Irrigation is essential if we are to build practical resilience to climate change and prevent parched lands and roaming wildfires, says Guy Trafford

Irrigation is essential if we are to build practical resilience to climate change and prevent parched lands and roaming wildfires, says Guy Trafford

By Guy Trafford

With the news being full of stories of drought and fires around the globe, currently Spain, Greece, Portugal, Italy, France, Croatia, Siberia, Armenia, Chile, Canada and the US have had or are experiencing extreme levels of wild fires, well beyond what could be considered normal. Even Greenland has had fires.

Asia and the African continent have also not been spared with “unprecedented” fires in the last twelve months or so. New Zealand currently has 100 firefighters in North America assisting in attempts to control multiple fires

 It seems timely to remind people of the decisions made recently to block (by and large) further plans for water storage and irrigation.

Climate change has become a very harsh reality and New Zealand, while possibly being spared from some of the extremes being seen lately, will still be heavily impacted. The annual value of exports for the primary sector is predicted to reach $42 billion next year, this is external money flowing into New Zealand supporting everybody’s standard of living. To maintain or grow these levels of export producers and processors alike need reliability of supply and that comes in the form of water.

New Zealand’s greatest competitive advantage over other countries is our access to fresh, reliable and renewable sources of water.

Per head of capita water of the OECD nations only Norway and Iceland have more, with developing nations in Melanesia and equatorial regions also sitting above New Zealand.

To those who believe land owners are getting access to "free water", New Zealand agriculture has the lowest level of government subsidisation of any country in the OECD. The cost to users to set up an irrigation system is in the vicinity of $2,000- $5,000 per hectare in construction shares plus another $4,000 - $10,000 per hectare in infrastructure and then in the vicinity of annual charges and costs of $1,000 per hectare. Added together that is $7,000- $16,000/ha and any direct cost for water pales in comparison. The reason landowners don’t pay for water is because of New Zealand’s legislation, not a lack of acceptance of a fair price.

It also goes without saying that workable measures to protect the environment from the excesses of intensive agriculture need to go hand in hand with further development.

In fact, future developments should be a win-win for both the environment and agriculture.  All would agree that more should and still needs to be done to improve the state of our waterways but the mistakes of the past should be a lesson for the future and not a block.

Parched lands and wild fires rampaging over the countryside is not a future I look forward to.

Red meat prices rising

However, on a more positive note meat prices for all classes of livestock; that is, sheep, beef and deer prices continue to climb.

Prime beef is starting to close in on the prices received last season, mainly pushed there through low numbers being available, while sheep meats and venison are at the highest levels that I can ever recall.

Top price for prime store lambs in the South Island got to $217/hd, and with venison at $11.40/kg, many growers will be pinching themselves to make sure it’s not a cruel dream they have to wake up from.

Y Lamb

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The only persistent drag is the coarser end of crossbred wool which are stuck at a pretty low ebb. At least prices held last week while the finer classes shot away to for mid micron wools the highest prices recorded, leaving one broker to remind all of comments made by the McKinsey report, in 2000 saying there was no future for these types of wool. The debate leading on from this report ended with the New Zealand wool board being disestablished. (Seems a lifetime ago now).

Wool has never been too far away from controversy and with the new Natural Fibre Exchange (NFX) recently joining the selling scene this seems to be the latest chapter. This new online initiative appears to be mainly supported by the processors getting rid of slipe wools. However, with its advent an existing online selling platform has been somewhat overlooked. This is the “Wool online” selling site. It has been in existence since 2009 and sources say that to date up to 650,000 bales have been successfully sold over this period. Supported mainly by the private wool brokers it is now offering a service allowing all of New Zealand's major wool exporting companies to purchase wool. Given the time Wool Online has been in existence leads question to be asked as to what gap the newly formed NFX is filling. Time will tell whether this is yet another company to come and go as many have before it.

Wool indicator prices

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"Irrigation exacerbates the impact of climate change," Professor Eltahir says.

Irrigation is how we humans have come to use land otherwise naturally unsuited to a particular activity for what we desire. In the same way that we cut all the trees down and flatten it then add imported plants and animals. Our current land use was imported with European settlers simply doing what they knew, not what was best type of production in the conditions. If you wanted to run more stock, just clear more land. Their unscientific solution to dry ground was to drain a river or lake to throw on it. Recall if you will the despair of the sheep farmers in Marlborough cursing drought and plagues of rabbits just decades ago, until some clown thought it resembled where they grow a lot of grapes, well Duh!!!.
However, the cynic in me knows that trying to explain this to a 5th generation sheep or cattle farmer is only going to get you a quizzical look.

Mr Trafford nicely (deliberately ) confusing climate change with the need for irrigation. Areas like the Mckenzie Basin were never suitable for dairying. Ditto the many other pristine areas your cow poooing mates are plundering from the public for your private pockets. Enough.

I agree with the title given but not the body. We should irrigate - our forests, not the productive farmland. Irrigating forests keeps them too wet for a fire to get a grip (and therefore absorbing carbon) while agricultural land is managed by the farmers with their animals. this chap seems to be suggesting the the public support, and possibly fund the irrigation of farm land so farmers can pocket more and bigger profits. With the evidence of the ecological damage that we have done as a species becoming ever more evident, why should we continue to support a select group who continue to espouse that land and ecology modification is justified in the name of the almighty dollar?

In fact, future developments should be a win-win for both the environment and agriculture. All would agree that more should and still needs to be done to improve the state of our waterways but the mistakes of the past should be a lesson for the future and not a block.

The mistakes of the past are still the mistakes of today and all are from farmers 50+, been in the business a long time. My hope is the next generation coming through who have some say will change things.

