Hats off to the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council! On second thought…

HBRC actually has a Resource Management Plan Objective 38 that states there should be no long-term degradation of the physical or biological properties of the soil. This would be truly commendable if something was actually happening on the ground to make this goal the important reality that it needs to be.

I mean, if we don’t have natural, functioning, fertile soils eventually we don’t eat and the water quality kills us. With the 600% increase in NZ urea use in the last 20 years and a five-fold intensification of farming slated from the proposed Ruataniwha Dam, it’s time for a rethink. How could we do this better?

Let’s ‘grow’ humus (on right)

Farmers don’t want to be the black hats in the environmental quality shootout. In fact they can be – are meant to be – the good guys, growing ever more soil humus to produce medicinal quality food while purifying the water and making more money.

Regrettably, this is not the current view of what agriculture is capable of. But biological farming experts, like Arden Andersen and Graeme Sait, are trans-forming the mind set and performance of farmers around the world.

Fruit and vegetable growers in South Africa now must pass a four-day sustainable agriculture course and show improvements in soil humus levels and nutrient density if they want to sell to the Woolworths food chain. Global food giant Dole, once synonymous with massive pesticide applications on fruit, is moving its production to a biological programme. The City of Los Angeles is adopting a biological fertiliser approach for all its park and recreation areas.

The shift is definitely happening.

Let’s steer Hawke’s Bay agriculture into the OK corral.

So, what could a Fresh Soil Campaign for Hawke’s Bay look like?

First, we need to enhance farmers’ understanding of soil so that everyone ‘gets’ that there are now better ways to achieve cost-effective farm results.

The Association of Biological Farming is a great place to start a paradigm shift (www.biologicalfarmers.co.nz)
Second, the agency responsible for environmental quality, the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council, needs to realise that how we fertilise absolutely determines water quality. Given the ongoing examples of entrenched attitudes on this important point, it’s probably time for a complete change of faces around the Regional Council table. The councillors need to be open to cutting-edge science and willing to see the links between excessive fertiliser use and their core environmental mandate.

With the commitment to fantastic soil quality firmly entrenched at the HBRC, the third step is a farmer outreach programme. This could be modelled on the Regional Council’s successful campaign to shift householders to proper wood burners. Farmers could be encouraged to attend a course that covers the basics of soil microbes, mineral balances and farming for root depth and humus. Hawke’s Bay is well endowed with traditionally qualified soil consultants who are also biological farming specialists and could offer this education.

Once the basics of real soil fertility are conveyed it would be time for farmers to learn how to tell whether they’re making headway or going backwards with their most valuable farming asset, their soil.

Dr Graham Shepherd of Palmerston North has developed an elegantly simple procedure for determining progress on-farm at next to no cost by grabbing a spade and using your eyes and nose.

It’s called the Visual Soils Assessment (VSA) and it is widely admired overseas. Many biological farmers and firms already use the VSA for charting soil progress over time.

The VSA could form the basis for a regional council soils incentive programme. Farmers would receive a subsidy to switch to a fertiliser and cropping regime that grew soil humus levels as documented by reaching and holding VSA scores of between 1 and 2. They would soon find that the reduced pesticide costs and increased yields would be incentive enough, but a bit of a sweetener to get the ball rolling wouldn’t go amiss. A 1% increase in soil carbon levels every three years would be an easily achievable goal. Ideally, we’d want soil carbon levels to be at 12% plus and holding. Dairy farmers in CHB have already shown that it is possible to boost soil carbon levels by 2-3% in 18 months. Seeing as bank research in Australia found that the most powerful overall indicator of farming profit was the level of soil carbon, everyone should want to grow humus in their soils.

At some point in the future, if VSA or soil carbon readings weren’t rising, then Regional Council penalties or rates increases could be imposed for not reaching soil improvement targets. Or Fonterra could get on board and add achieving soil improvements to its list of milk pick-up criteria. After all, ‘FontTerra’ means a productive source, a fountain, of the soil or earth and their ability to produce quality milk rests on humus levels.

So how might farmers work toward achieving these soil humus increases? Well, through best farming practices – annual green manure crop incorporation on cropping soils or every fifth year fallow to pasture, reduced use of urea and Super P, full spectrum soil remineralisation, use of humic acid buffers for all synthetic fertiliser applications and a preference for liquid foliar fertiliser applications. Elaboration of these techniques could be part of the farmer education programme.

This is the farming of the future that solves, rather than creates, environmental problems. We can be the first region in the world to officially, actively encourage best practice humus farming. What are we waiting for?

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