Northern Advocate Column

Small and big water users on a collision course

9th September 2020

“It never rains but it pours.” Having experienced the extremes of weather this last 12 months, an appropriate re-wording of that old saying would be: “If it’s not a drought, it’s a flood.” 

Northland has always had seasonal differences in rainfall. Droughts and storms that cause extensive flooding aren’t new. But last summer was the hottest and driest I can recall, and it’s been followed by the wettest winter. Our climate is obviously changing. Climate scientists are predicting that what we’re experiencing may well be the new normal. 

Regular droughts will put a strain on water supplies and cause disputes between different water users. Those tensions are already emerging. There’s been much interest in the application by avocado growers to access an additional 6 million litres of water per year from the Aupōuri Peninsula’s aquifer. The only source of water for many Far North locals. It’s not the only area where water consents are being sought. 

A common feature is the large size of the operations wanting increased access to water. In Northland, like the rest of New Zealand, farming enterprises are getting bigger. This is a model of land use and ownership heavily dependent on scale to generate operating efficiencies. Companies are often highly leveraged to banks. Their focus is on delivering a single food product to supermarkets or for export. Leaving aside the justice of land being increasingly owned by a few, this model has a lot of risk contained in it. Prices can fluctuate, interest rates can go up, input costs can increase, or it might not rain enough. 

Too little rainfall at crucial times of the year is a risk that big agriculture wants to mitigate. These enterprises could build water storage themselves, capturing water during periods of heavy rainfall in a similar way to a householder or bach owner collects water in a tank. That would be a private cost. Companies with slim margins and an eye on reducing costs would rather access water cheaply from underground aquifers. Or have the government and local councils pick up the costs of irrigation projects or mass water storage. 

Recently the government gave $12 million for a water storage project coordinated by the Northland Regional Council. The project received $18.5 million last year. That’s likely to be only the start of public money for water storage and irrigation projects that will be essential to new large scale horticulture ventures. 

The high-cost, high-risk vision of agriculture has clearly got backing within government and local councils. It’s not, however, the only vision of farming for Northland. One better adapted to the extremes of weather caused by the atmosphere warming is small scale mixed farming producing for a local market. Of which there are plenty of pioneers in Northland today. 

Regenerative agriculture uses practices to keep water in the land. Organic material is used to maintain healthy aerated soils that can absorb and retain moisture. The emphasis is on a diversity of crops and animal husbandry. Different crops may succeed one year where others fail without destroying the viability of the whole farm. A term often used in ecology circles to describe this type of farming is resilient. It’s adaptable in the way that planting a single crop over 400 hectares is not. 

Given what we know about climate change, small scale organic farming practices producing a variety of quality food for local people needs to be our future. It’s not the dynamic that’s currently playing out across Tai Tokerau. Big is in the ascendency.

Climate change and farming intensification are on a collision course in Northland, with water access the flashpoint. Where does public sentiment lie? Is it with the big landowners and their high-risk model, or with the resilient practices of the small organic farmer?   

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