Steps towards Farming Within Limits

The article was first published in The GROWER magazine.

Farming within limits is the phrase of the year, by-line of numerous conferences, and part of many conversations. Farming within limits is nothing new. Financial constraints, market size, climate and soils, labour . . . you name it.

But farming within off-farm environmental limits puts a new spin on the topic. Both regulators and growers are under pressure to lift performance. Fortunately Horticulture New Zealand took a lead role years ago when it launched New Zealand Good Agricultural Practice.

New Zealand GAP is constantly evolving to meet new opportunities and requirements. And the bar will continually lift as governments, markets and other stakeholders expect ever higher standards from producers. But good agricultural practice is, and will be, the core of farming successfully within limits.

Successful growers already aim for profitable production with environmental stewardship. They have systems that ensure the basics are done well, and for continuous improvement. They measure to manage, they record to report.

These leaders of the pack are prepared for, and often do well from, change. They have a mind-set of adapting management to meet or beat changing situations. They already do a bit extra such as riparian planting and supporting local stream care. They are ready for most, if not all, that “farming within limits” may throw at them.

It is a year since the National Policy Statement (NPS) for Freshwater Management 2011 came into effect requiring councils to set limits on fresh water quality and the amount of water that can be abstracted from our rivers, lakes and aquifers.

Councils have four years left to establish programmes that will give effect to the NPS by 2030. They will need to amend regional policy statements, proposed regional policy statements, plans, proposed plans, and variations. It is a lot of work, and councils are under pressure to have the necessary changes in place sooner rather than later.

Government stated, “We are committed to monitoring improvements in fresh water management from the NPS and reviewing its effectiveness within five years as the complete package of reforms is rolled out.” There is a strong sense of urgency.

Growers can take action now. Both on and off-farm activities are needed, and many things can happen in parallel. There is a need to be involved, and no need to wait to do things better.

The freshwater quality driver points to many things; irrigation and nutrient management, soil conservation, stream enhancement, eel fishery management, and a range of environmental offsets. It is the effect of the combination of all management and mitigation that will determine the outcome.

Of the off-farm activities, Horticulture New Zealand Natural Resources and Environment Manager, Chris Keenan, says, “The key task in front of growers right now is participating in a limit setting process, because that will determine how much effect limit setting will have on the business.” Chris Keenan further notes that if they are going to do this effectively, they will need to be organised. Catchment management groups will be necessary in many cases, if not all cases.

On-farm, growers can adapt their management.

Two critical on-farm factors under direct grower control are water and nutrient management. We can’t control the rain, but we can definitely control irrigation and artificial drainage. And we are in control of our fertiliser application and can do quite a lot to keep nutrients in the root zone.

Our evaluation of irrigation systems and irrigation management records shows a wide range of performance. Some growers are highly focused, manage intensely and have high water use efficiencies.  Unfortunately, some don’t.

Without carefully monitoring soil moisture levels, weather forecasts and irrigator performance testing, effective efficient irrigation is impossible. You must know how much is needed, and how much is going on. If the basics are not right, no amount of fancy technology will help.

The same is true for nutrient management where a wide range of performance is evident. Some growers apply excellent soil fertility testing, nutrient budgeting and planning, and fertiliser spreader calibration; essential steps to maximise nutrients use.

Water and nutrient management are closely linked. Too much water will cause unnecessary nutrient loss to freshwater, just as will too much fertiliser.  Too little water reduces crop growth which leaves unused nutrients in the soil, often also increasing losses that end up in freshwater.

Fortunately, efforts to manage water and nutrients better can improve farm profitability as well as environmental performance. So it can be a win-win. Focus on getting the basic things right. Look for big, easy gains first. Then look at fine-tuning.

Catchment management groups, farmers getting together to manage the overall effect of all activities on the quality of water in each catchment, are a powerful way to make progress. Such groups provide a forum for ideas, a place of co-operative learning, agreement on actions and priorities, and opportunities for benchmarking performance.

If everyone performed at the level of the top quarter, overall performance would rise significantly. Then the community would be able to see the fresh water quality improvements sought.

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