Successful completion of Sustainable Farming Fund project

Yesterday saw a successful conclusion to a two-year Sustainable Farming Fund project that I have been managing.  We completed the last of three field days that we have been running.  The turnout at the first wasn’t so good, but at the second we had about 70 people and yesterday we had 60+ people. The field day yesterday was hosted by Greg and Rachel Hart at Mangarara Station. We had a strong focus on soil health with Graham Shepherd talking on “Building soil health to better cope with climatic extremes” and providing a practical demonstration of his Visual Soil Assessment approach.

Graham Shepherd demonstrating application of the Visual Soil Assessment guide
Graham Shepherd demonstrating application of the Visual Soil Assessment guide

I’ll be posting a bit more information about the project soon, including pdf copies of the fact sheets that have been produced from the project.

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.

Thoughts on carbon trading

The following was published in the January 2010 newsletter of the New Zealand Farm Forestry Association. It was written in response to an editorial in the previous newsletter. I’ve subsequently made some minor modifications.

Carbon trading was never a sensible response to climate change. As quoted in a recent report prepared by Climate Risk for WWF International “the current emphasis on carbon price as the key element of the climate change solution is dangerously misleading”. Instead I believe we need an approach that is founded on policies that support the development of resilient local communities.

The very first IPCC assessment, published in the early 1990s, talked about the potential co-benefits of a combined approach to adaptation (responding to the effects of climate change) and mitigation (reducing or offsetting GHG emissions). Somehow talk of co-benefits got lost, a handful of scientists focused on impacts and adaptation assessment through the 1990s, and a heap of people got interested in mitigation, particularly the economists. As climate change has become more of a reality (for those who believe the science, and I am one who does) there has been increased attention to adaptation over the last decade and more talk of ‘co-benefits’. So what do co-benefits mean?

In a practical sense it means doing what smart farmers, including farm foresters, have been doing for decades. If you draw together the lessons from practical farmers, which I have been doing for the last nine years, you get a comprehensive picture of farm resilience. A resilient farm with trees for multiple benefits, with well managed soils (eg. minimal or no reliance on N fertiliser, a focus on building or maintaining organic matter and deep rooted pasture) and well managed pasture, stock and water, has in-built capacity to buffer against climate extremes (and climate change) and is providing multiple benefits in terms of carbon storage and reduced emissions. It’s common sense to the farmers who are doing this sort of thing.

My view is that if we want to be really serious about climate change and our collective future, even if you don’t believe in climate change, then investment in developing what the American farmer and writer Wendell Berry refers to as a true ecological mosaic as a foundation for a truly sustainable economy (the two go hand in hand) would be a far more sensible approach. It would be the best investment any government could make for our future. We need to be looking at everything we can do to protect and enhance our land and water resources … building long-term resilience is the real solution. If we get the ecology right the economics will follow. To achieve that will require a level of intelligence and wisdom that exists within New Zealand if you know the right people, but we’re not yet listening and acting in the way that we need to be.

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.

The importance of working together

Climate change is real and we humans have contributed significantly to this. I have no doubt in my mind now. The scientific evidence is there. More importantly people on the ground are experiencing profound changes. Hearing this from local people is one of the most important things that I gained from travelling through Asia to Europe with my family in the first half of this year. If you haven’t read our blog from this journey check in the archives.

Another important thing that I gained was a deepened sense of hope amidst the very clear evidence of overpopulation, pollution and environmental degradation in many countries. There are people, a minority still, who are acting for the future now. I’ve talked about this as I shared stories from our journey.

What I also gained was a deepened understanding of the long-term connection to nature that exists in many countries, both eastern and western. This connection is not always obvious, but it is evident in some landscapes and in the things that some people are now doing. There is a renewal, a reawakening, a rethinking of things that is beginning to emerge. My experience of this was cause for reflection on New Zealand where we are still working out how to live together and with our unique, but hugely modified, environment.

With only 4 million people and an abundance of natural resources, surely we can get it right? If we can’t, who can? What we need to do, and this is a very big challenge for New Zealanders, is to embrace our past, look beyond our differences and start working together for our collective future much more than we are. I hear it said that we can’t look forward until we have effectively dealt with the past or resolved our differences. Will we ever? There is a different way. By working positively together for our shared future we will also find ways to address the many social, economic and environmental issues that we have. In my view it is a matter of urgency that we do this. Change is happening in the world to a much greater degree and at a much faster rate than we fully appreciate here in New Zealand. I’m not a doomsday person but I do believe that we are either going to choose or be compelled to work together much more than we presently are. If we do this by choice and with vision then we have real potential to provide leadership for the world.

A letter of thanks

Dear Everyone!!

Late last year my family and I made a decision … my older sister and I had sold our Mum’s small house in New Zealand. We had a choice, either pay off the mortgage on our own home or travel and document grassroots perspectives on climate change. Of course you all know what we chose to do.

It took a huge effort to organise our journey, but we could never have done it without all of you. In various ways you all helped us along the way. I want to especially mention Khun Tuenjai and her amazing network of people in Thailand. You organised such a busy itinerary for us to start our journey, but it was such a rich experience and we met so many warm, generous people in your country… too many to name here. After Thailand we were on our own a lot more and it was very hard work at times to meet and film people and places. But we managed. Viet Nam was hard, but we have some very good friends there who did their very best to help us. Our brief stay in India was greatly helped by Andy in New Delhi.

Nepal was both challenging and inspiring … for Lena, Ali and I it was truly a highlight of the journey to walk together for 19 days and to cross Thorong La Pass (5400 metres). Amidst illness and long days walking we managed to capture a few gems on film. I greatly enjoyed meeting Ngamindra and his colleagues in Kathmandu and I sincerely hope we can find a way to work with and support you. Everything in Egypt came together at the last minute, but again we met such warm, hospitable people who did their best to help us. Thankyou to Angela and Selim, and to Prof Zakharia for compelling me to go out to the Western Desert where we again met some wonderful people at Bahariya Oasis … thankyou Ahmed and Corien.

In Italy I have to thank Marco and his small team and I sincerely hope we can keep working together and find ways to work with all of these other wonderful people we have met. And who would have imagined the connection with Katharina and Alfredo in a beautiful valley in Umbria … a place we went to because the accommodation was a good deal and it looked nice! In Milan, thankyou to Iva and Paolo for having us in your home. We experienced the same warmth again with the Galli family in Lugano. Our time in France was too short, but thanks to Remy for having a bit of time to meet and talk… and to Jean-Pierre and Claire in the south of France for your wonderful work. Unfortunately I’m not able to communicate to many of the real grassroots people we met … farmers, village leaders and others … Thankyou to those of you who helped me meet all of these people.

A special mention goes to my cousin, Michael, who has done such a wonderful job with the blog page. And to my big sister Jill for buying me such a great hat!…. and to everyone else who I haven’t mentioned by name!!

We’ve come to the end of our journey now. On Saturday, 7 July we leave London for New Zealand. Lena is staying on here until late October and has already started a job here in London. For me the last week or so has been a time to rest and reflect. I have a lot to do when I get home, not least of which is to start earning some money again!! I still don’t know yet how I’m going to produce a documentary out of all that we’ve done. But it will happen somehow.