Primary industry: Biological agriculture is a blend of science and conservation that has farmers counting worms, smelling the soil and getting excited about the complex ecosystem that lives under the grass.
The buzz around biological farming seems to be catching. At the recent Field Days in the Waikato, Steven Haswell, managing director at BioAg New Zealand, described his 'walk-up traffic' as "significantly different" from other years.
"There's an unease with the current way of doing things - yields, productivity, animal health. The problems are getting more complex. Farmers are looking at options. Biological agriculture is a system for every farm, and it simply incorporates looking after the living part of the soil's biology. It has, in the past, largely been ignored by the mainstream in terms of its fertility.
The aim of biological farming is to improve the microbiology of the soil and restore the balance of minerals. The techniques are numerous, from reducing the application of synthetically derived pesticides and fertiliser, to decreasing stock numbers and focusing on quality, to rotating pasture and making manure from effluent.
It is not a return to the plough and ox, it is about getting the "beasties in the ground to do the work for you," as Waiuku biological kiwifruit grower Murray Reid puts it.
The rotation of stock on different pastures increases soil depth and quality and at the same time sequesters a considerable amount of carbon. Without the use of synthetic chemical fertilisers, soil biology - the growth of soil bacteria, fungi, worms - plus the use of a wider range of pasture species, results in the build-up of soil carbon in the form of plant roots and a layer of humus (rich black or brown decayed plant matter that gives soil nutrients).
The initial reaction to biological methods from many farmers is that productivity will drop, and a drop in yield threatens the financial viability of the farm. "A non-existent farm is not sustainable," says Dave Gobles, a biological sheep and beef farmer from West Otago.
But the results coming from farmers like Max Purnell near Taupo, Jeff Williams in the Manawatu, Greg Hart in Hawke's Bay, and Rick Braddock on Motatapu Island, combined with the reduced cost of biological farming, means that it is gaining traction.
With support and partnership from the Department of Conservation (DoC), cattle farmer Rick Braddock has helped transform crown-owned Motutapu Island in the Hauraki Gulf from a weed-infested island overrun by wallabies to a pest-free biological farm.
Braddock is optimistic about the trend in sustainable farming; the small but growing turn away from urea fertiliser indicates that farming practices are not set in stone.
"Urea is the cocaine of agriculture; it provides a quick fix and then it's over."
Another conventional farming problem that can become cyclical is antibiotic use. High input dairy farmers can find themselves spending $1,200 - $1,500 per month on antibiotics. While biological agriculture doesn't rule out the use of antibiotics if an animal is sick, the need is dramatically reduced.
"With smart farming, as I like to call it, the cost is lower, the animals are happier and the soil is in a far better condition," says Braddock.
With the help of DoC Braddock has fenced off all natural waterways and created wetlands on the island.
In Braddock's mind, increasing the foothold of biological farming in New Zealand requires three things; the use of local and regional council regulation to implement nutrient caps; a premium associated with biological produce and increasing the connectivity between farmers.
The past summer saw the worst drought in forty years, but the pastures and animals on Motutapu coped well. Braddock attributes this to good residual cover and the healthy state of the soil. In the Hawkes Bay a similar scenario has occurred with farmers practicing biological farming.
Biological agriculture in New Zealand
An estimated 200,000 hectares of land is farmed under biological principles in New Zealand out of a total of 14 million hectares of pastorally farmed land. The majority of this is in sheep and beef farming, while dairy lags behind, largely due to the pressure put on dairy farmers to produce ever-increasing milk yields.
However, some dairy farmers are catching onto biological methods as a way to reduce nitrogen and are getting better dry matter rates for healthier cows. This includes Federated Farmers Dairy Chairman Willy Leferink, who is himself a practitioner of the system. He says the system is catching on in Canterbury, where some farmers are applying significantly less nitrogen fertiliser.
The recently announced dairy industry Water Accord will provide further incentive for dairy farmers to think about what they are putting on the soil.
Weeds tell the story
Agro-ecologist Nicole Masters explains that the appearance of certain weeds indicate microbial disturbances in soil. For instance, ragwort can indicate that there is a phosphorus and copper deficiency - biological farming is a way to redress those imbalances and manage the problem rather than trying to eradicate it.
But Masters adds that there isn't an overnight fix. "With chemical spraying, weeds are removed quickly, but spraying selects for soil organisms which promote more weed growth in the long term. So you have to continue to spray and it becomes a vicious cycle."
Kate Beecroft has an MPhil in the governance of sustainable agriculture in New Zealand from Massey University. She has worked as an editor and writer for several years and now works as a policy advisor in the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.