New Zealand should be a big conservation park - farmer

By Laurel Stowell -
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SEE HERE: Dan Steele visits a shoe stall in India during the Global Focus part of his Nuffield Scholarship.
SEE HERE: Dan Steele visits a shoe stall in India during the Global Focus part of his Nuffield Scholarship.

Farming, conservation and tourism need to go hand in hand for New Zealand's future, Whakahoro farmer and entrepreneur Dan Steele says.

He was one of New Zealand's four Nuffield Scholars last year, and what he learned overseas strengthened views he had from the outset.

His own farm is an example of what he would like to see. Blue Duck Station is1460ha in the remote Retaruke Valley adjoining the Whanganui River and Whanganui National Park. It gets 8000 visitors a year, has 10 full-time staff plus part-time staff and volunteers and runs 5000 breeding ewes, 800 cattle and 150 red deer.

"It's a real mixture. We want to be as diversified as we can. Diversification is better than intensification for New Zealand," he said.

Now that his scholarship is completed, Mr Steele wants to carry on learning and improve the station.

"I want to turn this place into a bloody big conservation park with more wetlands, cleaner streams and bush reserves," he said.

He's also moving into honey production, and said honey was a great example of the instiable international demand for healthy, sustainable products.

His views have been getting some coverage. In August he gave the keynote speech at the Environmental Defence Society's conference in Auckland. It went down well, and he's been asked to take the message elsewhere.

The subject of the conference was Wild Places.

"New Zealand is really a wild place and we need to keep it like that, keep it as a mysterious, romantic and lovely place for the world to aspire to, and lead the world in conservation and green technology. That's the only way the world is going to respect us and pay us," he said.

He approved of the Predator Free New Zealand initiative, but said the country was heading in the wrong direction with more intensive agriculture in the wrong places. The advance of irrigated dairying into the Mackenzie Basin was one example.

"It looks pretty terrible," he said.

"We've invested in making as much lamb and milk powder as we can. In 2016 we can't find the people who want to pay us for it."

As part of the scholarship he surveyed international visitors to New Zealand. He found about 25 per cent were disappointed the country was not as pristine as they expected.

"They're a bit startled by over-intensive agriculture, too much irrigation - things they perceive to be bad for the environment and not becoming of what they thought New Zealand would be like."

The Nuffield Scholarship had three stints of overseas travel. The first was a conference for the world's 65 Nuffield Scholars in Rheims, France. Mr Steele took in so much new information there it was "like drinking from a fire hydrant".

Another was six weeks' travel in a group of seven scholars to Brazil, Australia, Singapore, India, Qatar, Turkey, France and the United States. That was an intensive tour of food production and processing, with universities and politicians thrown in.

Mr Steele also visited England, Ireland, the US and Canada on his own, to look at eco-tourism.

One of the eye-openers was news that New Zealand's farm products are not essential to keep the world fed. Africa alone had the potential to feed the world, they were told. Desalinated water was being used to irrigate desert in Qatar, and synthetic milk and meat could be made in the lab or manufactured, with fewer environmental effects than conventional farming.

"We've been told feeding nine billion people in 2050 will be a big problem. It's a fallacy. We're growing more and more and a lot that we're growing isn't really needed," Mr Steele said.

New Zealand's future has to be in producing high value, healthy food, tourism and exporting smart technologies.

Tourism is predicted to grow to 4.5 million visitors in the next few years, and those travellers are wealthy.

"We can turn every one of those guests into a customer while they're here. When they leave they will continue to be a customer back in their countries, and they will also be an ambassador for us."

He said food tourism was growing, and saw it at work in the town of Orange in New South Wales. There weekend visitors from Sydney stock up at farm shops and vineyards and eat in restaurants and cafes.

Keeping New Zealand's environment pristine and beautiful is a essential for growing tourism. He said farmers often see conservation as an enemy, but they are wrong. It's needed to grow tourism.

"Farming and tourism have to align."

++ The 43-page report Mr Steele wrote as a result of his scholarship is online at It's titled Why being true to Brand New Zealand is the best option for New Zealand agriculture.

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