We’ve been rid­ing on the sheep, cow and snap­per’s back too long. Our soil and sea can’t take much more – but a grow­ing num­ber of pri­mary pro­duc­ers are show­ing there’s a way to ex­tract value over vol­ume, while step­ping lightly on the land and wa­ter. Gareth

North & South - - In This Issue -

Our farm­ing and fish­ing en­deav­ours are fast ex­haust­ing soil and sea, but Gareth Eyres finds there are ecofriendly ways to ex­tract value over vol­ume.

Former Prime Min­is­ter Sir Ge­of­frey Palmer once de­scribed New Zealand as an “in­du­bitably plu­vial coun­try”. It rains a lot, in other words. Mean­while, Tourism New Zealand plugged our 100% Pure brand to the world and pri­mary pro­duc­ers piggy-backed on that clean, green im­age to sell their wares over­seas.

Well, the time for smug­ness is long gone. The coun­try as a whole may still be well off for wa­ter, but in dry re­gions such as Tas­man, Can­ter­bury and Otago, the ex­trac­tion of wa­ter from rivers, lakes and ground­wa­ter has reached the lim­its of sus­tain­abil­ity. Fur­ther­more, too many of our lakes and rivers are pol­luted. Massey Univer­sity pro­fes­sor of fresh­wa­ter ecol­ogy Rus­sell Death puts it plainly: “Toxic al­gae blooms in rivers and lakes all over New Zealand; in­creas­ing ni­trates in Can­ter­bury ground­wa­ter; four deaths from the Have­lock North in­ci­dent; and drink­ing wa­ter all around the coun­try be­low stan­dard…”

Above wa­ter level, the in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion of agri­cul­ture and push into hith­erto “un­pro­duc­tive” land­scapes is also test­ing our abil­ity to work within na­ture’s lim­its.

Af­ter writ­ing in North & South about a wa­ter­borne in­fec­tion that nearly killed me fol­low­ing a kayak­ing trip on the Whanganui River (see Deadly Cur­rents on NOTED.CO.NZ), I re­ceived a num­ber of emails and so­cial me­dia com­ments from read­ers, out­raged that such a thing could have hap­pened in one of our trea­sured rivers. The most vir­u­lent mes­sage was from an in­tel­li­gent and usu­ally mild­man­nered woman friend. It read, suc­cinctly: “F…ing dairy farm­ers!”

It summed up a di­vide that’s been form­ing in our coun­try, pit­ting town­ies and gree­nies against farm­ers and com­mer­cial fish­ers – not helped by the pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment’s fee­ble fresh­wa­ter stan­dards and en­thu­si­asm for gi­ant ir­ri­ga­tion projects. How­ever, pri­mary pro­duc­ers still earn much of the for­eign ex­change that pays for our cell­phones and e-bikes, and many of them have the same con­cerns for the en­vi­ron­ment as those who’d pre­fer New Zealand to re­main a pris­tine play­ground. North & South vis­ited three pro­duc­ers who have found the bal­ance between mak­ing a liv­ing on the land and sea, and do­ing it right.

AS FAR AS big bangs go, this one was a cracker. The blast that oc­curred about 1800 years ago and cre­ated to­day’s Lake Taupō was one of the world’s most vi­o­lent erup­tions in 5000 years.

The caldera, or col­lapsed crater, left be­hind has been partly filled by what is now New Zealand’s largest lake. Ar­eas near­est the lake were cov­ered in up to 100m of pumice and ash, which over the years has been com­pacted and riven by streams, cre­at­ing gul­lies and water­ways that flow into the lake and the Waikato River. It’s the pres­ence of this de­bris that has cre­ated the sur­round­ing re­gion’s “well- drained soils” – a strong point for real es­tate agents sell­ing farm­ing land. It en­gen­ders good grass growth, and health­ier hooves for the cat­tle and sheep that graze on it.

On the lake’s western flanks, high rhy­o­lite cliffs form an im­pos­ing wall through which streams and creeks find their way. Trout love these water­ways and lure fish­er­men to their banks to cast a line in the cold, clear wa­ters – hop­ing for that tro­phy fish. Mike Bar­ton is one of those fish­er­men. He was in­tro­duced to the area as a kid from Auck­land, hunt­ing and fish­ing with his fa­ther and brother. The seren­ity, streams and bush hooked deep. He knew in his heart he’d live here one day.

Mike took his time be­com­ing a Taupō farmer. Along­side a univer­sity teach­ing ca­reer in Auck­land in busi­ness man­age­ment, he de­vel­oped small­hold­ings south of the city, which he cleared and fenced and on-sold. But the de­sire for a real farm re­mained. In 2004, in their late 50s, Mike and his wife, Sharon, de­cided to make the break from city life and bought a 150ha farm with views of Lake Taupō, in Ti­hoi.

The area was cov­ered un­der the Lake Taupō Re­gional Plan Catch­ment 5; in 2011, En­vi­ron­ment Waikato im­posed an “N cap” – strict lim­its on the amount of ni­tro­gen that farms in the catch­ment could leach into the lake. The main source of ni­tro­gen is not ap­plied fer­tiliser, but an­i­mal urine. Con­trol­ling this means con­trol­ling stock num­bers per hectare. For ex­am­ple, dairy farms in the area are capped at 1.82ha per cow, beef at 1.25ha per an­i­mal, calves 0.3ha each.

Mike and Sharon re­alised they were go­ing to have to think out­side the square to make their 150ha work for them, and turn that “neg­a­tive” of re­duced stock num­bers into a pos­i­tive. So they in­vited sci­en­tists to study the ni­tro­gen im­pact on their work­ing farm. Small sam­ple labs popped up in their pad­docks. “I sus­pect we run the high­est rate of sci­en­tists per hectare in the coun­try,” Mike says wryly.

