On Tuesday, the Regional Council will consider whether to join an environmental awards program for farmers sponsored throughout New Zealand by Ballance, a farmer-owned cooperative.
According to the official literature on the program, its key objectives are “to encourage sustainable land management and to display to farmers that profitability need not compromise and, in the best examples, can restore and enhance environmental values.”
Laudable … if somewhat cautiously stated.
I hope, with some trepidation, the Regional Council will join this program.
Nothing could be more important to this region than protecting — in fact, restoring and enhancing — the quality of our soils. Some experts argue that our soils have been significantly degraded over the years by reliance on chemical fertilisers. And they argue further that the “ag biz” and the university ag programs have perpetuated damaging practices.
This leads to understandable cynicism about an outfit like Ballance sponsoring environmental awards at all. As one local expert on biological farming said to me: “I personally feel that ‘Ballance Environmental Awards’ is an oxymoron … It seems a situation where their strategy is to keep the door firmly shut on farmer understanding of soil processes while tossing a bone of awards to those who plant trees alongside streamsides to reduce superphosphate run-off.”
That’s a point of view that HBRC needs to keep clearly in mind if it embraces this awards program. And one stipulation about the program is especially important in this regard — namely, that, as the staff briefing paper asserts, Ballance Agrinutrients “have no say in the judging process.”
So why do this?
The Harts won some local notoriety by allying with Air New Zealand to launch a program where the airline’s passengers can donate to environmental projects — in the Harts’ case, planting what by next year will be 87,000 trees on erosion prone land on the farm. As part of this arrangement, the Harts have covenanted public access to the farm, so that “city folk” and others can see what sustainable farming is all about.
The Harts are also shifting their farm inputs to a natural diet formulated at the advice of local soil expert Phyllis Tichinin. While holding input costs at a steady $100/hectare, they expect to enrich their soil, while weaning their farm off energy-intensive and environmentally problematic chemical fertilisers. They’re six months into this conversion, and expect to see some improvements in soil condition (like more worms) within a year.
They’ve planted nut trees to increase the food output (and value) from their land, and they even have plans on the shelf for an eco-lodge at their property’s 30 hectare Horseshoe Lake (planted and fenced to prevent nutrient and erosion run-off).
I asked Greg if he had some sort of “Eureka” moment that caused him to become so passionately committed to sustainable farming practices. He had noted that he hadn’t learnt this stuff at Massey 21 years ago. Nor is it the message he gets from Federated Farmers. But there’s no special epiphany in Greg’s story.
Perhaps a bit of serendipity in having been given a book a few years ago titled Ishmael, authored by Daniel Quinn, a novel with a message about survival lessons humanity must learn. But essentially Greg has just dug in and educated himself … his depth of reading into environmental and sustainability issues — and “mixing with informed people” as he says — would put most of us to shame. Indeed, I returned from his place with a 3-hour DVD to watch, a film to see and, when I got back to my computer, a waiting email with about four other reading assignments!
All this has led Greg to go about things with an admirable reverence: “On a spiritual level I believe that humanity is at a period of awakening as people are unfulfilled by busy consumer lifestyles and many are now becoming aware of the possibilities of a deeper more meaningful existence which will acknowledge the interconnectedness of life.”
If all farmers in Hawke’s Bay were as passionate, knowledgeable and committed to sustainable practices as Greg Hart, we could all feel heaps better about the future viability of farming in our region.
And that’s why adopting the Ballance Environmental Awards is — on balance — a risk worth taking. If they turn out to cheerlead for farmers who simply get their chemical fertiliser balance “right” and plant a few poles on hillsides, then they will have been a waste of time, if not a deception. But if, as managed by the Regional Council, they wind up celebrating true trailblazers, people restoring the soil, then good on them.
Says Greg Hart: “My thoughts are that we have to engage with the majority and we have to start somewhere and these awards are a step in the right direction … our property is FAR from optimum but we need to celebrate success along the way and encourage others to make a start.”