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Farming when drought is the new normal

Farming profitably through climate change is going to take far more than traditional drought-mitigation measures, writes Rod Oram - as he cycles the length of New Zealand on the Tour Aotearoa.

On Tuesday afternoon I was enjoying a relaxed bike ride along Ongarue Back Road to Taumarunui when I suddenly felt scared. The sky was too blue. The temperature too hot. The wind too scarce. The paddocks too dry. Was this just another drought? Or was something else going on?

The same acute unease had first hit me two weeks before at the Trustpower Arena at Mount Maunganui. It was lunch time at Zespri’s annual growers conference and I was catching up with Will Steffen, one of the authors of the seminal Planetary Boundaries work by the Stockholm Resilience Center and an emeritus professor at ANU in Canberra.

Will described how this summer had been in and around Canberra. A cool night was 30C, most were far hotter. And bush fires raged around the city and across southeastern Australia. In that one big burn an area equivalent to the whole of our North Island down to Rotorua was swept by fire.

“We climate scientists had projected we’d experience such new phenomena in the 2040s. But they are with us now.”

He’s been helping Zespri develop a more ambitious sustainability strategy. So, in his after lunch presentation to the growers he was very blunt about where the planet was heading. With emissions still rising, and efforts to curtail them spasmodic and weak at best, we were heading for much higher temperatures.

The current top end of the UN’s IPCC scenarios is a 6c jump by the end of the century. At such temperatures “most of Australia would be uninhabitable.” Even the big east coast cities would suffer drastic reductions in their human populations.

While our climate is significantly different from Australia’s, there are common factors between our two countries’ recent weather conditions, says Jim Salinger, an NZ climate scientist. A meteorologist at the beginning of his career, Jim, a good friend, is giving me highly localised forecasts day by day as I ride this month from Cape Reinga to Bluff.

I put to him the question about climate change that had occurred to me on the road to Taumarunui. He said our very dry weather in the North Island in November and December was caused by persistent northwesterlies over the South Island and anticyclones to the east. These in turn had been triggered by a very positive Indian Ocean Dipole with a negative Southern Annular Mode. Those two climate triggers had also caused the massive drought and fires in Australia.

Since mid-January, our weather pattern has been set by a blocking anticyclone over the North Island and to the east of it. The impact of the drought was evident as I rode across the Hauraki Plain, an area of intense dairy farming, on Saturday.

Over the weekend, though, there was a brief break in the pattern, and thus some rain in some places. On the road to Mangakino on Sunday I experienced a weird “dry” hailstorm - all ice and waves of cold air but no rain until later in the day, and then only light and brief.

By Monday, the block was back over the North Island. And I was back riding in very sunny, hot weather past very dry paddocks. I took the photo at the top of the column south of Mangakino on my way to the geographic centre of the North Island.

It will take big changes in farming systems to make farm ecosystems, paddock grasses, forage crops and animals much more drought resistant.

All the climate modelling for New Zealand project a greater occurrence of droughts. “We are seeing the new normal,” James Renwick, the Victoria University climate scientist, began saying in 2013. It is an observation he’s repeated recently now he’s a member of our new Climate Change Commission.

But farming profitably through climate change is going to take far more than traditional measures such as extra reserves of feed, more water storage and irrigation and government handouts to alleviate drought-induced financial losses.

It will take big changes in farming systems to make farm ecosystems, paddock grasses, forage crops and animals much more drought resistant. The absolute key to this is rebuilding the health of soils as the keystone of regenerative farming practices.

I first saw the benefits of such drought resistance, and generally more sustainable farming, on land the Williams family have farmed near Lake Karapiro  in the Waikato for four generations. They combine organic farming, wetlands restoration, robotic milking, bee keeping and food crop diversification as some of their key practices. This article describes their journey, and this website their range of activities.

Such issues will be explored next weekend, March 6 and 7, at the Organic Dairy and Pastoral Group of New Zealand’s annual conference, which they will hold at Lincoln University. More details are on their website, organicpastoral.co.nz.

Two other ecosystem restoration challenges have been much on my mind as I’ve been riding this week across the Hauraki Plain, down through the  Waikato and into the King Country.

First, is the impact of the plain’s intensive dairy farming on the Firth of Thames. The flow of nutrients and soils out into the Firth has dramatically reduced its health.

Yet the plain’s change from vast wetland to farming is only a few generations old. Back in the 1930s, the immigrant grandparents of one of my fellow Tour Aotearoa riders, a GP from Dunedin, were lucky in a land allocation ballot to get a block of land they drained then farmed. The intensification has come only in the past few decades.

The problems in the Firth are only part of the wider ecosystem degradation across the Hauraki Gulf. In 2013 a non-statutory body was established with representatives from all stakeholders, Three years later they delivered the Sea Change - Tai Timu Tai Pari Hauraki Gulf Marine Spatial Plan as a framework for working on all the inter-connected challenges of the impact of urban and rural activities on the health of the Gulf.

Among other goals, the plan has proposals for marine protection and fisheries management, habitat restoration, catchment management, localised co-management and opportunities for local development. The government is working on its policy responses, with the latest update on the work available here.

The other subject is our national goal of being predator free by 2050. On Saturday, as I rode the Hauraki Rail Trail there was an impressive array of traps along the way, just one example of the vast array of local actions developing.

On Sunday, It was a great pleasure as I rode along the Waikato River trail to look across Lake Karapiro to the Maungatautari sanctuary. Established in 2001, it was an early pioneer with its 47km predator proof fence encircling 3,400ha of the mountain. Over the two decades since its flora and fauna have revived impressively.

Lake Karapiro and the Maungatautari sanctuary. Photo: Rod Oram

Yet I was deeply sceptical about the whole idea of becoming predator free when Sir Paul Callaghan threw down the great challenge to us in his last presentation before he died. It seemed so impossible, so expensive, such a distraction from great tasks we had.

But over the years since, I’ve come to understand the immense power of it to energise people, build communities, to stimulate creativity and enterprise, all in the spirit of ecosystem restoration and the wealth of benefits it brings to the planet and us.

The turning point for me came a few years after Paul died. I attended a conference the Royal Society held to assess the nation’s response to his challenge. I began to understand what was at stake. The conference was in Wanganui. As it happens, that’s where I’ve parked my bike for the night - and I’m sitting in a riverside motel writing this column on a hot, drought driven afternoon.

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