Storage vital in fast-changing climate

BRUCE WILLS
Last updated 11:49 25/02/2014

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OPINION: Since it's healthy to push yourself, each new year I like to start with a brand-new experience.

For me, that was filing a farming music video for Young Country magazine. A video set to music may be an unusual way to tell my story to younger farmers but it was fun, doing it at a busy time on-farm. Admittedly, I do not think NZ on Air funding will be in the mail.

I am in my final seven months as the president of Federated Farmers, and I hope this column will continue with my successor. That person will be elected in July, after our provinces and industry groups assemble in Palmerston North for the national conference.

Looking back, 2011 seems a world away when I undertook my first political interview on TV One's Q+A. It was with Massey University's Mike Joy and hosted by the late Sir Paul Holmes. The subject was the dairy industry's impact on water quality and in the minds of some people that has not changed. The perception of what we do is yet to catch up to the realities of modern farming.

When you've got older farmers, the sort that the Topp Twins satirise so well, actively swapping notes on riparian plantings then you know there has been a shift in culture.

There's more. The Ballance Farm Environment Awards increasingly showcase farmers first among equals. What was "out there stuff" when I came back to farming is increasingly the norm. No normal farmer wakes up in the morning with a single-minded purpose to pollute. We are Kiwis, after all, and our crops and animals need good quality water to thrive. Above all, we live where we farm and draw our own water from there too.

Once shown the facts and, more importantly, a solution, the psychology of farmers is that you get to work to put things right. That's happening and it's making more of an appearance in the media. We are seeing things looking up in the Ministry for the Environment's own long-term monitoring and on the ground from Lake Rotorua to Otago's Shag River. We need more of a media focus on the solutions that are out there.

A good place to start are the Farm Environmental Awards, whose chairman is former Federated Farmers national president Alistair Polson. Alistair came to the role after being New Zealand's special agricultural trade envoy, a role now held by Beef + Lamb NZ's Mike Petersen. In the New Year, our Queen recognised another former national president, Tom Lambie, who is chancellor of Lincoln University and an Environment Canterbury commissioner too. That's just two extracurricular roles among many, because his day job is running an organic dairy farm in South Canterbury.

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One of Tom's sidebar activities is chairing the Opuha Water Partnership, the best example we have of what water storage means economically and environmentally.

With the polar vortex in North America partly freezing Niagara Falls through to the drought gripping parts of Australia, I know from my own farm records that climate change is real. Irrespective of whether you may think humans are culpable, the fact is the climate is changing.

Last week, Federated Farmers got into a social-media discussion after Jim Salinger said last winter was warmer than normal. We said this showed that the logic for water storage is irrefutable. Some took the view water storage would allow for farming's "intensification". Somehow doing more on less land has become a negative but, as long as the environmental effects are the same, or in fact reduced, this is more positively called "efficiency".

The criticism also missed an essential truth in that water storage is not a strategy but how we'll adapt to this changing climate.

Last year, the International Panel on Climate Change said New Zealand could face heavier extreme rainfall, stronger and more extreme winter winds as well as longer periods of drought. Crops and pasture need three basic things to thrive and they are quality soils, sunshine hours and, of course, water. While we have the first two, the third is patchy but water is a constant for our current land uses and those of the future.

Aside from being a net food exporter in a world of increasing food shortage, the world's food production needs to increase 60 per cent to 110 per cent by 2050 just to keep pace with population growth. This highlights a key role we play as the world's most carbon-efficient farmers. While we cannot hope to feed the world, we can help others through agricultural diplomacy.

The fact remains that we do our bit for climate change by farming efficiently, as showcased in Palmerston North's New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre. Internationally, we lead on the Global Research Alliance on agricultural greenhouse gases too.

None of what we do is possible without water and, if we are to adapt to a changing climate, then we need to start by storing it.

Bruce Wills is the president of Federated Farmers of New Zealand.

- The Southland Times

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