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?

Because it would inspire — and perhaps someday award — progressive HB farmers like Greg and Rachel Hart. They own the 600 hectare Mangarara Station at Patangata … and are determined to run it on a sustainable and economically viable basis. I recently spent several hours “looking and listening” at their place.

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.”

Amen.

Tom Belford

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4 Comments

  1. RESPONSE TO BAY BUZZ

    10 November 2009

    Farm Environment Awards fit right with Ballance

    Chairman of the New Zealand Farm Environment Award (NZFEA) Trust, Jim Cotman, said that recent comments in the Bay Buzz publication are ill-informed and misdirected.

    ‘A key aim of the Ballance Farm Environment Awards is to bring together people from diverse backgrounds and disciplines to seek an understanding of the environmental issues farmers face.’

    During the course of the awards, both conventional and organic farming has been recognised. More recently, former Summit-Quinphos Chief Executive and current Ballance Director, Gray Baldwin, was awarded the Waikato Ballance Farm Environment Awards Supreme Award for his organic dairy farming operation in Putaruru.

    ‘NZFEA’s relationship with Ballance and other agribusinesses provides the Trust with the opportunity to unashamedly celebrate the successes and contributions agriculture provides to the New Zealand economy,’ said Mr Cotman.

    He said the support offered by these agribusinesses demonstrates ‘they are very serious about seeking ways to manage the effects that food production has on the resources around us’.

    ‘So NZFEA commends Ballance and our other sponsors and partners, our partnering regional councils and the many farmer entrants who support the collaborative approach that we take to improve the stewardship of our land.

    ‘These sponsors and partners have demonstrated vision and commitment to ensure that we all drive forward towards a sustainable and viable farming future for New Zealand’s benefit.’

    Ballance Chief Executive, Larry Bilodeau, has a clear message about the Environment Awards.

    ‘We sponsor the awards because we believe in what they are trying to achieve,’ said Mr Bilodeau.

    ‘For us, the key to the Ballance Farm Environment Awards is the impact it has had in promoting farming sustainability. We get to see New Zealand ingenuity at its best, where many solutions are found through innovation and commitment.

    ‘The awards fit closely with Ballance’s core values, and we are extremely proud to continue sponsorship of these.’

    ‘It is unusual to receive criticism of our involvement because everyone involved can see the logic behind using fertilisers wisely. Alongside other initiatives, such as the Clean Streams Accord, it is contributing a lot to making New Zealand farming more sustainable without jeopardising production.’

    He said that agriculture is the mainstay of New Zealand’s economy, and there’s no denying that fertiliser has an indispensible role to play in the success of the industry.

    ‘We’re not trying to sweep any environmental issues surrounding fertiliser use under the carpet. By putting our name to the Farm Environment Awards, we are fronting up and demonstrating our commitment to making a change. Through the BFEA and other Ballance initiatives, we are actively working with the farming community to ensure our products are used appropriately.

    ‘The regional councils support us in this because it is their mandate to protect their local environment. Just talk to farmers who have been part of the awards process and they will tell you how much an impetus it has been in helping them make their farming more sustainable.’

    Ballance is proactively working to minimise the environmental risks associated with fertiliser use and to educate farmers about these risks. This is achieved in part through the development of nutrient management plans, which define the nutrient needs of agricultural systems as well as amounts, sources, placement and timing of nutrient applications to maximise nutrient uptake and minimise losses. If implemented correctly, these plans can result in an increase in production and profitability while at the same time protecting the environment.

    ___________________________________________________________________

    About the awards

    The Farm Environment Awards were established in 1993 as a joint initiative between the Waikato Conservation Board and Environment Waikato. In 1995 an independent trust was set up to administer the awards. Ballance Agri-Nutrients became the naming rights sponsor for the awards in 2002 and is working with the trust and regional councils to develop the awards throughout New Zealand.

    The key objective of the awards is to display to farmers that profitability need not compromise environmental values. Indeed, past winners of the awards have shown that the environment can be both restored and enhanced under profitable farming systems.

