The 100-year plan

DAVID SLACK
Last updated 05:00 24/01/2013

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The long tradition in New Zealand farming has been to show a low yield and take your huge cash payout when you sell the land. But what if you never want to sell?

Aohanga Incorporated is a sheep, beef and forestry` agribusiness on the remote east coast of northern Wairarapa. A multiple owned Maori incorporation, it has 5436 acres of grazing land, 12355 acres of native forest, 247 acres of production forestry, 15,000 stock units, 29,000 sinks of carbon and a sustainable recreational fishery along 12km of coastline. It has 1200 shareholders and while many of them no longer live here, they each call it home.

It's long, hard hill country, with shallow soil, exposed to harsh coastal elements. It's susceptible to erosion and flood damage. But Aohanga is doing well and the land is no longer under strain. It's being farmed sustainably, with a constant eye on what's good for the land in the long run. They call it the mokopuna (grandchildren) decision making model. 

Maori have owned this land for more than three centuries. It has mana in its own right, its own importance and cultural significance. The mana of the people would be lost and the mana of the land desecrated if it were sold.

When New Zealand farmers are pouring ever more fertiliser onto the land and nearly half our rivers are no longer clean enough to swim in, Aohanga is governed with the wellbeing of the grandchildren in mind. Where some boards might see a five year plan as long term, Aohanga is working to a 100-year plan.

Each year about 10% of the shareholders come together for the AGM. That starts with a  getting-to-know-each-other whanaungatanga the night before. It's a valuable part of the governance that Aohanga chair Mavis Mullins explains: "It's a chance to understand the connections, the aspirations of the people of themselves, their whanau and the resources." This familiarity with shareholders can be good as well as challenging, she says. Free and frank discussion with pointed words and direct challenges are common. "We remind ourselves that this is where mokopuna decisions are made."

"When they are your family you do more than your best because you can't afford to get it wrong. You have your kids and babies relying on you to deliver to get it right."

She says the 100-year plan has enabled make decisions that are more sustainable. "We are less influenced by shorter, five to 10 year profit horizons. It puts a different lens over everything."

For example, she says, they have had a lot of discussion about the long term effects of fertilisers and have selected a product that produces less concentrated leachates and is softer on the land. 

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Farming for yield rather than outright sale has required increased understanding of the resource and its capability. It's forced innovation and research and brought forward new revenue streams such as carbon trading and honey. A 2005 ecological report resulted in 2500 acres of steep regenerating indigenous forest being set aside and protected in perpetuity.

Mokopuna decision making is sustainable decision making.

- Unlimited

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