So the trends are making for demographically and economically healthy rural communities, but not automatically for socially healthy ones,” says Cant. “The community organisations that are open and inclusive of newcomers are burgeoning, but there are other rural organisations that are growing older and smaller in numbers and struggling, either because they’re not welcoming or not seen as relevant by the new arrivals.”
Rural Canterbury, home of the endless straight road, is at a turning point. With so many competing interests, so much disagreement about the best way forward, what happens next is anyone’s guess.
Beside his Methven wheatfield, Graham Robertson pops seed of his ripening crop into his mouth to chew and ponders those possible futures.
“I find myself at 66, like a boring old fart, telling the young guys how we used to stand on the back of dusty combines sowing by hand. But really, one of the downsides of mortality is that I won’t be here in another 100 years to see what amazing things the farmers who work this area will be up to.”