Farm­ing smart

Bi­o­log­i­cal agri­cul­ture is a blend of science and con­ser­va­tion that has farm­ers count­ing worms, smelling the soil and get­ting ex­cited about the com­plex ecosys­tem that lives un­der the grass.

Element - - Planet - KATE BEECROFT Kate Beecroft has an MPhil in the gov­er­nance of sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture in New Zealand from Massey Univer­sity. She has worked as an edi­tor and writer for sev­eral years and now works as a pol­icy ad­vi­sor in the Min­istry of Busi­ness, In­no­va­tion

The buzz around bi­o­log­i­cal farm­ing seems to be catch­ing. At the re­cent Field Days in the Waikato, Steven Haswell, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor at BioAg New Zealand, de­scribed his ‘walk-up traf­fic’ as “sig­nif­i­cantly dif­fer­ent” from other years. “There’s an un­ease with the cur­rent way of do­ing things – yields, pro­duc­tiv­ity, an­i­mal health. The prob­lems are get­ting more com­plex. Farm­ers are look­ing at op­tions. Bi­o­log­i­cal agri­cul­ture is a sys­tem for ev­ery farm, and it sim­ply in­cor­po­rates look­ing af­ter the liv­ing part of the soil’s bi­ol­ogy. It has, in the past, largely been ig­nored by the main­stream in terms of its fer­til­ity. The aim of bi­o­log­i­cal farm­ing is to im­prove the mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy of the soil and restore the bal­ance of min­er­als. The tech­niques are nu­mer­ous, from re­duc­ing the ap­pli­ca­tion of syn­thet­i­cally de­rived pes­ti­cides and fer­tiliser, to de­creas­ing stock num­bers and fo­cus­ing on qual­ity, to ro­tat­ing pas­ture and mak­ing ma­nure from ef­flu­ent.

It is not a re­turn to the plough and ox, it is about get­ting the “beast­ies in the ground to do the work for you,” as Waiuku bi­o­log­i­cal ki­wifruit grower Mur­ray Reid puts it.

The ro­ta­tion of stock on dif­fer­ent pas­tures in­creases soil depth and qual­ity and at the same time se­questers a con­sid­er­able amount of car­bon. With­out the use of syn­thetic chem­i­cal fer­tilis­ers, soil bi­ol­ogy – the growth of soil bac­te­ria, fungi, worms – plus the use of a wider range of pas­ture species, re­sults in the build-up of soil car­bon in the form of plant roots and a layer of hu­mus (rich black or brown de­cayed plant mat­ter that gives soil nu­tri­ents).

The ini­tial reaction to bi­o­log­i­cal meth­ods from many farm­ers is that pro­duc­tiv­ity will drop, and a drop in yield threat­ens the fi­nan­cial vi­a­bil­ity of the farm. “A non-ex­is­tent farm is not sus­tain­able,” says Dave Gobles, a bi­o­log­i­cal sheep and beef farmer from West Otago.

But the re­sults com­ing from farm­ers like Max Pur­nell near Taupo, Jeff Wil­liams in the Manawatu, Greg Hart in Hawke’s Bay, and Rick Brad­dock on Mo­tat­apu Is­land, com­bined with the re­duced cost of bi­o­log­i­cal farm­ing, means that it is gain­ing trac­tion.

With sup­port and part­ner­ship from the Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion (DoC), cat­tle farmer Rick Brad­dock has helped trans­form crown-owned Mo­tu­tapu Is­land in the Hau­raki Gulf from a weed-in­fested is­land over­run by wal­la­bies to a pest­free bi­o­log­i­cal farm.

Brad­dock is op­ti­mistic about the trend in sus­tain­able farm­ing; the small but grow­ing turn away from urea fer­tiliser in­di­cates that farm­ing prac­tices are not set in stone.

“Urea is the co­caine of agri­cul­ture; it pro­vides a quick fix and then it’s over.”

An­other con­ven­tional farm­ing prob­lem that can be­come cycli­cal is an­tibi­otic use. High in­put dairy farm­ers can find them­selves spend­ing $1,200 – $1,500 per month on an­tibi­otics. While bi­o­log­i­cal agri­cul­ture doesn’t rule out the use of an­tibi­otics if an an­i­mal is sick, the need is dra­mat­i­cally re­duced.

“With smart farm­ing, as I like to call it, the cost is lower, the an­i­mals are hap­pier and the soil is in a far bet­ter con­di­tion,” says Brad­dock.

With the help of DoC Brad­dock has fenced off all nat­u­ral water­ways and cre­ated wet­lands on the is­land.

In Brad­dock’s mind, in­creas­ing the foothold of bi­o­log­i­cal farm­ing in New Zealand re­quires three things; the use of lo­cal and re­gional coun­cil reg­u­la­tion to im­ple­ment nu­tri­ent caps; a pre­mium as­so­ci­ated with bi­o­log­i­cal pro­duce and in­creas­ing the con­nec­tiv­ity be­tween farm­ers.

The past sum­mer saw the worst drought in forty years, but the pas­tures and an­i­mals on Mo­tu­tapu coped well. Brad­dock at­tributes this to good resid­ual cover and the healthy state of the soil. In the Hawkes Bay a sim­i­lar sce­nario has oc­curred with farm­ers prac­tic­ing bi­o­log­i­cal farm­ing.

“With con­ven­tional spraying, the weed can be re­moved quickly, but the help­ful or­gan­isms that live in the soil and help fight weeds are killed, re­sult­ing in the pro­mo­tion of weed growth. So you have to con­tinue to spray and it be­comes a vi­cious cy­cle.”

Pho­tos: Ted Baghurst.

Rick Brad­dock bi­o­log­i­cally farms Mo­tu­tapu Is­land

in the Hau­raki Gulf.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.