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Future Farming in Hawke’s Bay

Being economically and environmentally successful is where the future of food production lies in Hawke’s Bay. Do both or fail.

Tom Belford01 June 2019

BB47

An impressive trio of Hawke’s Bay finalists was presented recently at the annual Ballance Farm Environment Awards. These are farmers who outproduce their industry and local benchmarks, while lowering their environmental footprints. 

For example, for the top winners, Nick and Nicky Dawson, their per cow and per hectare production is well ahead of district and national averages, while nitrogen leaching rates are consistently low, daily water use is one-third the industry average, 20% of the farm is retired from grazing and stock is excluded from all waterways.

Each of these three husband-wife teams – representing sheep & beef and dairy – demonstrate that farming can be both economically and environmentally successful.

And that, most simply put – being economically and environmentally successful – is where the future of food production lies in Hawke’s Bay. Do both or fail.

Today our region’s best farmers and growers are proving that these two objectives do not compete; in fact, they go hand in glove. And they are employing a wide range of strategies to achieve their success – using water more efficiently, altering their planting and grazing regimes, reducing their nitrogen and phosphorus inputs (and costs and leaching), diversifying crops, protecting and enriching their soils, protecting waterways with fencing and riparian planting, using the latest technology to monitor and farm with precision, and more.

These best Hawke’s Bay farmers are drawing a line in the soil, so to speak.

They employ the practices they use enthusiastically because these are the smart approaches that deliver win/win outcomes, not begrudgingly because they are required to by regulation. 

Permission to farm

Make no mistake, the environmental benchmarks Hawke’s Bay farmers – all NZ farmers – must meet going forward will only stiffen … they will not relax. And that’s because of the broad and increasing public demand for better environmental practices. 

The public is setting the mark in two ways – as citizens with their votes they are insisting politically on tougher regulation and standards, and as consumers with their wallets they are supporting the brands and products they deem to be best meeting those standards.

Recent Colmar Brunton polls separately conducted for the Ministry of Environment and NZ Fish and Game yielded the same findings – fully 82% of New Zealanders want improved water quality in their rivers, lakes and streams. And while industrial and municipal polluters also play a role, it’s farmers who are in the bulls-eye. Add in concern about global warming, the health impacts of chemical use, efficient water use, and animal welfare, and it would be foolhardy for any farmer or grower to expect they will not need to raise the bar if they wish to retain community permission to farm.

The regulatory pressure from Government and regional councils is matched – and then some – by the marketplace behavior of consumers who are increasingly valuing ‘integrity’ in their food purchases. This is happening in a technology environment that now provides unprecedented transparency in the food production process – from farm or orchard to plate.

And even this scenario is conservative … it simply relates to how we produce the conventional foods we always have. But there’s even more change ahead. 

At the leading edge of the food revolution is disruption to the very nature of the food we produce and how – from meat and dairy to alternative sources of protein, from food grown in fields to food produced in vertical greenhouses, from food grown by blokes in gumboots to food grown by MBAs and PhDs wearing lab coats.

This scenario is not all some ‘greenie’ fantasy; it represents the advice about the future given by every rural bank, every analyst of overseas food markets, every food technologist.

But with change comes opportunity. In my wanderings around Hawke’s Bay, I tend to encounter the farmers and growers who are embracing change, keeping abreast of the exemplar practices and practitioners in their sectors (in NZ and abroad). They are excited by the prospects ahead. And they are growing in numbers. 

What kind of change?

Ensuring the resilience of farming, farmers and growers in Hawke’s Bay can be tackled on many fronts – from continuous improvement of farming and growing practices around the edges to more ambitious efforts to change entire farming systems, as well as performance measures and expectations.

One farmer might today be ‘experimenting’ on some of his land with a better mix of pasture plants and non-chemical inputs that retains more moisture and builds more nutrition value while costing less. He’s looking incrementally for more profitable and sustainable yield per hectare.

LEFT TO RIGHT: Ballance Farm Environment Awards 2019: winners Nick and Nicky Dawson, and finalists Judy Bogaard and Dave Read, Suzanne Hoyt and Pete Swinburn

Another might be focused on better managing effluent from feed pads, or on fencing streams and riparian planting. He’s aiming to stay ahead of the regulators … and taking advantage of a $30 million matching fund established by HBRC to encourage erosion control and protect streams from cattle.

