Out of date report on the state of our soils raises important issues says Guy Trafford, even if it is seriously deficient in a range of practical matters

By Guy Trafford

The focus on agricultures externalities continues.

Three key areas are now in the discussion arena, a phenomenon that has ratcheted up since the build up to the last elections.

First it was water, then greenhouse gas emissions joined in and now soil has come on board.

Unfortunately, from a farming perspective, all these issues (and I can think of more in the wings) are quite real and relevant issues which impact upon everybody not just land owners.

Over the last decade or so waterways and the degradation occurring from the intensification of agriculture has been a major and easy target. And while this ‘discussion’ has been continuing the issues around soils has been passed over and given the young age of New Zealand soils (relative to the rest of the world) more importance has needed to be done to preserve them in a productive state.

So, given this background, and being sympathetic to the needs of the environment I expected to be adding my stick to beat the farmers back. However, after reading quite a bit of commentary and most of the 134 pages of the “Our Land 2018” report I found myself starting to take a different view.

Firstly, I found myself agreeing with Federated Farmers (rare for me) in that a report that heads with “Data to 2017” is sadly lacking in data to 2017 with much of the key information stopping at 2012. There also appears to be a leap in the view agricultural intensification automatically leads to degradation of the soil.

The reality is that often the reverse is true.

Before irrigation and the resulting intensification came to Canterbury the air was often brown with dust being lifted off dryland farms. Since the advent of irrigation, while other issues have occurred around the water ways, when it comes to the soil; organic matter is building up and soil losses appear to be reducing.

Also, since 2012 when most data for the report stops, most dairy farms have fenced off water ways helping to prevent overland losses of nutrient enriched soils.

In addition, the number of wintering barns built to specifically reduce the impact upon the soil have magnified tremendously. In many regions farms now must provide comprehensive farm environmental plans (FEPs) outlining fertiliser usage and impacts upon the environment.                                                            

On the steeper farmland, there is a problem, and this was recognised specifically in 1988 after Cyclone Bola devasted much of the East Coast and Poverty Bay hill country. With the application of the East Coast Forestry Project, by 2012 over 167,000ha of land was planted in forestry and further land allowed to revert to indigenous flora or been planted in poplar and willow poles to help stabilise hillsides.

Similar planting programs are being conducted through-out New Zealand under the guidance of Regional Councils.

But there is no argument more does need to be done.

Much of the switch from forestry to pasture identified in the report was a response to a misguided set of rules set up around the ETS prior to 2008 and much of this land in the Central North Island and Canterbury has been converted to dairy farming. But again, whether this has negatively impacted upon soil quality is a very moot point.

Increasingly arable land is having ‘minimal tillage’ techniques applied with direct drilling being done as opposed to more traditional full cultivation. This reduces tractor passes and retains much more of the organic matter within the soil.  So while the report may be useful to benchmark future progress against, its deficiencies in up-to-date information limits its usefulness. Plus, the lack of a more balanced view on what is actually happening on the land good as well as bad means it is just going to provide ammunition to those who have created a past-time of attacking agriculture and provide little useful input.

However, for farmers be warned the scope of critique on how operations are being carried out has spread and this report should at least be seen as a wake-up call to those who aren’t fully focused on all areas of externalities to do so. They are not going to go away

We welcome your help to improve our coverage of this issue. Any examples or experiences to relate? Any links to other news, data or research to shed more light on this? Any insight or views on what might happen next or what should happen next? Any errors to correct?

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20 Comments

Many reports stated waterways & lakes were severely polluted due to increased agricultural intensification
I see farmers are in fact fencing off runoff into waterways & wintering herds in barns. This is commendable
Now if Fonterra could only improve too

I live in a market gardening area, and while I know they are implementing measures to try and stop soil loss, the amount of dirt that is visibly lost off the fields onto roads and into ditches is massive.

Market gardeners use power harrows and rotovate a lot, they pound the soil but make a decent seed bed fast, like I said they knock the hell out of the soil. There is talk in the EU/UK of banning power harrows. Also they crop year after year and the soil gets low in organic matter. Land is so expensive they find it hard to justify fallowing fields for a year or two with clovers and livestock. We always follow the contour of the land to reduce runoff but sheep farming is not that intensive, well not where I live, expensive land encourages intensive farming systems.

In the States soil loss has been a big issue for as long as i can remember. The move to direct drilling has helped a lot. This is not something thats going to be an easy fix, get your wallet out.

http://www.cornandsoybeandigest.com/soil-health/economics-soil-loss

You need to keep up Northern Lights - "National River Water Quality Trends released by Land, Air, Water Aotearoa (LAWA) today, reveal that for all river water quality parameters monitored over a 10 year period, more sites were improving than deteriorating." https://www.lawa.org.nz/get-involved/news-and-stories/national-news/2018...
In Southland this has been particularly noticeable over the last 5 years.

Now if Fonterra could only improve too Please elaborate - is it their factories or what?

I don't know of any farmer that wants to lose any soil. I can believe that some farming systems could be prone to soil erosion in adverse events, spray and pray for instance on central Nth Island hill country but not on this scale.

