HBRC Election 2013 – Land and Water Concerns of Federated Farmers and Irrigation NZ

The following was in response to questions asked of Hawke’s Bay Regional Councillor candidates in the 2013 Local Body Elections. 

Federated Farmers and Irrigation New Zealand Questions 

Chris Perley

 Ngaruroro Ward, Hawke’s Bay Regional Council

Federated Farmers and Irrigation NZ provided the following questions (italicised within text).   Here is my response.


I am passionate about the potential of our rural landscapes to provide value to landowners as well as to the communities of the region. I believe this requires a rethink about how we look at land and primary production. Our future is not in commodity production whose values continue to decline in real terms. Our future is not in degrading the function of our landscapes however much we mask the problem by increasing artificial energy inputs. Rather, we should be focusing on premium value from the land and within local value chains, a premium partly justified because of the environmental quality of the land from which it comes, and we should be focusing on how we increase the capacity of our landscapes to provide cost savings and resilience. For the latter, the environmental health of the land is also important. I was born on the East Coast to a farming family and raised in Hawke’s Bay. I have a background in land management in both agriculture and forestry, in land use policy, strategy and research. I returned to Hawke’s Bay five years ago because I care about this land, its people, and its future.


[FF & INZ] Hawke’s Bay has one of the lowest rates of economic growth in New Zealand. Do you think that the regional council should have a role in driving better economic growth? If so, what initiatives would you support to create significant growth in Hawke’s Bay?

Hawke’s Bay has to change its thinking about “economic growth” of GDP. Indicators of economic vitality are far more important than GDP, measures such as: start ups, diversity, value retention in the local economy, market position to maintain or increase prices, levels of cooperation, reliance on outside inputs, local value chains, and control of marketing down the supply chain to end customers. GDP measures ‘bad’ economic activity as well as ‘good’ activity. For instance, the costs of a dysfunctional landscape (e.g. the need for more external inputs of energy and feed because our landscape can no longer provide for itself) or social dysfunction (lack of opportunities and despair leading to health, psychological services and crime prevention) all lead to more ‘ growth’ in GDP. GDP will grow after a disaster, or if you paid an outsider a billion dollars to destroy all public buildings in Hawke’s Bay. It is a nonsense to rely upon GDP growth as an indicator of vitality, as Bobby Kennedy pointed out so well.

Our focus rather should be on economic vitality and building resilience. The keys to this are social opportunities and environmental capacities. The environment and people underpin the economic success of the region. You cannot separate the health of the economy from the health of the environment. If you reduce the health of the environment, then you will eventually reach a point where the economy – and society as a whole – goes into a tail spin. The lessons of history are very clear on this point.

Within this context, the Regional Council has a role in protecting the life-supporting functions of air, water, soil & ecosystems (the environment), for the purpose of providing for our people now and into the future. We cannot provide for our people with an attitude that says we need to harm the environment in order to make more money. The compromise thinking of “you can’t be green if you’re in the red” is 19th century industrial thinking and needs to change. I discuss these points at length in the HB Today article “Realising the Potential of Hawke’s Bay”.

The environment underpins the economy in two ways. Firstly, it can save costs to the land enterprise by providing free services. Our past reliance on free N from legumes was how we used to operate, and it is the model of what you can build within farm systems. Secondly, it also provides our primary sector with the diverse product opportunities and – vitally – the market position that premium markets require (e.g. a brand such as 100% Pure – but really meaning it). Within premium markets we can hold and dictate prices.

Within our currently dominant commodity market approach, the buyers dictate, and our commodity prices reduce as buyers effectively take any efficiency gains we make. Making ‘efficiency’ gains on the farm (in many cases through some form of degradation) and then seeing those margin gains traded away, is our historical pattern And the response of policy and research is to then try to increase ‘efficiencies’ again, rather than focus on market position to avoid price reduction in the first place. In the long run, this industrial commodity model that compromises environmental & social standards represents a race to the bottom. It is not dissimilar to a rat on a wheel running faster and faster to stay in one place, and the bearings are getting hotter and hotter.

We need to change the essential model away from corporate commodity to smart, locally-owned producers of quality that can hold or increase price. The Regional Council should be encouraging such smart farming. A well-resourced and smart thinking Land Management team is necessary to that end. The Council should also work to creating community groups that can take a lot more responsibility for the water and soil within their localities, and realise the potential of these landscapes to provide value. The Huatokitoki collaborative catchment initiative is such an example. The Council should be encouraging more of them.

