Dan Bloomer and Hugh Ritchie talk irrigation

Soil and water guru Dan Bloomer tells Keith Newman he’s confident Hawke’s Bay farmers can rise to the challenge of smarter farming despite the obstacles ahead.

If Hawke’s Bay farmers, croppers and horticulturalists are to survive ongoing legislative changes and qualify for irrigation opportunities implicit in the proposed high country dam, they’ll need to take smart farming more seriously.

Alongside diversification and more intensive land use, science and technology, including satellite mapping, computer modelling and precision guidance systems on farm machinery, will be essential if our baseline agricultural economy is to grow.

Dan Bloomer and Hugh Ritchie talk irrigation

Soil and water expert Dan Bloomer says even five years ago most farming inputs – including labour, diesel, agrichemicals and fertiliser – were wasteful, but better understanding has resulted in more efficient and productive farming methods.

He says farmers are aware that smart use of technology is all that stands between profit and loss as the cycle of increased production costs and lower produce prices has been going on since the invention of the plough.

Recent additions to that volatile mix are the cost of compliance, quality control and regulations, which continue to raise the bar for export success.

Bloomer, a townie who got a taste for the land hand-harvesting beans and tomatoes, took horticultural science at Massey University and gained skills integrating engineering, irrigation and orcharding.

These days, he heads charitable society Landwise, which produces free reports to help farmers “chop out waste” and produce economically and environmentally sustainable crops.

His consultancy, Page Bloomer, is focused on efficient land and soil use and he’s also on the board of Irrigation New Zealand.

Bloomer’s a translator, helping farmers, scientists and regulators understand what each other is trying to say. “I like bouncing around in that triangle.”

Technological hurdles

Farming needs computing and fast and reliable internet as much as any business, but in many cases, he says, landline broadband and cellphone coverage is “horrible”.

In some cases it takes half an hour to complete an essential banking transaction with a supplier and while satellite’s an option, it’s costly. Many have migrated to smartphones where there’s a proven productivity gain, “but you don’t want to be standing on one leg at the kitchen table to get coverage.”

One coverage compromise is to collect data then synchronise with the office network when in wireless range. You can track sheep movements, and with electronic scales and ear tags identify the paddock where they’re not gaining weight, which might be better planted in trees.

Bloomer, who runs resilient cropping workshops, says farmers also need to be psychologically resilient to cope with the market, exchange rate and environment. “While they get up every day with a plan, there might be thunderstorms, a frost or find someone has driven through the fence and the cows are down the road.”

Although yield has increased significantly over the past 15 years through better farming practices, it’s a constant battle to keep ahead. If you’re paying $30,000 – $70,000 a hectare for soil you need the right tools to understand how to make the best use of it.

Mapping the future

HBRC’s satellite maps of the Heretaunga and Ruataniwha plains on Bloomer’s meeting room wall detail land and soil types, biomass and degrees of permeability or ability to hold water.

Not so long ago this military-grade imagery, which shows up the complexity of our landscape, was under tight wraps; now it’s opening the way for more informed decision making.

“Half a metre by half a metre pixel size is stunningly good compared with the 30 metre range we used to have. The question now is how much detail can a farmer handle?”

A decade ago it cost $150,000 to put a GPS system in a self-drive tractor; now at around $35,000 it’s used by most large farms. All the driver does is turn the tractor at the end of the row.

It aligns perfectly for each pass with optimum spacing for spray booms, ploughing or seed planting. “No overlaps, no misses and if you are spraying it’ll turn off nozzles so you’re not double dosing,” says Bloomer.

One client used it for drain laying; even two years ago that would have required a surveyor and physically digging and filling trenches.

The computer was instructed to lay plastic piping at 30 metre spacing, the tractor surveyed the fall and optimum depth and gradient, then the trailer unit laid a tile drain at a kilometre an hour and backfilled with shingle.

Computerised cropping models that mimic what’s happening in the field also have potential to deliver huge efficiencies and can be programmed to respond to exact ground conditions.

Key in the nutrients, soil, weather and water and it’ll tell you when you next need to irrigate. Sensors in the paddock, weekly moisture probing, contract services to confirm your diagnosis, and a little common-sense spade work ensure the water content is on track.

Changing the odds

After all the reports, Bloomer’s now convinced the proposed Ruataniwha dam scheme is essential infrastructure but concedes, “we will most likely end up with some of the most expensive water in the country”.

He says farmers will have to find ways to afford it through land use change, higher value cropping and farming, intensification of existing dairying or total enterprise change. “If I go from dry land to irrigated, I’m going to have to learn a whole new set of skills and invest a lot of money in tractors for cropping.”

Bloomer believes the combined loss to the region after the last prolonged drought may be around $700 million. “It’s a fact of life that we have dry summers and wet winters and if the crops get dry there’s no product for McCains and Watties, ships won’t come and jobs are lost.”

What everyone’s looking for is guaranteed supply. “We can’t afford to have droughts if we plan to stay in business as a region; irrigation is the only way to achieve water, fuel and labour efficiencies.”

Despite claims to the contrary, he insists “no one is allowed to sell water in New Zealand because no one owns it.” Charges relate to infrastructure, compliance and management; collecting and storing data, investigations into water quality and testing of catchments.

Legislative storm ahead

Meanwhile, a swathe of regulatory change is coming at the farming community and Bloomer’s getting an earful of their concerns. “If farmers can’t see the reason or the benefits they get frustrated.”

Some are worried at how the proposed regulations, including nitrogen application and leakage levels, are being interpreted, and even environmental award-winners fear they may not be able to stay in business. New RMA compliance, rules around the use of rivers, and other ‘externalities’ have created an atmosphere of uncertainty, even raising questions about whether the science is right, says Bloomer.

By November 2012 those using 20 litres a second or more; including 3,000 Hawke’s Bay farmers, had to install real-time water meters with a cellular or radio-link to HBRC at around $5,000 each, as well as manually recording daily use. Now the focus is on metering the next tier of water users.

Bloomer says there’ll be even stricter conditions for farmers using the Ruataniwha irrigation scheme. “You will have to irrigate really well and re-evaluate your whole way of farming to ensure the nutrients don’t get washed into the rivers.”

Smart farming, he says, is all about efficiency of supply, lean manufacturing, streamlined processes and reducing waste. “We have to diversify and be more creative; do the same thing better or try something else.”

We’ve had food safety programmes so people don’t die of salmonella; then agrichemical safety. Now Bloomer says we’re moving into environmental integrity to ensure we can get the best price at Sainsbury’s as part of the Pure New Zealand brand. “It’s about quality all the time”.

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