However forestry is a different matter. I have witnessed horrendous soil erosion in the Sth Island after a heavy rain on freshly cut hill country out of Nelson. The river in question went from a stony stream, to having about 2 meters of sediment and pine trash covering it. It still is not back to what it used to be and that was ten years ago.
The beaches of the country are often littered with debris from forestry, so for forestry I could be convinced we have a problem.

Our rivers cut into banks often but that's hard to stop and many farmers spend a lot of time and money planting trees on rivers to try to limit damage. This is not something that I think can be fixed in pastoral farming we farm for averages but average years are rare. In 2003 we got 18" of rain in one day and I still had little damage, just one dam washed out.
I've spent all today with a digger cleaning out creeks and putting in drainage to some areas that pugged in the wet last year and getting ready to plant some more trees. I'm not unusual, in fact I think there are lots that do more for the environment than I do. The idea that somehow what I do causes me to lose all my soil is a joke and is going to lead to more needless regulation.

Commendable Andrew however like all professions there’s variation in those that practice Hence regulation is required albeit after prior consultation with all stakeholders.
NZs lakes & rivers have indeed degraded due to agriculture thus regulation is necessary just like in every other field of endeavour Farmers are not all the same we need more Andrews farming
I do apologize I mistook you for another Queen St computer hack

Farming families invest for generations, corporates often want short term results. I intend to leave this farm a lot better than when I purchased it. We have one major problem around here and that's feedpads, there must be in excess of 25,000 cattle wintered on river beds in the area. The Regional council has been aware of the issue for years and has continually failed to act, all of my farming friends want the practice shut down but we do not control the council, they have a higher calling.

River health is declining but as yet no action from council, these are intensive high cost operations that involve thousands and thousands of tonnes of bought in feed, that is fed to cattle on porous river beds and it's ridiculous that it's allowed to continue while they talk about limiting what the rest of us can do with cropping.

The modern large indebted farms have become an unfortunate part of modern day farming and they are still growing. Landcorp is an excellent example of how far we can go wrong when we move away from intergenerational family farms to large scale corporations.

With food security slated to be a major international issue in the coming decades I cannot see how NZ families will be able to compete with foreign state/private/mixed buying power for NZ farms.

The foreign/investor buyer crisis in farming is no different to what it is alleged to be in housing. In Canada some provinces have banned pension funds/investors from buying up farms. So those Canadian pension funds come here instead. If the government was serious farm ownership they could easily do the same as those Canadian provinces. Or it could be more drastic and be like Switzerland where the govt sets the land price - both to selling to family and to outside family. Though as half their farmers live below the poverty line, perhaps thats not such a good idea.

People who make the decisions that affect me don't have skin in the game

Taleb

A bullshitter is not someone who’s wrong, it’s someone who’s insulated from their mistakes.

https://www.zerohedge.com/news/2018-04-21/nassim-taleb-warns-americans-s...

There is no doubt there are many farmers doing great work , with soil conservation , and minimising runoff. They should be rewarded for doing so. However there are also farms that have almost no topsoil left, running on Nitrogen and phosphorus fertilisers, akin to mining the land. There needs to be carrots for good practice , as well as penalities for bad practice.

I don't know of any farm with no topsoil left, the only place I know where its thin is on the volcanic Plateau , you are right some waste nitrogen and P i due to runoff but they becoming fewer and further apart. The biggest issue has been intensification on marginal land, but who am I, to tell others how to farm?

It is accepted practice in Central Otago for farmers to take on intensive winter grazing of dairy stock for a few years to build up their soil profile. Grazing like this ends up adding humus to these soils and the non dairy farmer graziers find a much improved soil profile afterwards, benefit their farming operation in to the future.

I have done this regards winter grazing crops but didn't notice that big an increase in humus. Around here the Squash growers are planting italian rye grass, running lambs through winter, letting it grow in spring applying roundup and then ploughing the litter in.
I suspect it's in response to a problem, they appear to be continually cropping the land, often wonder if it works.
I don't think the flat land has much soil loss.

A lot of this grazing is on irrigated land - though not all - and at >200m asl. They usually take on grazing here for 5 years after which they stop as they can intensify their sheep/beef operations as a result of better soil profile. There was a 3yr study completed recently that looked in to farmers here taking on winter grazing as way of helping out economically for them, as some farms were not much above subsistence level. There were some environmental benefits to it too, as everyone takes more notice of intensive dairy wintering than intensive sheep wintering, so the farmers had to get up to speed quicker on mitigation as a result too.
I know some sheep farmers who have converted down south on lighter soils who say they have had the same results.

We just got soil compaction, we had to lower the bottom wire on the fences, which just goes to show the difference in soil types and effect of farming systems.

Many regional Councils are addressing soil issues through their regional plans. The speed at which they have moved in recent years confine outdated reports like the one reported on to the bin.

Southland's new Water and Land Plan was notified in April 2018. There are restrictions on cultivation: http://www.es.govt.nz/Document%20Library/Factsheets/Consent%20advice/010...
There is a requirement for farm environment management plans. From 1 May 2019 all dairy farms, from 1 May 2020 all landholdings over 20ha. http://www.es.govt.nz/Document%20Library/Factsheets/Consent%20advice/010...

It's going to be interesting who goes to the environment court over the new notified plan. The hearing commissioners recommended, and Council accepted, some significant changes to the proposed plan as a result of written and verbal submissions.