Integrated land use patterns are the future, not 1000 acres of pure ryegrass or pure radiata pine. Council has a role in encouraging that vision because it goes hand in hand with providing environmental and social values for our future generations, as well as providing economic vitality and resilience for the whole province.

What the Regional Council should not be doing is encouraging land amalgamation and high-input, low-wage, energy intensive, industrialised, polluting, corporate-owned commodity factory agriculture, which will in my opinion be the result of the Ruataniwha Dam. Building the water infiltration and water-holding functions of individual landholdings, as well as community-led irrigation initiatives that are of a scale that fits in with local farm systems, are other, far more positive alternative to large-scale industrial models.

2.  [FF & INZ] Water quality is of major concern to the public. What policies do you support that will meet this growing public expectation whilst allowing growing economic activity in the Province?

Your question suggests there is a compromise required – water quality while allowing for ‘growing economic activity’. There actually need be no compromise between high water quality and a highly resilient and a productive landscape that holds its moisture to alleviate drought and flood risks. The factors that reduce water quality are such things as:

  • Soil, creating sediment,
  • Organic matter (e.g. top soil and faeces),
  • Nutrients soluble or soil-borne, and including in the form of urine & faeces, and
  • Chemicals.

These very ‘natural capital’ items are also the basis of a productive and drought-resilient landscape. Losing our soils, nutrients, and organic matter to the stream is the landowners’ loss, as well as the community’s loss (a lose-lose) – the former through loss of landscape capacities such as water retention, and other natural capital that needs to be replaced by purchasing off-farm inputs as well as through the loss of resilience to extreme weather events.

In addition, the benefits of clean stock water reticulated from high quality water sources both lifts productivity and decreases animal health costs – an increase in profit. Meanwhile, the community loses through poorer in-stream, recreational and food gathering values.

It follows that improving the landscape function leads to a win-win. Therefore a clean stream is an indicator of a farm that is not losing money in the form of farm run-off, and one that is more resilient to future risks of weather extremes. Such farms are also less reliant upon high-energy inputs, which will be constrained in either availability or cost in the future.

In addition, water quality is reduced by changing the pattern of flow from thesponge-effect we have within landscape systems that retain soil quantity and quality, as well as water infiltration rates and water holding capacities. Where those functions are reduced, water run-off increases, and with that increase we flush our land and its value away. These hard plate systems are what leads to boom bust patterns of highly-destructive floods followed by highly-destructive droughts. Pattern of streamflow is arguably as important as water quality, and both are more important than the RMA focus on water quantity (an industrial hang-up).

There are a number of strategies to ensure that farmers don’t lose their natural capital and harm the streams at the same time. Smart nutrient management (in terms of how, where, when, what type & what quantity to apply), healthy biological soils that infiltrate and hold water and provide nutrient and growth benefits (which require us to think of soils as more than just physical hydroponic-like mediums to which we simply add nutrients and water), and landscape features such as woodlands on steep faces and within V-shaped dissected gullies, wetlands/ponds within run-off channels, and riparian on flatter land.

Riparian is not as effective on hill country, and is being over-emphasised by the current Councils in pursuit – in my opinion – of a convenient measure to demonstrate a ‘result’ but not an ‘achievement’ of better water quality (i.e. riparian measures that take no account of the wider landscape complex is simply an exercise in ‘output’ box ticking rather than any focus on achieving a goal or ‘outcome’), with marginal results in terms of nutrient run-off in other than very flat land, and at great potential expense to hill country farmers.

The principle for any policies developed by the Council should in my opinion be that no landowner has the right to pollute streams, and nor is it in the economic interests of landowners to do so. Land should be managed accordingly. The Regional Council should be active in demonstrating how we can more effectively manage our landscapes.

3.   [FF & INZ] The primary sector is the number one economic driver for Hawkes Bay. Last summer (drought/water restrictions) again demonstrated the need for resilience in our productive systems. What solutions would you propose to help build this resilience?

