In recent days, since Hawke’s Bay’s localised ‘rain bomb’ event, I’ve seen numerous commentators — always after expressing heartfelt sympathy with those who have been hammered by flood and slip damage — note that the pastoral lands lost were treeless. Land with trees was protected and undamaged.

These commentators cover the spectrum politically from Councillor Ewan McGregor to columnist Bruce Bissett.

Hmmm. Planting trees. Hardly a new, unproven or radical concept. Yet farmers neglect to.

Now, consider what is arguably a much larger farming challenge … shifting to farming practices that are more nurturing of the soil and produce food that is higher quality (in terms of nutrients and taste) and more valuable in the market.

The same phenomenon … farmers who can look at a neighbor’s farm, doing better, on the other side of the fence, can’t bring themselves to reconsider their approach.

BayBuzz’s featured writer on farming, soil expert Phyllis Tichinin, has been writing for us on the direction of farming in Hawke’s Bay, including two articles in recent editions of BayBuzz Digest.

In What is New Zealand farming coming to? she answers her own question this way:

“Hopefully, we’re coming to a farming style that takes advantage of our great climate, heightens our knack for innovating and regenerates our soils while producing maximum quality of agricultural product.

It’s no longer a quantity game. We’re too small and far from our key markets to produce average food. There’s no way we can expect to contribute meaningfully to ‘feeding the world’ and we should drop that illusion forthwith. We need to produce what the premier markets of Asia, Europe and US want or the cost of transport (as petroleum prices soar) will sink us.

Instead of ‘get big or get out,’ I think it’s going to be ‘produce flavour and nutrient density or get out.’ We’ve been talking big and riding on our laurels about our NZ quality produce, but the international goal posts have shifted. How can we catch the flavour wave, stay on top AND enhance environmental resilience and productivity? Is it even possible?

I believe it is …”

But, Phyllis continues …

“We’re losing soil tilth – soil with the proper structure and nutrients to grow healthy crops. We’re losing soil full stop. Our fertiliser and crop protection inputs and costs have risen in comparison to yield, and what we produce doesn’t taste or store as well as it used to. To add the final blow, our markets are complaining about the quality.”

Digging into the food quality issue, Phyllis followed up with Nutrient density and farming, what’s the connection?

Here she’s making a simple point about a complex process … how we grow our food is critical to sustainability, nutritional value and taste … all of which equates to growing a premium product. Something she thinks smart Hawke’s Bay farmers should be interested in doing. And she comments:

“Our increasingly savvy premium consumers are aware of most of these implications of nutrient dense food and are willing to pay top dollar for true quality. In Hawke’s Bay we are creating on the ground examples of better soils, greater yields, less need for chemical inputs and better flavour ( see sidebar)  Now more of us just need to be producing it to warrant our title of ‘fruit bowl’ to the nation and the world.”

She gives three examples of smart farming (out of many, but not enough) in Hawke’s Bay — JB Bostock (cropping manager, Gareth Holder), Shiloh Orchards (Roger Curtis), and Tuki Vineyard (Jo Perry Purchas).

BayBuzz has asked Phyllis to pour it on. We plan to bombard our readers in future articles with examples of smart farming in Hawke’s Bay. Maybe we can have some impact on even the slow learners.

Tom Belford

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  1. Rudolph Steiner gave some pointers in the 1920s but all were mesemerised by the chemical companies. Drive from HB to Auckland on the back roads and see how many dumb buggers are grazing down to bare earth – in the name of what? Increasing soil erosion into waterways.

    Not necessarily slow learners but sheep-like in unthinkingly following the bad practices of others. Biodynamics has answers but essentially it has been ignored for the last 80 years.

  2. Phyllis and Tom, I'm so pleased to see this discussion right out in the open so it's not just happening in the preserves of those already 'in the know' about the importance of trees, true soil fertility and nutrient density.

    I heard a Hawke's Bay farmer in a radio interview, in response to a question about lack of trees being a possible factor in the land damage, express the view that the damage wasn't about lack of trees but rather due to an exceptional weather event – the old farming families hadn't known anything like it in the generations they have been on their land. Perhaps not, but haven't they noticed the degree of soil erosion around the coastal farms in particular – the gaping wounds?

    So 'Trees Please' Hawke's Bay! There are all sorts of things in their favour.

  3. Sadly we find that the market for organic produce is often overstated by those on the biological left and most consumers still purchase overwhelmingly on price. Apart from the supply-side monopolised dairy industry, most primary sectors in NZ are weak sellers & price takers, leaving the farmers in a chronically weak financial position & feeling unable to take the risks involved in converting to alternative production systems & sales channels.