They breed Charo­lais bulls with An­gus cows – proven per­form­ers in meat pro­duc­tion. Heifers are pre­ferred over steers. The an­i­mals are kept un­til they’re two, the op­ti­mal age when the bulk of what they eat is trans­lated into meat pro­duc­tion rather than ex­creted onto the land.

They’re moved around ev­ery three to four days, spend­ing the last few months of their time on half-hectare pad­docks of lush, green growth to max­imise their con­di­tion. The Bar­tons have in­vested in a sen­si­ble fenc­ing plan, which en­ables them to move the an­i­mals eas­ily and without fuss. “It doesn’t take long be­fore they know my voice – just a few days,” says Sharon. “We don’t need dogs – the cows just fol­low me into the next pad­dock.” They’re a well- cared for, hand­some herd.

While we stand in shin- deep grass wait­ing for a photo op­por­tu­nity, one of the heifers takes a long, ni­tro­gen-rich pee. I sug­gest it’s not a good look in a photo. Mike glances over his shoul­der and says, “And there lies the prob­lem. By the time that urine reaches the lake, I’ll be dead and my grand­son will be older than I am now. It will take 80 years for that urine to have its full ef­fect on the en­vi­ron­ment.”

This means that what’s be­ing prac­tised by farm­ers now is crit­i­cal for the fu­ture, and we can only work with the tools we have to es­ti­mate the long-term im­pact on the en­vi­ron­ment. “Science tells us all food pro­duc­tion has an im­pact on the en­vi­ron­ment, be it veg­eta­bles, ce­re­als, meat, rice or dairy,” says Mike. “Eat­ing is sim­ply the fi­nal step of the agri­cul­tural process.”

So how to re­duce that im­pact? In beef and dairy farm­ing, the easy an­swers are to re­duce stock

num­bers, plant more trees, prac­tise ri­par­ian plant­ing and fence off mar­ginal land, es­pe­cially gul­lies that be­come water­ways in heavy rain. Com­mend­able ac­tions, but they also risk re­duc­ing the fi­nan­cial vi­a­bil­ity of a farm serv­ing the com­mod­ity food mar­ket.

With farm costs ris­ing and their herd num­bers con­strained by the ni­tro­gen cap, the Bar­tons be­gan de­vel­op­ing their high-value, en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly Taupō Beef brand in 2009. They went to mar­ket as a trial two years later, sup­ply­ing the prod­uct to top local restau­rants at a pre­mium price. Mike says the re­sults were out­stand­ing. “All the restau­rants wanted to con­tinue.”

Six years on, all their cat­tle end up as Taupō Beef, and the Bar­tons now have eight other farms sup­ply­ing the brand. “We’ve ex­tended it to lamb as well. Veni­son is next on the list.”

To gain max­i­mum re­turn from their 270kg an­i­mals, the whole car­cass must be used. Sell­ing a prime steak cut in a Taupō res­tau­rant to a vis­i­tor who has seen the lake and bought into Taupō Beef’s con­ser­va­tion story is the easy part. Try get­ting that ex­tra value for a tray of mince in the su­per­mar­ket. Clev­erly, the farm’s cheaper meat – the casse­role cuts, brisket and mince – can be found at Taupō’s Pak’nsave, so lo­cals who won’t be eat­ing those prime fil­lets aren’t ne­glected. The Bar­tons also work with an Auck­land dis­trib­u­tor, Neat Meat, to reach cus­tomers with a con­science who are pre­pared to pay a lit­tle more for their “eco” steaks and roasts.

Sharon has ar­tic­u­lated the eth­i­cal farmer’s dilemma at TEDX talks. “The en­vi­ron­men­tal cost has never been billed into our farm­ing pro­duc­tion,” she told an au­di­ence re­cently. “New Zealand food is not gov­ern­ment-sub­sidised. There’s a cost in­volved to pro­tect our water­ways and no one wants to pay for it… the farm­ing com­mu­nity can’t af­ford to pay for it on their own.”

The Bar­tons be­lieve by giv­ing con­sumers the back­story to their beef, in­clud­ing the farm’s role in pre­serv­ing wa­ter qual­ity, cus­tomers can make an in­formed choice about whether to pay a bit more for the prod­uct. As Mike says, “It’s not all mar­ket­ing depart­ment arm wav­ing.” It’s proven science and hard work that’s seen the Bar­tons win Sus­tain­able Busi­ness Net­work and Bal­lance Farm En­vi­ron­ment awards over the past three years. Mike was awarded a QSM in 2014 in recog­ni­tion of his ef­forts to pre­serve the Lake Taupō en­vi­ron­ment and ser­vices to farm­ing.

But will the brand ap­peal be­yond our shores? Late last year, the first shipment of grass-fed Taupō Beef was ex­ported to Ja­pan for sale in a high- end su­per­mar­ket chain. The New Zealand brand’s en­vi­ron­men­tal mes­sage was well re­ceived by Ja­panese con­sumers, says Mike, and Taupō Beef now has an agree­ment to sup­ply a con­tainer a month.

“Science tells us all food pro­duc­tion has an im­pact on the en­vi­ron­ment, be it veg­eta­bles, ce­re­als, meat, rice or dairy. Eat­ing is sim­ply the fi­nal step of the agri­cul­tural process.”

Mike and Sharon Bar­ton on their farm in Ti­hoi. They re­coup money spent on min­imis­ing the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact by sell­ing their beef at a pre­mium.

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