There seems to have been mature conversations over the past 10 years around the interdependence of farming on the economy and the protection of our resources. What I have been proud to uncover since moving to Canterbury is that there has been a different approach towards environment management where communicating shared interests through collaboratively managed groups has helped harness solutions.
The outcome that I have found is that Canterbury is punching well above its weight compared with any other region and it can be heralded back to the May 2010 replacement of an elected Regional Council with appointed commissioners at Environment Canterbury.
When I have asked around the science and technology freshwater community about the government’s recently outlined national direction for freshwater, they have welcomed the new policy’s direction in most respects but more so that Canterbury has already achieved this well before it was made mandatory. ‘At ECan we have managed outputs rather than inputs and this has allowed for innovation to improve our farm management systems according to each property’s land use choice,’ explains ECan Councillor Megan Hands (main picture). ‘The acknowledgement in the national policy direction of Canterbury’s auditable Farm Environment Plans (FEPs) endorses that our region has been on the right path.’
The foresight I found was that fundamentally, these FEPs were established long before the central government’s regulatory stick came swinging. It was an auditable and enforceable standard but it was first negotiated by its own communities through zone committees.
‘It is bittersweet,’ explains Chief Scientist for the Our Land and Water National Science Challenge, Professor Rich McDowell, ‘as not all river catchments are in that boat, but a majority of Canterbury’s are. We need to divert the focus away from just nitrate leaching as there are 19 other attributes that make up ecosystem health.’ Rich explained that their mission-led research receives merely 5 per cent of the collective land and water research funding in New Zealand.
The science investment and commercialisation of big data on farms for property owners to make more informed decisions about their environmental management practices is also another leading achievement in Canterbury we should be proud of.
The opportunities of 5G technology for the Internet of Things (IoT) will rapidly improve environmental monitoring with live data on farms for not only farmers, but regulators such as ECan to make sure we know instantly what is happening in the region’s freshwater quality. Blair Miller from Lincoln AgriTech has been proactive with his start-up company, HydroMetrics, that has developed a groundwater Nitrate Sensor. ‘The sensors monitor and generate important data such as weather conditions, plant health, soil moisture and nitrate levels which can then be used to support actions by the farmer into useful information,’ he shares.
With monitoring, the problem of big data is making sense of it for decision making. Companies such as OnFarm Data based in Canterbury produce data software options that monitor and control everything from the weather, water, nutrients and effluent all from the touch of a button. OnFarm Data’s Managing Director Andrew Neill is excited for technology such as Aquaflex to help farmers understand their soil leaching.
Dairy has been to blame for so much of Canterbury’s water quality issues, but there are five measures of ecosystem health, and water quality is only one of them.
Mixed land use in Canterbury is welcomed when established markets for the product are shown to the farmer to take the considerable financial risk to change. The Specialty Grains and Pulses Report produced by Our Land and Water found six ‘star’ crop opportunities in the region – soy, hemp, chickpeas, oats, buckwheat and quinoa – that could be grown on the same property alongside dairy cows.
‘In a way it’s harking back to the old days, where farms had a mix of plants and animals. It’s not about plants versus animals. It’s bringing plants into animal-based systems,’ says Susan Goodfellow, Co-founder of Leftfield Innovation that supports farmers and growers to sustainable food production.
Canterbury as a region has a diverse range of landscapes and a mix of our large city and our smaller rural centres. This diversity gives great opportunities for growing different things, but it’s important that we use this opportunity to design new food production systems that make the most of this diversity.
New resident to the hub of science and technology in freshwater quality is Farm Systems and Environment Scientist at AgResearch, Diana Selbie, who has moved down from Hamilton. She is excited for what the growth of the Lincoln Hub will be as it continues to develop. ‘There’s an energy in the air about Canterbury being more than just the technical side to agricultural science, but the social integration around food production,’ she shares. ‘Researchers could listen a lot more to the concerns of urban people. COVID-19 and the associated lockdown has given people more headspace to be curious again and reconnect with nature. Science will be there waiting.’
WORDS Sarah Perriam Images Joel Rock