Another might be happy with his yields but is now looking to build up soil carbon … even thinking about banking some carbon credits and long-term legacy. While another is converting his lowest-yield steep country to forestry to improve his long-term financial gain.

Another might be introducing the latest technology to precision map water and nutrient needs across his property to eliminate excessive water or fertilizer use (and cost). He’s looking to get an edge and improve the bottom line.

Another ‘agripreneur’ might be trialing an entirely different crop – hemp, kiwifruit or manuka. A $100,000 project is underway now in CHB to examine kiwifruit prospects.

Someone else has decided to ‘go organic’, aiming for the premium overseas market that now accounts for $335 million in NZ exports, up 42% over the last three years.

And elsewhere a group of sheep and beef farmers has organized a voluntary sub-catchment committee to jointly tackle soil erosion, recognizing soil is their most valuable asset.

The point is: all of these represent practical ways to raise the bar for farming and growing in Hawke’s Bay. How do we accelerate this process and gain more ‘converts’?

Where to get help?

Awhile back I was sitting with the former president of HB Federated Farmers, in his ute in the middle of one of his pastures in Onga Onga. Fed Farmers and I are not often on the same page, but I had heard this fellow was trying something different.

He showed me how he was experimenting with different plantings and natural inputs to improve his soil while spending less. The positive results were plain to see on the ground, and he recited off the top of his head the costs he was saving in the process. He considers the results so far very promising.

I asked why he had decided to try this, and where he got the advice he needed.

A medical issue in his family had led him and his wife to reconsider and question their use of chemicals on their land. So, a very unique ‘conversion’ motivation. He began independently to read more and watch videos online, particularly with respect to regenerative farming (which focuses on improving soil health naturally). The more he studied, the more he concluded that a different approach deserved testing. 

What I heard was, effectively, self-taught. So I asked about farm advisors. He said that he, like most farmers, only heard from fertilizer consultants (i.e., salesmen), who were not inclined to recommend alternatives to … more fertilizer or the latest formulation thereof. In other words, not a source for alternative or leading-edge approaches. 

However, their advice comes free, as opposed to independent farm advisors, who come at a cost. I’ve heard a second observation from farmers skeptical of advisors – the consultants have no skin in the game, they take their fees and move on, long gone if/when their advice doesn’t yield manna from heaven.

That’s perhaps an unfair generalisation, but nevertheless a perception that does cause farmer resistance to outside advice. 

The other source of advice for many farmers and growers comes from their sector organizations – groups like Beef + Lamb NZ, DairyNZ and HortNZ. But these groups are heavily focused on government policy and compliance checklists, often defensively, as opposed to educating farmers and growers on the ground one-on-one about win/win practices.

So, it appears more options are needed.

Another way forward

At the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council, two new initiatives are underway that aim to deliver more support for resilient farming practices. 

One – Integrated Catchment Management (ICM) – involves a re-thinking of HBRC’s approach to engaging with farmers on-property around land use and advancing environmental improvements. HBRC has divided the region into three zones and is substantially expanding its farm advisory staff in each area, soon to reach 20-plus advisors under the current Long-Term Plan.

The immediate driver of this effort to engage farmers directly is a $30 million Erosion Control Scheme provided in the LTP over the next ten years to implement erosion control and protect on-farm streams and waterways. The Council’s own funding has been augmented by another $5.4 million from the Government’s Provincial Growth Fund.

Approximately 252,000 hectares of Hawke’s Bay hill country has been identified as being at high risk of erosion, with an estimated 3.3 million tonnes of sediment emptying into the region’s waterways every year, ultimately into our estuaries and Hawke Bay. This severe loss of soil has a direct economic impact on farmers, while also degrading water quality and aquatic and terrestrial habitat.

Through the Scheme, HBRC advisors will initially be working with farmers to develop farm plans focused on erosion control that involve afforestation, land retirement, fencing and riparian planting, using a combination of council funding (up to 75% of works cost) and farmer investment. The programme only began last July and had to be organised from the ground up, but already 29 applications are being processed with a total value of $1.9 million, with more inquiries in the pipeline. 

But as important as erosion control is, this scheme will just open the door to further engagement of HBRC advisors with farmers over time. The Integrated Catchment Management approach is at its core a relationship management programme that will aim to provide trusted advice and support across the broad set of issues farmers face as they must meet regulatory objectives – e.g., water quality, biodiversity, pest control, carbon sequestration – while also improving productivity. 

