Talking point: Dam a challenge, opportunity

By Peter Kemp


The challenge we face nationally is how to increase productivity off the land while improving the management of any environmental effects.

For the future of agriculture in New Zealand we need to pay more attention to environmental matters than we have in the past; at the same time being more productive and making better use of our resources. That includes using water from irrigation more efficiently and proactively reducing the leakage of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen from farms into the environment.

Worldwide, there is a desperate need for a greater range of quality foods.

Introducing a new irrigation scheme such as the Ruataniwha Water Storage Scheme can help achieve that, but it needs to be done using cutting edge technology, the best people and the most up-to-date science.

It is true that dairy farming is booming in New Zealand but I don't believe the Ruataniwha Water Storage Scheme will result in a massive dairy farm in Central Hawke's Bay. The water is expensive and I believe we will quickly see real entrepreneurial behaviour from farmers looking at what else they can produce with their reliable water supply.

They will look for options that help them to diversify to fit the rules of their water contracts, while making money. There is a lot more opportunity to be created from this scheme than just putting water on pasture.

Hawke's Bay is hugely successful in vegetable and wine production. New reliable water would change the game again and give people the confidence to find new ways to farm. People often fear large changes, such as this scheme, and there are always genuine concerns such as whether Makaroro is the best place for the dam, how much it will cost and how it will affect them. These things take time to work through, they are not reasons not to do it.

Take nutrient management - this is certainly an ongoing process. We don't have all the answers but we have made huge advances and continue to do so.

In Canterbury, irrigation came without an understanding of the impacts. In Hawke's Bay we are better armed, understanding the impacts of nutrients getting into the river and have the opportunity to create a cutting edge irrigation scheme. I believe one of the ongoing focuses of this scheme should be research of the land and farming types to continue to improve nutrient management.

There are likely to be some problems created by the scheme because it is difficult to look into the future, but new technology and improved ways of managing nutrients is a huge focus in New Zealand. We need to do the best we can now and solve any problems that we haven't predicted as they arise.

New technologies also mean there's been a rapid improvement in the tools used for managing irrigation efficiently and these will be used in Hawke's Bay. Irrigation systems are now carefully managed with monitors and control rates that are extremely accurate.

We will see a lot of what is termed 'precision agriculture', such as soil and land mapping. This enables farmers to measure soil types and quality and find exactly where the best production spots are on their farm. It also ensures accurate fertiliser application. As farmers invest more in their farms they invest more in these types of tools which help to farm smarter, save time and money and get more production from every litre of water and kilogram of fertiliser used.

It is never easy to introduce a new scheme that changes the landscape. 15-20 years ago people were concerned when forestry was increasing, now they have got used to the idea.

The challenge with big schemes such as the Ruataniwha is fear of the unknown. If the Hawke's Bay Regional Council works with the community to help them understand what they are trying to achieve then eventually most will see the positive outcomes this scheme could bring to the whole region.

Professor Peter Kemp is Head of the Institute of Agriculture & Environment College of Science, Massey University

Organisers, experts in their field and interest groups are invited to contribute opinions. Email to:

- Hawkes Bay Today

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