Sunday, 17 November 2013

Dave and Louise Wilson's Farm

I had been put in contact with Dave and Louise Wilson by Federated Farmers so that I could see first hand the good things they are doing to improve the water quality on their property. They graciously agreed to let me come out and learn a thing or three about good practise on a dry stock farm in Northland. Now, I am no expert but it is only when you are talking to someone who really knows their stuff, that you realise how much you don't know. I am fairly sure they had a suspicion that I might be some sort of crackpot but I think in the end they realised that I was more interested in promoting the proactive approach that they are taking on their farm, rather than slagging off farmers for being polluting miscreants.

Dave and Louise are a young couple with three children who farm an area of just over 200 acres near Okaihau, Northland. I was offered a cup of tea and they gave me a run down on their place and some of the steps that they had been taking to improve their property since they had taken it over. Louise has a Masters in water quality and Dave has qualifications in zoology and agricultural science so some of the technical aspects were going over my head a bit but I managed to get the gist of most of what they were talking about, occasionally asking questions to clarify. One thing that I am well aware of, is the time and money that it takes to fence off areas on a farm and as I was to find, these two had invested a significant amount in this process.

Louise was a self-confessed "greenie" once upon a time and she said she had moved to smaller and smaller towns after leaving Massey University, in order to get closer to nature. Ironically she ended up marrying a farmer. I say ironically not because farmers have no environmental credentials but it cannot be denied that there is a distinct gap between the political positions of the farming sector and the green movement. "Greenies" seem to be viewed and labelled by much of the farming community as uninformed, emotive townies with little real knowledge of the realities of the business of farming, a business that truly has built our economy. 

Conversely, there is a growing trend of anti farming rhetoric in the media in NZ and a small segment of the environmental movement seem absolutely opposed to farming, especially dairy. It is important to remember that without agriculture, our economy would cease to function. While agriculture is not as large a portion of our economy as it was pre 1970s it still makes up the lion's share of our exports and removing dairy and meat exports alone would result in a $15.5 billion loss in merchandise exports from this country. That figure is over 10% of real GDP. I'd have to call myself a greenie but I think that there is a tendency in any disagreement to lean too far to one side and then you lose credibility and consequently any chance to persuade the other side that your position is legitimate. What is required on all sides of this debate is a balanced, wise approach that promotes environmental sustainability as well as economic advancement.

Anyway, back to Dave and Louise. "We're here because we love it." Louise said passionately as she hunted through the library of agricultural books, journals and pamphlets in their lounge. Presently we headed out to the farm ute and Dave explained to me that they have a million dollar mortgage on their property but they had still been doing what they could to introduce best practice measures around the farm. There is no requirement for dry stock farmers to do this. Fonterra has made it compulsory for their dairy farmers to fence off waterways and have the target that all stock will be excluded from waterways by December of this year. Dry stock farmers have no such imperatives in place but some are making the effort all the same.

Riparian planting of manuka trees along a small creek

We drove around the property with the kids in the back and I felt a bit like a tourist taking pictures of the landscape but it was very interesting to see what work had been done. They were almost apologetic that it didn't seem more complete and were keen to stress that many parts of the farm were a work in progress. We inspected fenced off creeks that had been planted and even marshy areas that the average person would not identify as a waterway were fenced and being prepared for riparian planting. When this is taken care of properly, these areas of vegetation act as filters which help to remove sedimentary and pathogen pollution from waterways. As a result Dave has noticed a return of native fish species such as Kokopu into the creeks on the farm. Some areas, they explained to me were better to be planted with trees and flaxes and some with thick grasses. It comes down to having to develop a comprehensive land management plan and generally being a serious student of your property.

 Fenced marsh area marching down the hill

In some areas of the property they have had issues with plants not coming away after planting; this can cost thousands. Plants bought from nurseries are not cheap and there were many areas on the farm that had thousands of dollars worth of planting and fencing as well as culverts that ensured stock stayed out of the water. This type of work is very costly and also causes additional costs. If stock cannot access water from natural sources on a property then troughs need to be installed in every paddock. The cost of installing troughs is also huge when you take into account the materials needed and the time that it takes to put them in. A phrase that Dave used while I was there really stuck in my mind: "It's hard to be green when you're in the red." Dave suggested that nursery operations could be given some form of subsidy to grow beneficial species of natives for riparian planting.Certainly, large scale growing of useful native plants would help reduce costs to farmers who are keen to take action.

Recently installed culvert

Another important consideration to take into account when fencing off waterways is the weed control that is required. This is also expensive and labour-intensive. Once plantings come away weed control becomes less of a concern but during the first few years it is crucial to prevent noxious species from invading. Another concern is that some species of pests are nitrogen fixing and contribute to raising nitrogen levels in the soil and subsequently in the waterways. It must also be noted that riparian planting can do little to prevent nitrogen from 'off farm' from entering  

All of these different considerations mount up and add a lot of extra work and costs. When you consider that the average age of a dry stock farmer in Northland is 65 it certainly provides some food for thought. Dave and Louise's neighbour is 81 and still farming his property himself. Realistically, he isn't going to be making any changes to the way he is doing things at the moment. What I learned from this visit was that there is a lot to this water quality business and I felt a bit out of my depth at times. Also, there are many farmers that are making an effort to improve water quality on their properties. I am yet to visit a dairy farm on this hikoi however, which I am sure will be a whole different experience.

I can see why they love it. The view up to the forest is fantastic!

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