As part of this programme, research looking into HB farmer environmental practices, attitudes, motivators and communications preferences is underway to identify the best strategies for future engagement. 

I think of the ICM structure and programme as the first step toward growing a trusted farm extension service – erosion control and relationship building today … long-term environmental and economic resilience, soil health and carbon sequestration in the future. 

A second initiative will help to develop the future vision, knowledge and farmer outreach plan. 

Future Farming Initiative 

HBRC’s current Long-Term Plan also set aside $650,000 over three years to launch a ‘Future Farming Initiative’ (FFI). 

The FFI will create a permanent farmer-led “local hub of knowledge, research, education and opportunity for profitable and resilient farming that ensures the health of the region’s soil and water, communities and farmers into the future”. 

The ultimate question FFI aims to answer: What do we want Hawke’s Bay’s ‘best performance’ to look like in the future with respect to soil health, clean waters, food quality, animal welfare, biosecurity, and profitability? 

The idea here is that our region’s future farming resilience – and marketplace success – will require systematic attention to identifying evidence-proven, leading-edge farming practices that are directly relevant to Hawke’s Bay conditions and deliver win/win environmental and farm profitability outcomes. 

These practices, demonstrations and case studies – compiled from our own region and wider NZ and overseas experience – should be promoted persistently via farmer outreach and education, and their adoption and success celebrated by the entire Hawke’s Bay community. 

The premise of the FFI is that we need a dedicated Hawke’s Bay-focused engine to drive this. 

Annual awards – like the Ballance awards – and the occasional farm days are fine, but what is lacking is day-to-day ‘evangelism’, getting the best practical knowledge to farmers and supporting their uptake of it. And then communicating and celebrating the resulting successes for marketing advantage and community-wide support. 

Over the past ten months, a ‘working group’ of Hawke’s Bay farmers, growers and farm consultants, supported by HBRC, has been refining the Initiative, its mission and scope of activities, taking inventory of comparable efforts (and prospective sector and academic partners), and determining its permanent structure and governance. The group represents a broad range of farming experiences and philosophies, from ‘conventional’ sheep and beef farmers to practitioners of ‘regenerative’ farming. 

The working group has wound up on the same page, reflected in the problem and mission statement they have agreed upon (see next page). And the next steps will be to complete the formal organisation structure, recruit and appoint the first board, and begin the ‘real work’ in July. 

While the Integrated Catchment Management approach and the Future Farming Initiative are important enablers to a resilient farming future in Hawke’s Bay, they would be ineffectual if a ‘coalition of the willing’ was not at hand to champion change. That is, a vanguard of farmers and growers who are already committed to raising the bar for themselves and the broader community. 

From what I see of HB farmers and growers, that vanguard is clearly present, ready and able. Moreover, I believe our region is at a tipping point, where those willing to adopt change enthusiastically are on the cusp of outnumbering those satisfied with where they are and for whom change is a nuisance. 

HB Future Farming Initiative Mission Statement

Problem

Society today is challenging the environmental cost and impact of producing food. Public concerns include the degradation and loss of our soil and animal welfare and agriculture’s contribution to climate change.

A failure to respond to these issues at scale will guarantee a loss of confidence in NZ’s food sector by both the community at large and individual consumers, leading to increased regulatory intervention and consumers migrating to alternative food producers and products.

Farming needs to address these public concerns while also contending with on farm production, compliance and cost issues that impact on business viability.

Response

Food producers will respond, we believe, by embracing practises or systems that lower food’s environmental footprint, and in fact restore soil health, landscape function and water quality, while improving on-farm resilience, productivity and profitability. 

The Future Farming Initiative aims to help farmers find those solutions and ensure they are persistently presented with the best available and relevant options for navigating this changing and more demanding environment. 

Mission

Our ambition is to make Hawke’s Bay’s farming the pride of our entire community. To shine a light on our region’s existing and emerging expertise and create a local hub of knowledge, research, education and opportunity for profitable and resilient farming that ensures the health of the region’s soil and water, communities and farmers into the future. 

Ongoing success will be indicated by measurable improvement in farm performance (environmentally and financially), enthusiastic acceptance of our food products by domestic and overseas consumers, and the pride our community demonstrates for its 

water resources, food safety and soil nutrition, 

on-farm production, 

practices 

farming sector. 

Tom Belford01 June 2019

BB47

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