Forty percent of the economy of Hawke’s Bay is based around agricultural production. But agriculture is (deservedly) getting a bad rap these days. We are contributing to fertiliser and pesticide pollution of water, and aquifer drawdown. We’re burning up soil carbon and contributing to green house gasses. Production seems to be slipping compared to inputs, and the quality and flavour of what we produce has declined. Some of the current ideas for solving these problems are pretty dire, including limits on fertiliser applications and carbon taxes for farms.
How did we get to this state of environmental degradation in agriculture?
Much of it comes from the historic view that growing crops is a matter of putting water soluble chemicals (urea, super phosphate, etc) on an inert medium (the soil) in order to grow maximum carbohydrate (our food). This approach surfaced after WWI and again after WWII based on the, even then outdated, theory of German chemist Justus von Liebig that plants only need N, P and K to produce. This theory provided the handy rationale for using up the arsenal of nitrogen and potassium-based explosives and toxic chemicals post-war and continuing the munitions industry dominance in the economy.
All this “Better Living through Chemistry” has landed us in a bit of a mess. We have generally failed to sustain per hectare food production at the levels they were before WWII. Farmers’ role in society has shifted from being the strong, intelligent backbone of the economy to a person who merely reads the label and applies. No wonder young people aren’t interested in agriculture today. It’s meant to be about growing things – nurturing plants and animals, but usually what we think of now as we get out of bed is “What do I need to kill today?”
We have a problem in our most important industry. Einstein said to solve a problem you can’t use the same logic that created it. So where to we look for solutions?
Well, first off we need to understand the major flaw in von Liebig’s theory of plant nutrition. What he didn’t realise in 1870 was that trace elements, calcium and microbes play a critical role in the production of healthy plants. We need to update our understanding of agriculture to include the micro-biology of the soil. Thus, Biological Agriculture, which provides a wholistic view of the soil and plant ecosystem, including complex mineral relationships, energy flow between soil and plant and the wondrous abilities of microbes to produce stunning quality yields.
Appreciate the soil
We need a new appreciation of soil because we are not standing on dirt – we’re standing on the roof of another world. Trillions of microbes should exist in a spadeful of healthy soil. They are the willing workers that produce vitamins and enzymes, chelate minerals and fight off disease organisms to support the plants they associate with. In a teaspoon of truly alive fertile soil there can be 25,000 different kinds of microbes, totaling 4–6 billion organisms. It is truly another world and one on which we are dependent for our air and food.
In Hawke’s Bay we have a tremendous climate and soils capable of producing quality fruit, wine, meat and vegetables for gourmet and health-conscious palates. We have the infrastructure in place for harvesting, processing and exporting to international markets which are increasingly aware of the value of flavourful, nutritionally-dense produce. International markets increasingly demand premier quality and over the last few years that has come to mean more than fruit appearance. It now means high antioxidant levels, complex flavour profiles, long storage, no pesticide use, traceability and social and environmental sensitivity.
Although progress has been made with these some of these demands, closer inspection shows agriculture is on a downward trend with: collapsed soils requiring larger tractors; more fertiliser and water needed to grow the same crops; only modest reductions in pesticide use; increasing animal health costs; rot problems and mediocre taste levels. Fortunately, science can help us out with these problems. Problem is it’s not the conventional agricultural science of today.
The effects of chemical-oriented farming are all around us.
