The La Nina pattern of last summer blessed the eastern North Island … until the rain that doesn’t seemed to have stopped turned an exceptional harvest into a very average one.

For many growers, yields for Hawke’s Bay barley and oats were up two tonnes on last year, until that rain turned up. Being a sheep farmer at elevation who absolutely depends on grass, my experience still puts a smile on my face. I don’t wish to confirm everyone’s assumption about farmers, but if the dollar could drop, it would make our lives a lot better.

Bruce Wills, Hawke’s Bay Farmer, National President of Federated Farmers

At the time of last summer’s plentiful rain, Federated Farmers’ grain and seed chair, Rob Foley, described it as “one of the best in ten years” for barley and oat crops. While we may look up at the sky and curse the rain, how easy is it for us to forget that consecutive droughts made things very tough in the Hawke’s Bay.

If there is one word that ought not to be in our vocabulary, drought is arguably it.

On annual rainfall alone, both Gisborne-Wairoa and Hawke’s Bay ought to be lush and green. The difference is that while it generally falls well from autumn into winter and then early spring, we tend to hit a long dry and hot summer. Then, water moisture is quickly sucked from the soil in 30 degree plus summer days and the performance of pasture deteriorates.

Water our Achilles heel

Pasture is the engine room of any farm and by extension, the economy. If you fall into a downwards cycle, green can quickly give way to brown and once you hit that point, you can lose your topsoil. It also means that by the time rain finally reappears, hills can start to slide affecting the visual clarity of water. Not to mention an inevitable nutrient spike in creeks, streams and rivers.

Coming back to the winter of 2012 one thing is for certain; it stands as one of the wettest ever. Speaking on RadioLive, Central Hawke’s Bay Mayor, Peter Butler, said one farm put July 2012 as the second wettest July since 1890. Farmers have a fixation with the weather and record every millimetre because it provides a pointer to the future. While history doesn’t repeat, patterns can, and past experience provides a pointer for future management.

As a farmer, the one thought now going through my mind is if we’ve had all of this rain now, what will happen come spring and summer?

Last year’s La Nina Goldilocks weather will surely not repeat and does that mean we’ll face a long hot El Nino summer? The only good news is that soils are now at or over capacity. The bad is that the roots of our pasture are likely to be growing at the surface in order to breathe. If we strike several weeks of hot dry weather, these roots could be caught at the surface and pasture will be knocked back just as we hit drier weather. This is often known as a green drought; pasture is there but isn’t sufficient to sustain livestock.

I guess this not only illustrates the balancing act we have as farmers, but the three preconditions needed for pasture to grow, as well. They are sunshine hours, soil temperature and, of course, water. Hawke’s Bay is usually blessed with the first two, but water remains our Achilles heel … the current rain not withstanding.

This is why Hawke’s Bay Regional Council’s Ruataniwha Plains Water Storage Project is so vital. If it comes off, it will not only be big for the Hawke’s Bay, but big for New Zealand.

Utilising summer

The centrepiece is of course a $200 million project, with a dam wall 77 metres high. The resulting reservoir will cover an area of some 400 hectares; only slightly smaller than Sydney’s central business district and double the size of Wellington’s. What it means is an uplift in our irrigable area from 6,000 hectares to over 20,000 hectares. This greatly aids the development of not just our sector, pastoral agriculture, but horticulture as well.

We are already seeing positive indicators for how farming and value-adding industries mesh together.

At the beginning of this year, Heinz announced they were closing their Australian plant in favour of the Hawke’s Bay. It means Heinz will no longer make sauces or ketchup for Australia. It means they’ll be eating our ketchup, there.

Realistically, there aren’t enough raw ingredients for Heinz to use only New Zealand grown product. Yet this water storage project creates the real potential for horticulture to grow by creating the means to utilise summer without fear of what happens when it doesn’t rain.

It is the same for our pastoral sector, because environmentally, as I wrote earlier, the best way of preventing the loss of topsoil and nutrients is to keep our pasture and crops growing. Only last week, in Sydney, Ohio State University’s Professor Rattan Lal praised the uplift in soil carbon taking place in New Zealand right now.

The 6% achieved on some farms has us well ahead of the world and helps to put some of the debate around nutrient loss into context. Soil carbon is increasing in New Zealand because of the free-range system we generally employ based around grass.

The reality of combatting nutrient loss lies with keeping our pastures green year-round. To achieve this end demands water storage and reticulation of the kind being advocated by Hawke’s Bay Regional Council. Science is starting to show that pasture is perhaps one of the best tools we have to keep nutrients on-farm. Living pasture contains microbiological processes we still have much to learn about.

There is much work to be done in this field, as we have tended to focus on what happens above ground instead of what happens with root structures below.

Yes there are environmental constraints in agriculture, but our response shouldn’t be to demand that we just do less. Especially when we come to discuss water. The one thing I can say with certainty and from experience is that very little good comes from pasture that has browned-off and died.

Water means green grass. So from my standpoint, ‘green is good’.

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