Resilience’ is about building landscape and social capacities in the face of uncertainties. We need to think of what capacities we require – such as landscape water function, adaptability, foresight, the ability to get cooperative knowledge systems and governance systems going where people talk about and demonstrate solutions. Resilience has nothing to do with treating land and people as an industrial machine – for instance by creating an industrial landscape that is highly reliant on inputs, capital, and scale (e.g. by developing top-down large-scale irrigation systems – quite the opposite). Unfortunately, people are now using the word ‘resilience’ while doing the very opposite – i.e. by industrialising our landscapes, especially through large-scape irrigation, thereby reducing our social and landscape capacities and functions in the face of uncertainty, and by increasingly critical reliance on a number of things:

  • That costs (especially energy inputs) won’t increase within a high overhead corporate-style business model;
  • That commodity product prices won’t decrease;
  • That interest rates won’t increase too quickly or too high within a highly-geared capital structure;
  • That inputs will still be accessible within a highly dependent system with reducing natural capacity;
  • That the critical and capital intensive infrastructure (e.g. pivot irrigators) will continue to be reliable (the recent Canterbury windstorm has lead to extensive damage that could – at a more critical time – represent a crippling business risk);
  • That the ‘right to pollute’ will still be sanctioned by the public without charge or prohibition (a real threat); and
  • That water will still be made available within a highly water-dependent business system.

Yet some are saying that industrial irrigation models actually increase resilience. They do not.

The key solutions to achieving the potential of our land as both an economic driver and an environment and social steward relate to the following:

a)     On-farm, especially upper-catchment design and function: The major solutions to drought are the same as for mitigating floods, and for providing a farm environment that can cope with lower energy inputs. They are to make the landscape like a sponge, rather than a plate. That means healthy soils that infiltrate and hold water, deeper rooting pastoral & browse systems that can access deep-set soil moisture, higher covers to pastures and using shrub and shelter systems to reduce evapotranspiration, grazing practices that emphasise soil and pasture diversity & health, and landscape features such as woodlands, tall pasture systems, wetlands, and where necessary riparian plantings. What moisture cannot be held in the soils should be held in ponds and wetlands.

Note that this does not mean that the streams stop flowing. Quite the opposite. There is any number of case studies demonstrating that landscape water function benefits everyone, hill country farmers as well as downstream irrigators. Eric Collier’s “Three Against the Wilderness” (and here) is a classic on the hydrological (including irrigation) and ecological effects of restoring water holding through beaver dams in Canada. Fred Pearce’s “When the Rivers Run Dry” is perhaps the best book at demonstrating the new thinking away from large-scale industrial models of water that have proven to be disastrous in many settings, to decentralized systems that are not industrial in scale, and far more accommodating of local communities. The work of Jules Pretty provides other examples. There are a number of land management models to draw from – some focusing on soils, others on landscape pattern. Both are required. Lyndfield Park is one such example.

There are many others. This is the revolution in land management that is moving away from 19th century low-value colonial ‘feed Britain or the world’ commodity thinking where the environment must be “compromised” to achieve some “balance”, to a 21st century smart agro-ecological thinking where the whole value-chain strategy and land use strategy achieve multiple positives:

i.         through thinking of market position as more important than maximising production, and

ii.         through thinking of the land ‘agro-ecologically’ rather than as an industrial factory model of Lincoln and Massey agronomy.

The field of agro-ecological research and practice is gathering momentum overseas, especially within ‘brittle’ landscapes that are drought- and flood-prone. New Zealand is so wrapped up in the industrial commodity model that agro-ecological practice and research is barely funded. Its funding is normally through independent funding providers.

This is despite the fact that The United Nations has produced reports by Olivier De Schutter illustrating the fact that agro-ecological approaches represent the best opportunity for producing food, for decreasing our reliance on energy inputs, for mitigating climate change, and for retaining viable family farms. The Institute of Science in Society (ISIS) has just published a short report on the urgent need to shift agriculture to a new agro-ecological paradigm. It, along with de Schutter’s report, is imperative reading for New Zealand Primary Sector policy makers and researchers.

Wendell Berry wrote that our Agricultural Crisis is a Crisis of Culture. He was right. We have to learn to think outside the failing production-orientated model. Radio NZ National recently aired an hour of summarised TED talks on exactly this issue.

b)    Devolving governance to communities: The debacle over irrigation consents that hit Twyford last year illustrated in part a lack of understanding of how ‘commons’ such as water can be managed by and across communities in cooperation with regulatory authorities. Establishing such local governance models is essential to good water management. That, and a far more adaptive rather than rigid rule-based approach from the Council and its staff. That requires a culture change both within the Council and by growers.

c)     Efficient irrigation methods: There are a number of technologies and landscape ecological designs that can dramatically increase the efficient use of water and nutrients and the reduction in evapotranspiration. These technologies are part and parcel of good water management. Council needs to work with land users and researchers in pursuit of energy efficiency. This has special relevance for the more intensive systems of dairy, meat finishing, cropping and horticulture, but is also relevant (though in a different context of scale and input) to hill country systems.

