Conservation farming at work in NZ

Thomas Woltz, Landscape Architect
Thomas Woltz, Landscape Architect

"Seek the power of narrative" was the parting plea of world-renowned American Landscape Architect, Thomas Woltz, when he recently spoke at the 50th International Federation of Landscape Architects World Congress in Auckland.

Woltz - principle of the esteemed Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, with offices in Manhattan, Virginia and California, and clients spanning nine nations - is no stranger to New Zealand farming, having worked on and off in the rural realm here for over a decade.

Most famously, it is Woltz's ongoing, 11-year work at the 607ha Young Nick's Head Station on coastal Hawkes Bay that is his firm's Kiwi showcase and, as his inspirational talk demonstrated, it's not hard to see why.

In 2002, New York financier John Griffin - a close friend of Woltz - bought the property and asked the multi-award winning Landscape Architect to come on board.

The station is on a culturally sensitive coastal strip that is spiritually significant to both Pakeha (being the first New Zealand location spotted by Captain Cook) and neighbouring Ngai Tamanuhiri (whose ancestral waka first made landfall there).

Both owner and designer aimed to restore and respect the cultural, historical, biological and environmental integrity of the property while wholly integrating that process with the ever-pressing material and financial needs of a modern-day sheep and beef farm business.

The answer: "conservation agriculture," Woltz told Straight Furrow.

"Conservation agriculture, as we call it, is a concept that we started doing in the United States and now in New Zealand. We call that family of projects within the office the conservation agriculture studio.

"What I realised was that the training of Landscape Architects in understanding, for example,  cultural landscapes, horticulture, drainage, grading, calculation of capacities, road design, looking at rainfall intensity or drought potential: these are all skill-sets that a farmer could actually use," says Woltz.

Nelson Byrd Woltz has over 6000ha in USA under the design guidance of conservation agriculture, from what Woltz calls micro-farms to large wineries and cattle ranches.

"So our training in service to a farmer is actually a great application, and makes a great partnership. We take their needs and we give it form. We listen to what they need and figure out creative solutions for the moving of livestock or the analysis for steep or eroded slopes, for example.

"Our approach across the board has been to take the poorest sites within the farm - the highly eroded slopes, the land prone to slips, boggy areas that are not any good for grazing, rocky outcrops, eroded guts. So, land-wise, it's not at a huge loss. The cost, really, is fencing: keeping the stock out of these areas," surmises Woltz.

Having first familiarised himself with the geological, edaphic, botanical and cultural history of Hawkes Bay, Woltz realised he was dealing with - like so much of the east coast of both islands - a "denuded site" on erodible volcanic clay.

Across the station over 600,000 trees were planted, 26ha of wetlands were restored, river banks were reforested to curb erosion, a predator-free fence was constructed while species like tuatara and blue penguin were reintroduced over 12km of stunning coastline.

But of course not every New Zealand farm has anything resembling such a wealthy patron to write a bucket list of cheques, something which Woltz - who grew up on a ninth-generation family farm in western North Carolina - is acutely aware of.

"In the case of our conservation agriculture studio - and all this land that we've been fortunate enough to get to work on - the farmer is not the owner, and that makes a big difference. So this is a landscape of patronage and exploration.

"The landowners care enough about this mission to finance the sciences, the research, the fencing - allowing the farmer to have the time to care for the conservation land as well as the cultivated land."

To put it another way: just because you can't afford to shop at Harrods, it doesn't stop you scanning their window for ideas. In this case,  the shop window - Young Nick's Head Station -  opens twice a year for a field day.

"What we're seeing with farmers who have visited the property is that they're starting in a small way to fence out a drainage-way here or there, starting using natives more, starting to see birdlife come back.

"It's having its influence in small ways, and that's fine - it doesn't have to be all operating at a grand scale. With Young Nicks Head, we were fortunate enough to have a patron, a very smart farmer, a good design team and a good science team. And thanks to the patron, all of this was able to be installed at once.

"...It takes a visionary patron to make this kind of thing happen. But that is a way of leading by example, I hope. Not telling people what to do but showing them an example that works. And you don't have to build it at that scale, but if there are any take-away lessons, they start to make a small difference throughout the farms.

"What we're seeing is that it's making a difference in animal health, and in the health of the overall land. It's really changing the regime of the farm," says Woltz.