Last weekend HB Today ran a ‘Talking Point’ I submitted (less a sentence or two) proposing an initiative to look systematically at alternative proven farming methods that would help the region deal much better — profit-wise and environmentally — with dry climate conditions.

Here is the article.

Needed: Plan B … Farm the Water!

The Hawke’s Bay Regional Council needs a Plan B. A comprehensive plan of action to replace its singular — and all-consuming — focus on building a mega-dam at the top of the Tukituki.

The dam has been presented as a silver bullet for increasing farm productivity in Central Hawke’s Bay while simultaneously improving the environmental condition of the Tukituki river system, despite massive projected farming intensification.

Both outcomes are doubtful.

And whether one accepts that reality yet or not, the dam twists in the wind, its germination costing $250,000+ a month, since sufficient farmer/irrigators are yet to endorse the project with their cheque books.

Nevertheless, HBRC has refused to date to consider or present proven alternatives that might better enable CHB farmers (to say nothing of other farmers in Hawke’s Bay) to optimize the value of their productive land in dry conditions, to improve soil health and mitigate erosion (especially in hill country), and to better capture and store the rainwater that is available.

Moreover, other cutting edge farmers and farm consultants are demonstrating how sharply reduced fertilizer use (and therefore markedly reduced nutrient leaching) and improved farm productivity and profitability can co-exist.

Although approaches to accomplish each of these goals are being proven today in various parts of New Zealand, HBRC has shown zero interest in those approaches or their practitioners.

A miserable failure of leadership. Five members of our Regional Council – you can guess who they are — have twice voted down my resolutions merely proposing a Hawke’s Bay forum to explore these approaches and showcase their advocates.

Advocates like sheep farmer Doug Avery — from drier-than-Hawke’s-Bay-Marlborough – and Lincoln University dryland farming expert Derrick Moot, who have shown conclusively that smart growing practices can yield twice the return to farmers as irrigation. Indeed, Avery thinks of himself as farming water, not farming sheep. Farmers like Avery are making 25% rates of return or better with their dryland systems. Did you hear that CHB farmers?!

The current Listener magazine (‘Going with the Flow’, 26 Feb) profiles the accomplishments of these two (and others). And the farm trade press regularly covers them. Farm consultant Graeme Ogle, who has studied systems like Avery’s around New Zealand, says of Avery: “I think Doug Avery single-handedly has probably brought about the biggest change in farming practice in New Zealand.” Ogle adds: “It’s always an option not to irrigate. And the best option is to drought-proof your farm.” Did you hear that CHB farmers?!

But as I said, don’t expect the Regional Council to take note of the alternatives to irrigation promoted by these achievers. The accomplishments of Avery and his successful band challenge the case for the Ruataniwha dam.

So some of us are not waiting any longer for HBRC leadership, at either the political or staff level … although we hope they will follow.

A working party consisting of experienced farmers, soil experts, farm advisors and farm economists is now taking shape. This ‘hands-on’ group aims to showcase farming practices that can sustainably improve farm productivity here in Hawke’s Bay. And to do so not on some theoretical basis, but by helping design practical farm plans, farm by farm, and demonstration projects that can achieve the complementary and simultaneous goals of increasing profitability and improving the environment.

The first focus of the group will be on Central Hawke’s Bay, because farmers there have been promised much that the dam will simply not deliver. They deserve a Plan B.

That said, the methods and strategy involved will have applicability and relevance throughout Hawke’s Bay, and hopefully farmers throughout the region will want to become informed and involved. But all of this will require financial assistance.

This is the kind of initiative that HBRC should welcome and support. But unfortunately, when it comes to helping farmers raise the bar, HBRC’s ruling group is either remarkably unmotivated, or utterly clueless about successful ‘multiple bottom line’ practices.

A real pity, as some work generated by the $20 million dollars (and rising) spent on preparing for the dam (eg, detailed soil mapping) could be salvaged and used constructively in a Plan B initiative.

Similarly, the requirement now set by Plan Change 6 for 1000+ farmers in CHB to prepare Farm Environmental Management Plans (FEMPs) could be much better conceived and better supported to produce Adaptive Farming Plans. Such plans, designed to achieve both economic and environmental goals, would be of far greater value to farmers and the broader community alike.

The working party is now organising itself, expanding participation, and refining its plan of action. Stay tuned!

Tom Belford

P.S. Here is the Talking Point as it appeared in HB Today.

Join the Conversation


  1. I write in regard to your article in HB Today about forming a working party to look at alternate profitable and sustainable farm systems.

    This is an exciting opportunity as we have a wealth of knowledge and talented people that can change the way we see and do things.

    I would like to offer my support of this project and wish to be involved if at all possible.

    I currently have a small farm ( 93 ha’s) in a dry belt just out of Waipukurau but originally started farming at the foot of the Ruahines ( Summer moist ) West of Dannevirke. From there I moved East of Dannevirke for ten years before moving to Elsthorpe for a further three years. This has given me good insight into different farming environments and systems. I have been predominately hill country beef and sheep farming but have also had a good exposure to the dairy industry.

    I had been an innovative and progressive farmer pushing the boundary’s of production and so called new technology before becoming disillusioned with the way we were farming.

    My passion for farming was rekindled with the awakening that “Nature has got it right” and we need to stop being so arrogant and adopt a “soils first” approach with profitable “whole farm systems” approach as production does not always equal profit, sustainability or good risk management.

    When I came to Central Hawkes Bay I encountered the farming attitude that droughts and dry conditions limited production, but through my eyes all I can see is enormous potential and that the large majority of farmers problems are self inflicted by the way they are treating their soils and the stock policies they run.

    Further to this I see current farmer age as a big hindrance to technology uptake and on farm infrastructure investment and also frustratingly farmers are still reluctant to embrace a “vertically integrated” approach that would see closer co-operation with processors and other farms with complimentary attributes.

    Where ever people see a limitation then there is an opportunity.

  2. Well said, Tom. There is room for middle ground: a solution based on climate-fit, science-proven, foward-looking and eco-logical thinking. That is not a compromise but actually a better use of resources for the next 100 years and beyond. Without wasting work already done.

    The debate so far seems to bear this out. Entrenched positions need a bridge and this ‘plan B’ is it, but involves a mind-set change. I wonder what could bring about this change, democracy-wise? What response by an informed public that sees the best use of our HB ecology for the most.

    It’s not that decision-makers can’t see the wood for the trees as that’s most of the problem: too much wood, not enough live trees.

    What is a lose-lose compromise, however, is a sub-group committed to a single solution at the expense of the wider public interest, and all interest groups. And which had convinced itself Resource Management is a dam too far, needing breaching for 20th century business-as-usual farming.

    Yes to grass-roots, trickle-through, mind reopened, science that fits – and solutions not wedded to the most from the least, think2big solutions.

    Like amalgamation, no one doubts the need for greater capacity to solve regional problems but because of the above compromise, middle ground – other alternatives – have been shut out by vested interest groups using the Megastore mantra.

    Flawed decision-making infrastructure is the problem. Only fools never change their minds, dictatorships never compromise.

  3. My best wishes to your Plan B group. If I could help in any way at all I offer my services free of charge.
    One thing I did learn while teaching Agriculture at NBHS was that if you asked six farmers for their opinion on how things should be done, you would get six expert opinions, all different, plus a lecture on lacking the skills that caused you to ask in the first place.
    So Good Luck!

  4. A good initiative – best of luck with pursuing it.
    You don’t need HBRC funding for this. Try the
    Sustainable Farming Fund if you need a grant.

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