    Primary producers get a little bit tired of the left constantly berating them for not flocking to organics, whilst between the consumers continuing to vote with their wallets and the supermarket duopoly continuing to squeeze their suppliers, the producers by & large find themselves operating in survival mode with negative real returns on capital.

  4. Since when has good sustainable land management had anything to do with "right" and "left"?

    Oh, maybe it's that building biomass and producing nutrient-rich foodstuffs is right … while the leached-out soils and slip-scarred hills you get from so-called traditional methods are what's left.

  5. It is a quantum leap from soil erosion caused by a major weather event to one person's view of soil science – so I will comment on the erosion part of your post.

    It is ironic after events such as the latest one, and Cyclone Bola, that no photos are ever published of the many hillsides on farms throughout Hawke's Bay that have space planted poplar poles, and the gullies with willow plantings that are minimaly effected by storm damage. This being the case we never get to hear of or see the good news stories.

    It is times like this that headlines "Are Farmers Slow Learners" really get under my skin! Like the rest of the population, a certain percentage are and should be shown up as such, but for goodness sake talk to the farmers that have put trees in the ground and see how they have fared before generalising about all farmers!

    A case in point – I was talking to a Porangahau farmer the other day who has two generations of erosion control planting on his property and while not in the centre of the deluge, only has slipping where he hasn't finished planting yet. He is absolutely committed to tree planting, but can only wonder what damage would have been done had his property been in the centre of the storm.

    Finally I don't know how many farmers visit this website, or have even heard of it (not many I suspect), but there will be a hell of a lot less if you let dear old Phyllis loose on them!!

  6. Thank you Mike, at last some intelligent comment, I was becoming tired of the "townie" tree-hugger commentary. Our coastal area was hit by a weather phenomenen, 500-800mm of rain in 48 hours onto already saturated soils, throw in an overnight earthquake and down she comes!!! This is not einstein theory. This happens TREES OR NO TREES.Perhaps the tree-huggers should revisit your video of Haupouri and count the trees standing in the middle of slips. They were of little consequence. There is obviously little to do in town this week…..

  7. Dear me! The language… lefties, and now tree-huggers … as if this was a bad thing, whereas in fact the point Mike H makes is exactly mine: if you plant trees, the soil stays in place… but not enough farmers are doing that. (And yes, Matt McG, you should relook at that video… and note that ALL the forested areas are intact, and where there is slippage and bush, the slips are AROUND the trees, not through them).

    And while good news stories might make people feel warm and fluffy, unfortunately generally it's only by pointing up the bad examples that people get pressured to change. Instead of excusing them – or worse, throwing our taxpayer money at them, so they never learn – you guys should be beating up on your neighbours who don't plant and asking them just whose country they think this is.

    Because it isn't theirs. They (as all of us) will die, but the land remains. If all they can do while they're here is aid and abet the land to die, then neither we nor the land will remain. At least, not in any fit state to flourish.

    I would hope people can change of their own accord. Certainly that's the attitude taken by Fed Farmers et al – hands off. But unfortunately the bottom line reason these examples of bad management persist is because farmers almost-unanimously reject "outside intereference" … in the form of regulation of land use. Why? Because most still persist in the view that can best be encapsulated in the phrase "it's my bloody land and i'll do what i like with it". Regardless of what's actually good practice. And THAT is what has to change.

  8. My point about showing the success stories is to illustrate to those who tend to generalise about farmers that there has historically been a huge amount of work done all through HB to mitigate erosion – thanks in the main to the old Catchment Board, and laterlly the Regional Council land management teams. This last event should also be a wake up call to those city based councillors and senior management at said council, that having a credible land management team in place should be a priority to them!

  9. It is very clear to me if the more than 50 million spent by Hawke's Bay Councils on Sports parks and the like, had been spent on soil erosion control throughout the Hawke's Bay, then future generations could have prospered from the wealth of this soil that is no longer there!

    Councils and Central Government have been screwing the Hawke's Bay Rural Community for far too long building flash offices and computer systems to theorise on the immanent destruction of a our environment.If the councils hadn't taken this money away from farmers and maybe they(THE FARMERS) could afford to do something about land stabilization.

    30 years ago I worked for the Taranaki Catchment Commission…….the Waitara River was taking one tonne of topsoil out to sea every three seconds….I would hate to see what Hawke's Bay Rivers are delivering to the sea presently.

    Internationally we are losing 27 billion tonnes of topsoil annually…….20 billion attributable to mans activities. Extrapolating this data it can only lead to war and famine in the years to come but as usual we don't learn from history!

    Mr Bisset, maybe you would like to forgo the 80 cents in every dollar you earn annually from farm production that you despise so much;

    maybe you might want to put it into land reparation!

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