Coastal challenges

I noticed a small article in one of the local newspapers last week, promoting an event to celebrate the Cape Coast in Hawke’s Bay (including the coastal communities of Haumoana and Te Awanga). The event is a fund-raising auction, which is being held this week, with a range of quality items. The funds are to support the Walking on Water (WOW) campaign for a hard engineering solution for coastal erosion protection.

Coastal erosion at Haumoana and Te Awanga
Coastal erosion at Haumoana and Te Awanga

The reality of the 21st century is that we’re going to increasingly see coastal communities like this campaigning for their survival. To put things in perspective, current projections of sea-level rise indicate that hundreds of millions of people will be at risk over coming decades. More than two thirds of the world’s cities are at risk. Asia is particularly vulnerable, as shown on this map. Bangkok, which I am travelling to next week, is one of the most vulnerable cities.

Coming back to a New Zealand perspective, the Royal Society of New Zealand recently released an update of current knowledge regarding future sea-level rise. Emerging evidence suggests that sea-level rise greater than current guidance could occur. The current Ministry for the Environment guidance recommends a base value of 0.5m for sea-level rise, with assessment of consequences up to 0.8m. The more recent evidence suggests that it would not be unrealistic to consider a higher level rise by the end of this century. In some countries, such as Australia and the Netherlands, higher levels (in both of these cases 1.1m) have been set for risk assessment and planning purposes

Given this bigger picture, and the already vulnerable situation at Haumoana and Te Awanga, I personally don’t believe that investment in coastal barriers is a viable long-term solution for these communities. Erosion is already happening and with allowance for sea-level rise there will be accelerated erosion. Unfortunately the most obvious alternative solution to coastal barriers, managed retreat, isn’t an easy one for people to accept. Some perspective is needed in this regard. Like everywhere else in New Zealand we are fortunate to have options that the majority of people in the world don’t have. With the right spirit and focus this local coastal community has an opportunity to provide some genuine leadership. In my view this leadership isn’t going to come about from resisting change and wanting to construct barriers. Rather it will come from positive engagement in finding realistic, long-lasting solutions. For this to happen we need to recognise the psychological dimension of change. That’s a very big challenge that we as a society need to start working on together. We’re a long way from where we need to be in this regard. To get there we’re going to need the artists and all the others who have generously donated to the upcoming fundraising activity. That’s the crux of my concern in reading about this event, that we’re putting so much time and energy into resisting change in a world that is undergoing very rapid change.

Local resilience: Current happenings in the garden

For some time I’ve been intending to write about happenings in our home garden. Climate change has never been an abstract issue for me. I have a long-standing interest in self-sufficiency, local adaptation and resilience. This goes back to my early 20s when I began consolidating my environmental interests and concerns. My first steps included becoming a vegetarian and developing a strong interest in organic agriculture. Both emerged in the latter stages of my first degree in horticultural science in the early 1980s. My first serious opportunity to start putting my ideas and interests into practice was during the 1990s when we owned a one hectare block of land on the slopes of Mount Pirongia. That’s something to write about another time.

For now I thought it would be worthwhile to start talking about things that we do in our home and garden in Hastings.

For the last ten years I’ve lived on a 1600 square metre section in suburban Hastings. Redesign of the garden and renovation of the house (built in 1959) are on-going projects. There are challenges with the garden, with an old stream bed running through the middle of it. This means very shallow, gravely, soil in the area immediately out from the back of the house. The grass inevitably dies off every summer and the garden needs regular watering, even with the mulching and composting that we do. I’ve learned to observe the progressive drying of the grass from the shallowest, stoniest, area towards the back of the garden where the soil is deeper. It gives me a good indicator of how dry conditions are as the summer progresses. In the worst year I’ve observed wilting in the leaves of some of the native trees at the very back of the garden. A Pittosporum tree died off that year.

Currently we’re experiencing the height of spring. There is still moisture in the soil from a wet winter and everything is growing strongly. The native kowhai trees have already flowered and many are past their peak. The lavender that I pruned back in the autumn has burst into life and together with the self-seeding borage is providing spring food for the bees. We don’t keep bees, but it’s something I’m very keen to do again.

First flowering of a young Kowhai seedling tree that we relocated from another part of the garden last year
First flowering of a young Kowhai seedling tree that we relocated from another part of the garden last year
The lavender is currently alive with bees
The lavender is currently alive with bees
The borage we planted last year is now self-seeding and provides great bee fodder, as well as attracting other beneficial insects to the garden
The borage we planted last year is now self-seeding and provides great bee fodder, as well as attracting other beneficial insects to the garden

The garlic that we planted on the shortest day is now growing strongly. We harvested enough last year for our cooking needs and to supply us with seed for this year. For the first time, as far as I can recall, we still have surplus garlic in storage that isn’t going mouldy. We plaited it soon after the last harvest and it has stored very well.