The bull farm down the road happily grazes the multiple streams on his place.

My dry stock neighbour hasn't fenced off any streams.

My old (dairy farm) employer would stand his cows off when it was wet on a sand pad next to a stream that feeds the Waikato River

Another employer dug down 'as far as the bucket would reach' to bury his on farm rubbish pile, chemical containers, silage wrap etc above where he thought was the underground water source to one of his 3 bores.

Caught up with the Sharemilker across the road who was hosing his yard down post milking. Diverter open, water running down his tanker track into a stream.

To those who believe land owners are getting access to "free water"...

I call b@llocks on this, farmers got CPW scheme for free.

While the argument that irrigating stops fires is also total bunkum, I do advocate for the purchase of airplanes with fire fighting capability. Now that the NZ Fire Service has gone national, we should buy at least four planes, with the additional capability of being able to fly them to Sydney to help our friends in Australia. If I were an insurance industry magnate, I would be insisting on this, as a way of mitigating forward risk. Recall the Port Hills fire in Christchurch last year, the absurdly slow response from central govt, and the resulting destruction of pine forest plantation and stoppage of business for the adventure park. All avoidable if we had some decent nationwide and dedicated aerial fire fighting capability. I remember helicopter pilots correcting radio journalists whenever "monsoon buckets" were mentioned: "they're not monsoon buckets, they're just buckets".

Insiders in the Australian firefighting community informed me that Melbourne had offered assistance in the form of firefighting planes but they were rejected by authorities in NZ. If they had sent two such planes, that fire would have been out in about two hours, instead of two days.

I expressed these sentiments to forest industry members in NZ, and I was met with blank expressions. They seemed not to comprehend the forward risk.

Run this ruler over plans to build dams, would you do it to preserve natural, native forest?
Didn't think so.

Shame on you, Guy.

Agribusiness, as currently practiced, is the process of turning fossil energy into food. It uses 10 (or more) calories of that finite resource, to produce one calorie of food. There is only one thing we can say about that process - it will end. We can assume that those who bet on it continuing, will be out of pocket.

And that's before we talk of topsoil-loss and nitrification.

We'd have been better off finding a way to eat the oil - at a 50% calorie-retrieval rate it'd have made more sense than agribusiness.

But we are into a bigger argument, re CC mitigation, and it includes the reduction of (fed) population - whether we wait for nature to take it's course or do it voluntarily

To add some information into the debate, irrigation has a wide range of uses in NZ. For example 90% of New Zealand’s commercially grown vegetables are grown on irrigated land, along with most of our cereal crops, fruit and wine. Irrigation underpins food production globally as 40% of the world’s food is grown using irrigation on 20% of agricultural land.

Guy is correct than New Zealand has abundant water resources. NZ receives around 550 billion m3 of precipitation in an average year. Less than 2% of our national rainfall total is used for human use, with 80% flowing out to sea and supporting river ecosystems along the way. The remaining rainfall evaporates.

The government’s recent Carbon Zero consultation put forward that New Zealand will need to significantly expand its horticultural and arable land use. With more frequent droughts occurring across the country, access to irrigation will become even more important in the future.

I recently read an article from a UK academic commenting on the fact that while there would be substantial food price rises from their drought, price hikes would be much less severe than in 1976 with part of the reason being that irrigation is being much more widely used today.

And to respond to some of the comments the majority of costs for irrigation are funded by farmers. Some schemes have received loan funding which has to be repaid. Irrigation contributes $5 billion to NZ's GDP so the return on investment repays the loan investment many times over.

Andrew Curtis, IrrigationNZ.

I believe water and irrigation will only be one problem in the future if we don't do things right. I think we also need to consider how water movement effects topsoil. Wikipedia (Topsoil) (quote) Erosion

A major environmental concern known as topsoil erosion occurs when the topsoil layer is blown or washed away. Without topsoil, little plant life is possible. The estimated annual costs of public and environmental health losses related to soil erosion exceed $45 billion.[9] Conventional agriculture encourages the depletion of topsoil because the soil must be plowed and replanted each year. Sustainable techniques attempt to slow erosion through the use of cover crops in order to build organic matter in the soil. The United States alone loses almost 3 tons of topsoil per acre per year.[10] This is of great ecological concern as one inch of topsoil can take between 500[11] and 1,000 years[12] to form naturally. On current trends, the world has about 60 years of topsoil left.[12][13]

Yep, NZ is a world leader in the amount of topsoil we loose annually. And just think about the 60 yr estimate above for 1 minute (No topsoil means no food for any life forms to exist). More extremes in climate will only exasperate this situation. Yes I believe NZ needs to be way more diversified in the crops we produce, when I think of dairy farms & kiwifruit, I think of one crop, one disease, one pest. which will also get worse with climate change. I also think we need to rethink how we produce our food, and to me the only answer is to mimic nature (as in Permaculture). where food is grown in food forests. Just like native forests, food forests are chaotic, there's no symmetry, the trees & ground mulch slow the rain water, reduce evaporation and allow the water to hydrate the soils very deeply. The mulch/leaf litter replenishes the topsoil and creates abundance in other life forms such as beneficial soil bacteria and insects thereby adding minerals and nutrient (nowadays as a result of the way we farm we're forced to artificially get our minerals/supplements from a health store). When I look at the state of this planet (from plastic pollution thru to raging fires and climate extremes) I wonder if humans will ever see the light and accept that we are indeed not that smart as to be able to challenge nature. Hence maybe we should learn to accept our stupidity and learn to work with nature in how we produce our food and manage resources such as water.