4.   [FF & INZ] Low flow levels (minimum river flow) are being debated. Do you support lifting these levels and if so, what mitigation options do you support to maintain provincial productivity and economic activity? (How do you reduce the impact on productive activity if the minimum flow is raised?)

This is not simply a matter of flow versus irrigation takes, as I infer from your question. Nor is it a matter of ‘mitigation’. There are solutions that can ‘avoid’ the issues altogether. Those solutions lie in rethinking our landscape land use approach, particularly within hill country areas, and to the measures discussed in Question 3 above.

Land and water are an integrated system, not a simplified industrial machine. The challenge of minimum flows requires a complete rethink about how we treat water in our landscapes. At present, minimum flow regimes relate only to the larger first-order river systems. If we change our landscape to a drought resilient (and also flood resilient) landscape, then all our streams will benefit, including not only the first order rivers such as the Ngaruroro main stem but also the smaller streams that contribute to that flow. This leads overall to better recharge of aquifers in many situations, and to the very important and overlooked benefits to in-stream environmental (e.g. galaxiids & koura) and community values (e.g. children’s play, food gathering).

An example of a smaller stream whose values have been eroded, partly by converting it into a ‘drain’, is the stream that flows around Bridge Pa which my younger brothers treated as a playground, and now are too upset to go back and visit. The public have a right to ensure these values are retained. Water management that increases the flows in the main stem but reduce the flows and functionality of the smaller streams and the water holding capacity of our landscape is old fashioned drainage board thinking. The solution to ensuring the ‘productivity’ (i.e. defined as ‘output per input’ – which, as contrasted with the irrational pursuit of ‘gross production’, is a good thing) of both our arable and hill country systems is to understand water within a functioning landscape system.

The alternative way of looking at intensive land and hill country is to see one or the other as either a winner or a loser. This is how irrigation management has been played out in New Zealand over the last 20 years. Canterbury has even restricted tall woodland systems within not only hill country but also within riparian areas on the plains because their council doesn’t understand the wider system. It also didn’t understand the role of shelter in reducing evapotranspiration, or the role of a spongy landscape provided ameliorated water pattern (rather than boom/bust flood/drought), water quality, hill country farm economics, biodiversity, increased ecological services including pollination, reduced energy use, in-stream ecological and social values, economic diversity and social values.

In those situations the strong lobby for more industrial-scale commodity irrigation has lead to the very public concerns that the industrial irrigators now have to deal with. If they think that public concern is going to go away as the public witness more and more streams polluted by industrial agribusinesses run by increasingly corporate-minded operations, then the industrial irrigators are dreaming.

We need to rethink our whole irrigation approach. Where we do have irrigation schemes, they ought to be community-led (including both farmers and other community participants). Part of that rethink requires us shifting ourselves off this nonsense of maximizing production that so many of us were taught at Lincoln and Massey (backed up by agronomy-focused research on increasing yields without thinking beyond the data) and which leads to lower profits, higher risks, lower economic and biological diversity, less efficiency of scarce resource use, and a much poorer environment due to the higher than necessary inputs being encouraged.

So in answer to your specific question: How do you reduce the impact on productive activity if the minimum flow is raised?, it is not the gross production that is important. What is important is the profitability, the risk, the productivity (output/input), the diversity, the value and value-chain resulting from the primary crop, and – very importantly – the market position of the products (those with high market position will be able to hold or even get premium prices while the commodity producers’ prices decline). Conclusion If I am elected to the Regional Council, then I will be working to ensure that the model of land use does not become industrialised, in the interests of creating:

  • A more prosperous Hawke’s Bay with smartly run family-owned farms and other enterprise opportunities,
  • A Hawke’s Bay with a strong environment that both attracts opportunities and provides for the market position of our products (i.e. to mean 100% pure, rather than just to use the phrase without concern for the truth), and
  • A Hawke’s Bay that retains our cultural and social strength through building the social capital capacities required to have and afford the opportunities of living in this special place.

As you can see, I have not sat on the fence in answering these questions. And I am very happy to discuss any of these issues with any landowner or group.


Chris Perley

Regional Council Candidate Ngaruroro Rural Ward

16th September 2013

This entry was posted in Building Regional Economies, Land Use, Resilience Thinking, Thought Pieces. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to HBRC Election 2013 – Land and Water Concerns of Federated Farmers and Irrigation NZ

  1. Chris says:

    Once again Chris, you are on the money and so eloquently put what some of us would like to say but struggle to get the words out.


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