University of Waikato research has shown that the carbon and nitrogen levels of our soils have dropped massively in the last 20 years. We are now using 600% more urea in New Zealand than we did in 1990 (according to Stats NZ and MAF) and our production has not lifted even 50% in that time. Our animal health problems and costs are compounding, along with the time spent drenching, vaccinating and administering antibiotics. Despite some gains through IPM programs, pesticide use (which includes herbicides) in general, has increased. No pest species problems have been eliminated, while weed and insect resistance is on the rise. There are only a few rivers in New Zealand that remain safe to drink from or swim in. The quality of what we grow has declined and if you need convincing on this point – compare the taste of a store-bought tomato with a home-grown one, or ask someone over 60 what peaches used to taste like. Chemical oriented agriculture has also created serious health problems associated with pesticide exposure including Parkinson’s, non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, liver failure and birth defects. And, the energy footprint for agricultural fertilisers and pesticides is huge. When you add the climate change issue and the bad press agriculture is getting for greenhouse gas emissions, it’s a depressing picture, indeed. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Biological farming provides the model for a new conventional farming approach. It is a “best of both worlds” mix between conventional and organic farming practices involving careful monitoring of crops and soils to ensure production of highest quality. We judge success in biological agriculture by the steadily increasing soil humus and the higher levels of nutrient density in the crops produced. While organic certification can certainly fit within a biological approach, biological agriculture has a proactive, rather than restrictive, way of addressing the root causes of insects, diseases and weeds. There is a bigger toolbox with biological agriculture. Farmers are empowered with understanding and can once again enjoy creating food for people.
With biological farming we can create fertile soils while growing tasty, nutrient-dense produce with less fertiliser and eventually no pesticides. In fact, it’s happening now in Hawke’s Bay under the Abron biological agriculture program. Dairies, vineyards, horticultural crops and pastoral farms are using less urea, more sophisticated soil amendments and thinking “bio-diversity and looking after soil microbes” in all farming decisions.
As a result farmers are seeing more worms and greater rooting depths, higher sugar and mineral content in their grass and better yields. They’re also getting better animal health and using less pesticide. To top this, they are even doing what was once thought to be impossible – they are quickly sequestering carbon in their soils. Abron growers are taking a new view of their own family health and becoming proactive about food choices. They are realizing that soil health determines human health – the two cannot be separated. What we do to the soil determines the vitamin and mineral content of what we eat and the nutritional density of what we eat determines all aspects of our health. Biological farming involves some shifts in thinking and a willingness to accept that we haven’t had the whole story when it comes to producing truly good food with quality environmental outcomes.
Hawke’s Bay is potentially the epicenter of biological farming in New Zealand. There are approximately 40,000 hectares under some form of biological program in the Bay. Large cropping farmers are beginning to grow squash, tomatoes, maize and onions biologically. Vineyards such as Tuki in Havelock North are taking out medals for superb vintages. Villa Maria is developing its expertise in biological wine growing.
Dairy farmers indicate that close to half of the Hawke’s Bay dairy production is fertilised biologically. Kevin Davidson, of Plantation Road Dairies in OngaOnga, reversed a three-year decline in milk production and won Regional Dairy Manager with his first year of biological dairying. Cropping farmers are experiencing increased yields and improved soil structure. Pastoral farmers are seeing their pastures hold on longer and their grass sugar levels rise, providing feed with more energy for animals that finish extremely well. The Galloway family of Takapau has experienced massive changes in soil structure, positive shifts in pasture composition and palatability, with crop yields 75% above the district average within the first year on an Abron program.
These clear benefits are nearly overshadowed by the potential for income from soil carbon credits and premiums from organized marketing of certified nutritionally-dense produce. Both of these initiatives are being developed from Hawke’s Bay by Abron Living Soil Solutions and will provide tremendous profit opportunities for farmers who can meet the performance and quality standards.
New Zealand, and Hawke’s Bay in particular, has a tremendous international opportunity to create a point of difference with our biologically grown, premium quality, high brix produce. The market demand for verifiable nutrient quality in food is growing. We can improve soil quality while providing real solutions to climate change and the environmental challenges of fertiliser leaching into our streams and rivers.
Biological agriculture is a comprehensive, natural science approach that answers the issues vexing our environment and economy. Learn all you can about it …it is the farming of the future. Biological farming principles emphasize the importance of educating farmers so they know how their soil capital asset functions and how to grow its worth. After all – farm soils are our prime planetary capital asset and source of our income and ultimately, our health.