The garlic, planted on the shortest day, is growing strongly now. We’re looking forward to another abundant harvest.
The garlic, planted on the shortest day, is growing strongly now. We’re looking forward to another abundant harvest.

The solitary apple tree is in flower. The variety is called McMillan’s red. I got the bud wood from an apple grower on the outskirts of Hamilton in the mid 1990s. I used to always buy his apples on my way home from work. But he and other small apple orchards on the outskirts of Hamilton rapidly went out of business after the local market was deregulated in 1993. They were put out of business by the supermarkets which bought apples in bulk from large growers in Hawke’s Bay, dropped the prices, and very soon people stopped going to the local small growers. Even though he’d pulled his trees out the grower managed to locate some dormant graft wood for me. I then got some MM106 rootstock (a good medium sized apple rootstock, developed in England in the 1950s) from a local nurseryman and successfully grafted the McMillan’s red.

The McMillan’s red apple is flowering, as are all of the apples in the orchards around Hastings
The McMillan’s red apple is flowering, as are all of the apples in the orchards around Hastings

Aside from the solitary apple tree other fruit trees we have in the garden are 27 olive trees (two Verdale and a Manzanilla, planted about seven years ago and nine Frantoio, ten Leccino and five Koroneiki planted just over two years ago), two NZ grapefruit trees, two tangelo trees, a mandarin tree, a lemon tree, four feijoas (two older trees, and two new varieties planted two years ago) a lemonade tree, a fig, a guava bush and a grapevine. We’ve been harvesting and processing fruit from the older olive trees for a few years now. We’re currently eating the grapefruit and have an abundance of lemons. The lemon tree is in one of the drier parts of the garden and suffers disease problems as a result. We’re working to minimise the stress on these trees by building up the organic matter.

We have a good crop of lemons this year. The scale and sooty mould aren’t as severe as in the past as we work to improve the health of the soil
We have a good crop of lemons this year. The scale and sooty mould aren’t as severe as in the past as we work to improve the health of the soil

Taharoa Trust field day a success

We held a very successful field day at Taharoa Trust farm on Mahia Peninsula yesterday, hosted by owners Pat and Sue O’Brien. There were about 70 farmers and rural industry people who came from as far afield as Porongahau in southern Central Hawke’s Bay and north of Gisborne. The field day was one of three being held in Hawke’s Bay as the culmination of a two-year Sustainable Farming Fund project. The focus of the project has been the long-term resilience of hill country farming in the face of a changing climate.

The day began with a welcoming Karakia from Sue O’Brien ahead of an opening one-hour session. Project Manager, Gavin Kenny, then provided an overview of the project and key outcomes. The project began with in-depth interviews held with 21 farmers spread throughout Hawke’s Bay. The focus of these interviews was to determine what farmers had learnt from past and recent droughts, as well as flood events, and what they were putting in place to deal with future climate extremes. Information shared by the farmers has been collated as part of a series of four fact sheets. Three farmers were identified for more in-depth studies. These involved development and publication of a farm environment plan and preparation of a summary case study. Three field days are being held to share the fact sheet and case study information. The first field day was held at Tim Dinneen’s family farm, Williams Hill Station, near Puketitiri on 11 March. The Taharoa Trust field day was the second. The third and final field day will be held at Mangarara Station in Central Hawke’s Bay on 10 June.

The main focus of the field days is building resilience for the future and Gavin Kenny provided a brief summary of what this actually means. The main components are: buffering capacity (eg, ability to withstand a drought or flood); self regulation (eg, ability to manage a drought without dependence on imported feed); adaptability (ie, capacity to adapt and change over time). His talk concluded with a couple of quotes from farmers who said they wanted to see working models of resilience. Taharoa Trust farm provides one such working model.

A captive audience listening to Garth Eyle's talk on the underlying geology and different land classes on the farm
A captive audience listening to Garth Eyle's talk on the underlying geology and different land classes on the farm

Garth Eyles then talked about the farm environment plan. He provided a brief summary of the geology of the Mahia Peninsula then talked about some of the key land characteristics of Taharoa Trust. On the terraces the soils are formed from volcanic ashes and loess. On the steep slopes the ash has disappeared and the soils are formed on the mudstone. Garth talked about the different land management options needed to protect the land, some of which are already being put in place. An important characteristic of the property is the 27 hectares of wetland that have been progressively fenced off over the last five years.

