Ways with water: Agriculture vs the environment

Ways with water: Agriculture vs the environment

As Leonardo da Vinci once said, “water is the driving force of all nature”. And it’s coming in for plenty of discussion in New Zealand at present. So are agricultural growth and environmental protection mutually exclusive? Or can a balance be struck? Damian Christie takes a dip.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of New Zealand’s waterways, not just in material terms, but for their place in our national identity. As a young fella I grew up hunting for tadpoles in the streams out back of our place in Waiouru. On holidays at grandma’s bach in Central Otago my dad taught me to fish for trout in the nearby lakes. And as a teenager in Upper Hutt the river was a constant backdrop to long days spent swimming, rafting, and in later years, summer evenings spent partying around bonfires with friends.

Given such close, albeit sometimes nostalgic relationships, it’s not surprising to find the average Kiwi values their waterways. But what is surprising to the average person is the state they’re in: according to Massey University environmental scientist Dr Mike Joy, 90 percent of our lowland rivers are deemed unsafe to swim in. Some areas are worse. And in September 2010 a report by Environment Southland found 89 percent of all river and stream sites tested were either of poor or very poor quality.

But let’s be clear, this is nothing new. And pollution levels are still nowhere near as bad as many other nations, with the prime minister saying our water quality is still ranked second in the world behind Iceland. Look for stories about water pollution from the time when I was hunting for tadpoles in the ‘70s and you’ll find plenty of them. Rivers choked with pollutants, freshwater fish dying, people and animals getting sick and, in one case in 1972, the Waiwhetu Stream in Lower Hutt catching fire and burning for an entire day.

What’s changed over the years is how we pollute the water. In the past, the problem was point source pollution. Factories, farms, freezing works, sewage plants could—and did—discharge their waste straight into the nearest waterway and it was common practice and perfectly legal for farmers to put their effluent directly into the river, rather than re-apply it to the land as fertiliser. Thankfully, much of this has changed, so these days the biggest threats come from “diffuse” pollution like seepage and run-off, both in rural and urban areas.

Water quality testing checks levels of escaping nutrients in waterways

In recent years, much of the focus—and much of the blame—has been placed on the farming sector, and in particular, the intensification of the dairy industry. And the days for denials are long gone. “There’s no argument from farmers that farm run-off impacts the environment,” said Federated Farmers president Bruce Wills in September. An OECD report from the same month cites agriculture, in particular nitrogen leaching, as the main reason for our deteriorating waterways.

But you don’t need to be an OECD economist to see why. In 1986 there were 3.3 million dairy cows in New Zealand, exactly the same number of cows as there were people. In 2010 there were 4.4 million people, but our dairy population had grown at more than twice that rate, to 5.9 million cows. In less than quarter of a century we had added the cow equivalent of 18 cities the size of Hamilton. Add to that the fact that each cow produces at least 20 times as much waste as a person, and you start to see the scale of the increase, and a major cause of our current problem.

So what’s the solution? The first and simplest is mitigating the damage caused by the existing level of farming by keeping stock out of waterways, and riparian planting. Bob Wilcock, a principal scientist at NIWA, says these are the most important things we can do.

“I’d have enforced riparian protection on all waterways, all rivers. Fenced back maybe five metres, and plant it out. It creates that buffer between the land and the water for a start, but it also creates shade, and one of the things that’s not recognised is habitat loss, so not only are you getting pollutants but you’re losing the habitat for all our native fish, and the things that make New Zealand uniquely different from the rest of the world. Things you hope our kids grow up to enjoy.”

The importance of riparian protection was recognised by the Dairying and Clean Streams Accord, signed between Fonterra, the Ministry for the Environment, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, and regional councils in 2003. It set a number of targets, including keeping cattle from waterways, managing nutrients and ensuring effluent discharges comply with local requirements. But almost nine years on, the failure by many farmers to follow the voluntary standards has come in for criticism, even from Fonterra and Federated Farmers themselves.

Ian McKenzie, Federated Farmers’ spokesman on water issues, points out the Accord has another limitation: it only applies to dairying. “That in itself produces a problem, because even if all dairy farmers are 100 percent compliant it only takes one bull beef farmer, or one deer farmer, with bulls or deer wallowing in a creek to cause a creek to be a pretty mucky place.”

Perhaps for reasons such as these, in 2009 the Government established the Land & Water Forum, which comprises industry, environmental, recreational and iwi groups and aims to produce a consensus approach to water use (and abuse) within the next year.

