Farming moves with the times

ROZ MACKENZIE
Last updated 07:39 11/01/2014

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OPINION: Two weeks ago, columnist Martin van Beynen wrote about the "revolution that has overrun flatland farming on the Canterbury Plains", and questioned the impact that large-scale dairying had on to rural communities. Today, farmer ROZ MACKENZIE writes in response.

Like thousands of farming Kiwis we live in the hinterland and spent the Christmas period caring for our land and animals. It's a life we enjoy in a world we love.

In the area in which we work and live there have been many people who have added to our community; environmentally, economically and socially. For their commitment and foresight we are eternally grateful. Their work continues on through many organisations, community groups and individuals.

There is now a vibrancy in the hinterlands that has not been here for many a year. Judging by the number of children now attending our schools, from the new businesses that have opened and the returning of youth and newcomers into the rural industries, this is likely to continue.

Martin van Beynen, you wrote of the revolution that is overrunning flatland farming on the Canterbury Plains. The first thing you would have noticed on leaving Christchurch is the many hectares have been gobbled up by urban growth with mazes of subdivisions and shops laced together by concreted walkways linking to tarmac-sealed roads and expressways, flattening and subduing the land, all taking the place of what was once productive farming land.

Martin, do you stop to think about the urban sprawl with its insatiable need to expand, to flatten and seal, providing little opportunity for the land to breathe and produce, denying its role of biological processing? This sprawl is pushing farmers out even further, diminishing the land on which we are able to farm.

I agree with your comment that you have a romantic view of farming life. It appears to be somewhere back in the 70s. I guess that some of that is our fault as when we were told that agriculture was a dying industry and would have little to contribute to the future of New Zealand, many of us were very hurt and saddened that we were no longer valued.

So we went back to our farms, shut our front gates and just got on with doing what we knew best - farming. We haven't been very good at explaining why we have made the changes you see as you drive down the road.

You talk of the industrialisation of farming. We make no apology for that fact that farming has moved with the times, trying to keep pace with technology and science. In this respect we are little different from any other business trying to achieve a maximum output with a minimum input. Any business which does not adapt is unlikely to survive.

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You made comment that grass is almost like a manufactured product. You are correct. Thankfully a lot of work has been done by our internationally recognised scientists and researchers into how we farmers can improve what we do. Our pastures are produced within the varying nature of a living biological system that is farming. As farmers we do what we can to carefully manage and enhance growth by choosing a mix of pasture plants for suitability to climate, stock type, growth patterns and production levels. Our farms are based around growing pastures and crops. Anything we do that diminishes the land's ability to grow diminishes our long term viability to farm.

You ask that we better manage our water. We have changed our irrigation systems and now instead of flooding water across a paddock with minimum application rates of around 100mm, we use overhead irrigation systems such as irrigation pivots. These use variable rate application technology, linked with GPS, Electromagnetic soil maps, telemetered soil moisture probes and accurate weather forecasting to match irrigation application rates to what the soil, crop and climate tell us is needed.

On our own farm this has seen a reduction of 30 per cent in irrigation water applied.

You ask that we better manage our nutrients. We now use GPS when testing our soils which we do on a regular basis. These soil tests are used to determine what nutrients are required by the land. You can't take without giving something back - a concept of which farmers are very aware.

You talk of migrant workers. Your so-called migrant workers are our friends and neighbours. They live in our nice warm houses surrounded by gardens, trees and farmlands. They work and play alongside us on our farms and in our communities. They are coaches of our sports teams, members of our churches and playcentres and part of our communities.

We value their input, as we do all who are prepared to make a contribution. They are an integral part of our rural fabric. We are delighted that they have chosen to make rural New Zealand their home.

I fail to understand why should the alarm bells start ringing just because butterfat becomes one of the main determinants of the economy? Surely our agriculture sector has the same right to hold that position as any other sector of New Zealand. The fact that we have invested in our industry and built factories that add further value to a product we produce is hardly something to demonise.

But I digress; your main concern was about the trees, our beautiful, bountiful trees.

Nature is an incredible thing. We live in it and work with it every day. What Nature provides it can also take away. The wind storms in September were very hard on our trees. On our own farm we lost around 200 pine, blue gum and fir trees.

Sadly most of these trees had been planted after the previous big wind storm in 75. While you may look at our downed shelter trees and see the visible short term pain, we have to think of our farms in a longer time-span and can see a long term gain.

These trees are being replanted, but maybe with different species and in a different place. The clean-up work and re-planting fits in around our regular farming chores.

Since September we have planted over 500 native trees, shrubs and grasses on our dairy farm. Give us and Nature another 40 years and we may have it looking as you romanticise farmland and how we want it to be. As the saying goes "Good things take time".

Thank you for taking the time to holiday in our farmland. We commend your affinity for the place in which we live, play and work - the environment to which we and the lives of our families are so inextricably entwined. Yes, we are farmers and we do actually farm.

Roz Mackenzie is a director of Greenvale Pastures, a mixed arable and dairy farm near Methven, and national winner of the 2013 Ballance Farm Environmental Awards.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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