[Editor’s Note: This article was originally written before the last Regional Council election in 2016. Our automated system went ‘rogue’ and re-published it this week. The good news is that good ideas endure. The ‘Future Farming’ concept has been gaining traction. Watch this space.]
Rex Graham, Rick Barker and I hosted a ‘Vision Forum’ last week, sharing some of our future priorities for the Regional Council with about 75 attendees.
Rex talked about enhancing our regional parks and some early HBRC exploration into prospects for an expanding manuka honey industry in the region. Rick talked about climate change and the need for a far bigger initiative to plant trees in the region to protect our soil and prevent erosion.
I talked about the opportunity to lift HB’s agricultural sector across the board … but in a sustainable manner. I proposed a HB Future Farming Centre … a concept that has strong expert support in the region.
Here are my comments in outline form.
I’d like to talk about unsexy topic tonight – smart farming.
Hugely important for ensuring future wealth creation in our ag sector, but doing so in an environmentally beneficial manner.
770,000 hectares in HB are devoted to pastoral farming, orchards, cropping and vineyards. This ag activity generates 40-50% of regional economy, with all allied services (machinery dealers to accountants). Nearly 3,000 farmers & growers in Heretaunga catchment.
Contrasted to this broad universe, the CHB dam would focus $80m of ratepayer money and $900m of total investment on just only 3% of our productive land – 25,000 hectares of that 770,000 – and on not quite 200 farmers buying water.
Question: Could we have better used some of the $20m spent so far on that scheme on an initiative of wider benefit?
I say: Absolutely!
As someone who has challenged the dam, I get tagged by some as anti-farmer.
But the fact is, I’ve published dozens of articles in BayBuzz on the theme of ‘smart farming’, featuring national experts – folks like Doug Avery (NZ’s best success story re dryland farming), and Alison Dewes (a nationally-known farm consultant who teaches dairy farmers how to increase productivity while dramatically lowering enviro footprint). As well as most of the locals I’ll mention in a moment.
I and BayBuzz writers have reviewed piles of reports on NZ’s ag productivity from banks, consultants, think tanks, central govt. I come away with …
HUGE SENSE OF OPPORTUNITY
Best of the reports, reflecting a panel including Graeme Avery, was Call to Arms. Looked at Govt goal to nearly triple food exports by 2025 – from $20b to $58b.
Noted that Denmark, equal to Canterbury in size, generates > 2x as much ag revenue as all NZ. And Holland, equal to Southland, generates > $55b in ag output.
Both countries outperform us, yet have some of the best environmental practices as well.
NZ ag growth averaged 3% per annum over last 25 years; experts say we could add another 1% simply using known best practices – e.g., better soil management good for $3b/yr in added value.
If all NZ pastoral farmers (we have heaps in HB) performed at top 25% level, they’d increase their exports by $3b/yr in value.
In fact, the consultant for RWSS on land use said most of the economic value from scheme would come from farmers adopting best practices in their respective farming systems. Forget the water.
LEVERAGE LOCAL EXPERTISE
So, what would it take to lift the farming game here in HB?
Simple answer: Better leverage our local expertise. We have an amazing farming talent pool here in HB. I began talking with a number of these local folks, like …
- Dan Bloomer – LandWise – farming technology expert
- Scott Lawson – True Earth, president of HB Veggie Growers – probably a top 1% grower!
- Garth Eyles – wrote the bible on NZ soils & their growing capacity
- Phyllis Tichinin & Nicole Masters – biological farming and soil health experts with numerous success stories here in HB and beyond
- Barrie Ridler – headed Massey farm economics department – helps farmers plan for profit not volume, with lower energy use & environmental impact
- Dr Paul Muir – at Poukawa – NZ expert on dryland farming
We came to the view that we had to institutionalise this expertise – give it a home – to lift the farming game in HB.
FUTURE FARMING CENTRE
This would be a centre of excellence, providing a HB-centric focalpoint for building know-how and enthusiasm for a set of goals specific to our region:
- Applied research to identify best practices – in NZ and beyond – with respect to both growing stuff suited to our region’s conditions AND doing it in an environmentally beneficial way. Key point: Aiming for win/win.
- Innovative technologies like satellite imaging & robotics
- Detailed soil mapping
- GPS-guided planting, fertilising & irrigation
- Soil restoration & erosion mitigation
- Appropriate crops for soil and climate
- Smarter use of inputs – including energy
- Environmental mitigation
- Adding value to existing products & processing
- Better modeling of farming systems and their economics – farm by farm
- Conduct in-region trials/demonstrations
- Undertake serious farmer outreach – move the middle 60% of farmers up the performance ladder
- Eventually address better marketing/branding of HB premium products and intellectual property
During HBRC’s 2015 Annual Plan process, the group, with additional supporters like John Bostock and Ngahiwi Tomoana, asked for $200k-$300k to get off the ground. EIT was willing to host the centre.
Christine Scott led charge against: said it was too big an idea for Annual Plan. She and her team voted it down.
Future Farming Centre was too big for her; but she’s soon gone.
Future Farming Centre is NOT too big an idea for HB.
I hope to be at the Regional Council to champion this idea, and a number of others we might have a chance to discuss this evening.