Hawke’s Bay … home of lovely fruit, scenic rivers, pristine beaches and a commitment to sustainable agriculture. Is this a Tui moment? We say we’re concerned about the environmental footprint of farming. That we’re leading the way with management practices and innovation. That best practice farming is the way forward for the Bay.

If we are committed to these, why are we ignoring the science-based, and internationally lauded, regenerative ag practices that are right in front of us?

Dr Phil Schofield, Abron, checks the Brix

Like not just relying on synthetic nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (NPK) fertilisers, but making sure the full spectrum of mineral elements, especially calcium and trace elements, is added to the soil for productive and nutrient dense plants. Like using tiny amounts high tech foliar fertilisers to stimulate balanced growth and plant resilience instead of large side dressings of NPK.

Like focusing on keeping nutrition available to soil microbes so that they feed the plant what it needs in the ideal natural form for maximum production. Like acknowledging that it is undernourished and sick plants that are attacked by pests, not the high-Brix, robust, deep-rooted plants fed a well-balanced diet of minerals.

It’s just like children and snuffles – it’s the kid fed on junk food that tends to get sicker more often. These are all basic concepts of modern plant science and yet our current approach to crop production is to ladle on the NPK and then prop the ailing and vulnerable plant with successive doses of pesticide to ensure the plant lasts long enough to produce.

Why do we grow food?

We might be able to justify this approach to agriculture except for two crucial facts. We grow food for our nutrition or nourishment, and the vitamin and mineral content of that food is critical for our health. We need all the mineral building blocks to be in our food in order to be well. Those vitamin and mineral levels in plants have been dropping (on average 60%) over the last 70 years, which is just about how long we’ve been pushing the NPK barrow. Coincidence? I think not.

The second fact is that we’re running out of cheap oil, and our current ag approach is based entirely on the use of synthetic, petrochemical inputs. We need to get smart about using a fraction of the oil on our crops and we need to do it real fast or we’re out of the business of even vaguely affordable food production.

That’s where biological agriculture comes in. Eco-farming, fusion farming, agro-ecology, smart farming, call it what you will, it all boils down to a focus on farming in such a way that soil humus and nutrient dense food is produced with a minimum of inputs.

Creating food with flavour, high levels of minerals and low pesticide use relies on the wonders of the underground microbial workforce – the world beneath our feet. The health of that world totally determines what it’s like for us on the surface. The top six inches of soil is the lungs of the planet and our food larder. We ignore its integrity at our peril. Hammering it with harsh fertilisers and nuking it with pesticides is not conducive to good microbe health and cooperativeness. There is a better way that ticks all the boxes that we say are important to us and our markets.

The biological approach produces great, complex flavours. Tuki Vineyard in Havelock North has produced local and national gold medal wines this way. The Russell family of Babylon Station in the HB ranges has seen their grass production take off when their soil profiles darkened and deepened with lime and trace elements applications. Kiwifruit producers like Keith Holdom in Bay of Plenty saw impressive and consistent gains in quality scores, yield and earlier harvest when applying biological products to their orchards. And the big bugbear, dairying, has many with biological success stories.

On an Intalact dairy monitoring programme with detailed pasture sampling over four seasons, Andrew and Nicky Watt’s Cloverdale dairy in Ashburton shows 50% more grass production when using humic acid granules with a standard urea program. Better still, when they apply a quarter the amount of urea with humic acid, traces and biostimulants as a liquid spray, they get 300% more pasture dry matter than with straight urea.

For the uninitiated, these figures are enough to make dairy farmers weep with joy. The Watts’ soil now crumbles easily and there has been a significant reduction in water use. Their animal health costs have halved and profit has increased by 25%. Oh, and in case you’re about to assume that these results are only possible on small dairies – the Watts milk 2,900 cows.

What is ‘best practice’ farming?

Back here in Hawke’s Bay, we’re being pushed to build a massive water project as the answer to increasing our ag production. The Regional Council acknowledges that the dam will force farmers to be ‘super productive’ and use ‘best practice’ farming.

But what is the projected gain in production based on? Well, the standard ever-increasing volumes of petroleum-based NPK and pesticides as recommended by Massey and most other agricultural universities around the world. Some people call it the Moron Approach…if the last lot of fert and chemicals didn’t do the job, just put more on next time. After 50 years of that, we’re hosing on rather a lot of petrochemicals to our soil microbes and food.
So what is ‘best practice’ farming?

Things get waffley when you ask for definitions, but most ag industry players agree that it means ‘being sustainable in our farming practices’. I think we’re not aiming nearly high enough. The definition of sustainability is to sustain or continue what we are currently doing indefinitely. Given the water pollution, lowered carbon content and collapsed soils, increased pesticide use and poor flavour and storage of our produce, I’d rather not be sustainable.

How about trying on an approach that regenerates carbon and humus content in increasingly crumbly soils using a fraction of the petrochemical inputs and water to produce a greater yield of spray-free, tasty food? That’s biological agriculture in a nutshell.

It is not only possible but predictable that when we farm biologically we create water and nutrient-holding humus. The more humus, the less water needed to produce high quality crops. That’s what’s needed in Central Hawke’s Bay for starters, as opposed to claiming that more intensive cropping and urea use will help the water quality in the Tukituki. Let’s invest instead in farmer education and incentives for better soil development.

Russell family ‘digs’ rich soil

“It’s not possible” will be the response from the universities. Perhaps not possible for them. They’re stuck in the petrochemical ag paradigm that ignores the huge role of soil microbes and views living systems as simple and linear. However, there are highly-trained plant scientists embracing the natural complexity of soil and plant systems.

Dr Phillip Schofield, BAgSc (Hons) PhD Plant Science, Massey describes his experiences. “Over the last five years I have become increasingly amazed at the possibilities for agricultural production systems once we adopt practices that work with, rather than against, the millions of interactions that take place between plants, soils and the microbiological environment they create. Our Ag and Hort scientists should urgently research the production possibilities of the powerful biological system we have spent the last half century fighting, when we should actually have been looking deeper at the true causes of the pests and diseases and the natural defence mechanisms that abound in nature.”

Hundreds of farmers on hundreds of thousands of hectares in New Zealand are proving we can shift our knowledge base and our results to a much more productive mode. One that delivers premium ag products and a quality environment, so that we really do have the Hawke’s Bay of our imaginations.

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