There are other signs the importance of our waterways is increasing. In August the government pledged $11.6 million to clean up New Zealand’s most polluted lake Lake Ellesmere in Canterbury, following on from the largely successful clean-up efforts of the Rotorua lakes. Both Labour and, less surprisingly, the Greens, made freshwater management a significant feature of their election campaigns.

Ultimately it will be good business practice as much as the urge to do the right thing that will encourage mitigation efforts. “The bottom line,” says Ian McKenzie, “is if you’re losing nutrients it means you’ve got to put more fertiliser on, but if you apply it at the right time, a) you don’t lose it and b) you get the maximum take up by the crops. There’s quite a big focus on getting the best bang for your back, and with urea now costing $850 a tonne, there’s a real incentive to get what you’re paying for.”

Incentives or not, there is widespread agreement that at least in some areas the answer is not to farm smarter, but simply to farm less. Ian McKenzie suggests a moratorium on new conversions around certain catchments, such as Southland’s Waituna Lagoon, which made headlines earlier this year for being at high risk of ‘flipping’, or becoming irreversibly septic.

Dr Joy says we need to go further still and decrease the current level of intensive dairy farms to save the rivers.

“Rivers are the easiest thing in the world to clean up,” he says. “You just have to stop the inputs.” And NIWA’s Bob Wilcock agrees stock levels in some areas may already be too high.

In time, perhaps the approach of the Land & Water Forum will lead to more consensus building and less blame passing and muddying of the waters (both literally and figuratively). And Ian McKenzie, who sits on the Forum, thinks it can happen, but only if the industry looks at what’s best for the nation.

“You’ve got to focus on not playing the politics of defending your own industry, but trying to get the right solution. If we are focusing on getting the right solution for water quality in New Zealand, then everybody wins.”

As supreme winners of the 2011 Horizons Ballance Farm Environment Awards (and also scoring the LIC Dairy Farm Award, the Ballance Nutrient Management Award and the Hills Laboratories Harvest Award) Rickie Morrison and Sharleen Hutching have turned a run-down operation into a model eco-farm.

Morrison grew up on his parent’s farm and started his sharemilking career there, while Hutching, a trained hairdresser, forsook the salon and joined Rick on the farm. When it was sold to new owners they remained on as 50:50 sharemilkers.

Three years ago they bought an 83 ha dairy unit, milking 201 cows, just south of Eketahuna. Their initial motivation was to simply make the farm more efficient and workable but over time the ‘green’ gospel started to have resonance. “We’re proud to be actively taking our farm into the future and teaching our kids about the benefits of developing clean waterways and planting stunning trees. More and more people are now taking notice of what we’re up to and following similar strategies to make farms friendlier.”

With their farm located in a high rainfall area, waterway and nutrient issues came to the fore. A covered feed pad to protect pastures from potential damage in adverse weather is often used—even if it means dead of night livestock shifting.

Improved subdivision, upgraded stock water and effluent disposal systems, elimination of weeds and re-grassing of major areas of the farm are further examples of their positive footprint. They have also retired wetland areas and fenced drains, planted trees for shade and shelter and protected pockets of native bush.

But the ‘greenness’ of their farming methods hasn’t affected their returns. They produced 70,400kg of Milksolids last season. And after taking on additional land next door and upping cow numbers to 236, he is confident of achieving 100,000kg Milksolids this coming season—without overly taxing his herd or his land.

Outpost Central sounds like it would belong more in a sci-fi thriller. The science part is right and the reality is that this smart water-meter business is making waves in water savings both at home and abroad. It is New Zealand’s third fastest growing technology company with 80 percent of its revenue from exports.

Founders James Riddell and Jed Forbes started the business while at university in 2002. Neither are hard core, card carrying ‘greenies’ but instead saw lucrative returns to be made in developing environmental monitoring systems. Particularly in a world intent on protecting water resources and with ever increasing environmental regulations to achieve that end.

In a nutshell they offer the ability, by connecting water meters to the internet, to monitor water and energy use and manage environmental and resource-based activities. The planet protection component to the offer is naturally alluring but the cost savings its monitoring systems allow through smarter and more efficient use is the deal clincher.

Customers tend to be major water utilities, large commercial customers and public sector users such as schools, but their services are also making headway in the agricultural sector.

This story originally appeared in Primary magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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