    The awards help farmers enhance their businesses in a number of ways. Past participants have highlighted the following benefits from taking part in the awards:

    • The awards offer an opportunity to link sustainable farming practices to long-term profitability

    • The awards give farmers a chance to discuss practical aspects of farming with the judges, and to benefit from their knowledge

    • The awards allow farmers to listen to the ideas of other entrants and to see the different approaches they take

    • The awards can confirm that your current farm management practices are actually sustainable

    • The awards offer the opportunity to gain both prizes and recognition

    The awards look at whole farm systems and strongly promote the positive. All entrants to the awards receive detailed feedback from the judges, who are chosen for their knowledge of both farming and the environment. Regional winners are profiled in a wide range of media and events. The judges aim to celebrate the positive actions taken by entrants, rather than to criticise. Overall, the aim of the awards is to encourage other farmers to be more proactive in their resource management by providing them with role models for sustainable land management.

  2. Humbug!!

    Ballance sponsorship of environmental awards is little more than a hand wringing apology by the industry. More of the same from the old guard farming sector …Ballance is 100% farmer owned….. the environmental awards trust is also 100% farmer owned…..

    But first let me own up to enthusiastic application of super over many years …. lets recognise the role of super in boasting pasture production of English grass species over the past 60 years since mass and widespread application by air. The economic impacts have been huge with undoubted economic benefit to the whole of New Zealand. But there is a price to pay!

    Along with wealth creation from applying vast quantities of phosphoric chemical onto the land has come harm to the environment. Nutrification of our waterways ….. promotion of pasture monocultures….. vastly increased carrying capacity causing soil degradation….. .

    This is not to advocate a return to low production and consequent economic harm ….but we do need to face up to the fact that phosphate sources are limited. Like oil, superphosphate is not going to be with us forever. There are many smart ways to make a shift away from unsustainable and ultimately harmful farm inputs.

    The regional council has, in my view the responsibility to lead the change to greater sophistication to better and sustainable farm practices as the means to best protect the environment. That means steering away from super and into more discrete, less harmful production. And most of all we must move rapidly to stop the degradation of our soils and waterways. The Taharua catchment issues are testimony to the need for urgency in dealing with highly nutrifying farm practices.

    The regional councils recent decision to support a bulk chemical company sponsored environment award while at the same time spending millions preventing the chemical getting into waterways is contradictory to the point of being just plain daft.

    Environment awards are great but lets get real about the fatal compromise that arises in aligning with a bulk chemical manufacturer. In time this will be seen as an unreconciliable in the same light as tobacco company event sponsorship of the past.

    I await the howls of derision and rabid defence of the indefensible!!!

    Neil Kirton, HBRC

  3. 'Irreconcilable' sponsorship as in tobacco companies?

    Definitions are important, like what does 'organic' mean? Elemental? Like lime-sulfur, arsenic, cadmium???

    There are so many issues … like how did agriculture/horticultural sites manage to evade inclusion on the Hail list? How can the councils, who oversee the reconstitution of toxic plots approve subdivisions that encroach upon functional orchards that are currently creating sites in need of future remediation … & the methods or orcharding practices employed here are deemed 'sustainable.'

    Definitions can be important, agendas need to be spelled out, and probably more explicitly those of those persons in decison making positions having a pecunary interest in the outcomes.

  4. Ballance has no role in any Hawkes Bay award.

    Up until this point we have avoided the temptation to “me to” this award in the Hawkes Bay.

    The Hawkes Bay produces the most diverse range of food products “produce” of any region in New Zealand. It is one of only two regions that have a regional brand in the european marketplace.

    Many producers practise sustainable production, but the process’s are not understood by the majority of food producers.

    Any award needs to be structured around rewarding innovation in sustainable production and communicating the benefits to other producers and providing confidence to domestic and international consumers.

    Promotion of a environmental degarding brand (Ballance) and me.tooing the other regions award has no place in a region looking to establish a point of difference.

    Paul Harris…………TUTIRA.

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