Mike Halliday gave a brief talk on farm shelter. Pat O’Brien has been busy removing old macrocarpa trees over the last decade and with his farm redesign programme well underway is now looking at shelter plantings for the future. One of the fundamental principals of good shelter design is to plant a semi-permeable shelter. Another important consideration is orientation for the sun, with evergreen trees planted north-south and deciduous trees planted east-west.

Pat O’Brien concluded the session with an overview of what had been achieved in the ten years since they took over the farm from Sue’s parents. Significant development work has been done, with an on-going focus towards matching land use to land class. This has involved retiring the wetland areas and an area of bush, and intensifying farming on the better land. Key developments have included: water reticulation; a greater trading component with the stock; pasture improvement and cropping; and a shift to a low input soil management programme with the Hatuma Lime Company. Pat and Sue both have a strong sense of guardianship with the farm and this was clearly reflected in the current and future planning.

Lunch was then provided before everyone headed out onto the farm, where three sites were visited.

Pat O'Brien talking about the benefits they've gained from fencing off and retiring wetland areas on the farm
Pat O'Brien talking about the benefits they've gained from fencing off and retiring wetland areas on the farm

The first site was next to the bush block, overlooking one of the main wetland areas that has been retired and fenced off. John Cheyne, a wetland expert with Fish & Game, talked about the significant value of wetland areas and the multiple functions and benefits that they provide. This includes the increased biodiversity, a filter zone, and buffering against flood events. Peter Manson, from the HBRC Wairoa office, talked about the support HBRC provides farmers who wish to protect wetland areas. Their programme provides a grant to cover half the cost of fencing materials. The O’Briens have made a significant investment in protecting the wetland areas. They’re already realising the benefits. The obvious economic benefit is the ability to focus more time and effort to intensification of the better land. When asked whether the same number of stock could be grazed with less area, Pat didn’t believe that fencing wetland areas out had affected his overall carrying capacity at all as it had been combined with an intensified grazing regime. Experiencing the increase of native plants and bird life is another very important benefit to Pat and Sue.

Pat intends to fence off the stream running through this valley
Pat intends to fence off the stream running through this valley

The second site was looking out over a valley system that was likely formed in the past when the sea level was higher. There is a relatively small stream running through this valley, which Pat is aiming to fence off in future. At this site Bill Nicholson, from Hatuma Lime Company, shared information on the benefits of a low input farming approach. When asked about the one ton of lime to one acre “rule of thumb”, Bill responded that experience shows little and often gives much better results over time. An important feature of a low input approach is the encouragement of biological life in the soil. He shared information from a farm near Wairoa that has been following a low input regime for 30 years. Questioned about whether his switch to a low input regime was because of cost, Pat responded it was more due to other factors. For them such an approach is more consistent with the sustainable farming model that they are developing.

Warwick Green talking about pasture species for long-term resilience
Warwick Green talking about pasture species for long-term resilience

At the third and final site Warwick Green from Seedforce talked about pasture species for future resilience. Warwick is working with the O’Brien’s to improve their pasture. As a farmer with more than 30 years experience with pasture breeding, Warwick has a wealth of knowledge to share. He talked about the need to be much more focused on matching pasture species and variety to the desired use and land class. He commented that resilience in pastures is about having a farm plan and a range of pasture species all chosen for the specific purpose intended in different parts of the farm. Advance planning is essential. He suggested that with a greater frequency of warmer, drier, conditions in future we made need to look outside the square to what the Australians and others have been doing. In summary, he said there are plenty of options out there, but perhaps not enough pasture specialists anymore. Mike Halliday then gave a quick description on how a shelter system could be applied to the block of land being viewed using existing fencelines and contours.

The day was concluded with a thank you to Pat and Sue, who were presented with a copy of the Hawke’s Bay ‘Guide to Successful Farm Forestry’. Feedback on the day was very positive with the right mix of good information and seeing what was being done on the farm.

Interviewed on Rural Delivery

I was one of the subjects of a segment on Rural Delivery on TV1 this morning. I was interviewed several weeks ago, along with Tim Dinneen, a Hawke’s Bay farmer who we had previously interviewed as part of the two-year Sustainable Farming Fund project that I am managing.

The interview with Tim and myself was screened this morning and is now archived. Go to Chapter 2 for the 10 minute segment. I’m not sure if this can be viewed from overseas.  In case you can’t view it there is at least some background material to the interview on the Rural Delivery website.