When you look at the farm of the future, what will really make the difference is the person standing in the paddock. There is science down on the farm and a growing army of highly capable, environmentally conscious farmers, says Professor Keith Cameron, Head of Centre for Soil and Environmental Research at Lincoln University.
"The people involved are extremely important, the key to addressing the challenge," he says. We need to have skilled experts who understand how farming and the environment affect each other. "Interest in that area has grown considerably," he claims, pointing to the doubling of students studying Bachelor of Agricultural Science at his university in last seven years.
"These are highly motivated students, environmentally aware as well as production focussed; they want to know how to manage their food production system in a way that reduces environmental footprint." And they get trained in putting together nutrient budgets as well as weighing up farm finances.
Science developing the answers
Nutrients that plants need to grow can be a problem when they escape. Nitrate draining through soil into rivers and lakes can result in an explosion of weeds and algae, damaging fish populations and making the water less attractive for us humans too.
Phosphorus, another nutrient, is mainly lost by water running across the surface of the soil taking particles and dissolved phosphorus with it. Both are essential fertilisers for our fields and widely used; phosphorus to the tune of 1.6 million tonnes of superphosphate fertiliser per year.
"I see the soil as being a living body," adds Cameron.
"It needs to be fed and watered in order to fulfil its function in providing food and water to the plants."
Recent studies mean we are beginning to understand exactly how nutrients are used and lost, what crops and livestock work best and how to operate in a way undreamed of even a generation ago.
Taking science to the soil and stream, New Zealand is ahead of the curve in computerised analysis of agricultural nutrients and how to manage them. Many farms, supporting suppliers and even regional councils are using Kiwi-developed software called Overseer to make the most of the nutrients and lose the least.
It is more complicated than you might think. Much of the nitrogen leached is from animal urine rather than fertiliser spread on the pasture. Research is going on into plants that take up more nitrogen in winter and thus reduce the risk of nitrate leaching. Multi-partner research with scientists from DairyNZ, AgResearch, Plant & Food Research, as well as Lincoln University, is trying to develop pasture systems that help reduce the amount of urine-nitrogen that is deposited on the paddock by the grazing animals.
Recent collaborative research has also revealed that both new types of pasture plant mixes and using new efficient irrigation systems can reduce nitrate leaching, allowing our farmers to work smarter.
Research is also revealing what happens with the changing seasons; a wet year can cause more trouble. Moving cattle to stand-off pads while they ruminate is one solution. Waste is collected and can even be saved to fertilise future crops or pasture.
"The answers have to be affordable," Cameron warns. "Research is starting to identify the best on/off grazing patterns."
Tighter regulation, cleaner farming
An international report last month suggested that relying on the Resource Management Act does not go far enough to safeguard the environment. However recent national rules are tightening the screws.
New guidelines on fresh water, which regional councils are implementing, translates to restrictions on nutrients which can enter streams and rivers. For example, the Waikato Healthy Rivers Plan for Change is aimed at cleaning up one of the nation's great waterways.
Not everyone likes the new restrictions, with one frustrated Otago farmer dumping a lorry load of manure in front of the regional council offices in protest. On the other hand, Horizons Council has been accused of giving farmers in the Manawatu-Whanganui region an easier ride, issuing consents for higher levels of nutrient contamination.
However broad generalisations don't tell the whole story; some areas have issues with nitrates, others with phosphates, points out Anders Crofoot, Federated Farmers' environmental spokesman. And conditions can change across a paddock, let alone on a farm. Solutions vary; vegetation on the banks of rivers and streams - referred to as riparian planting - can reduce phosphorus running into the water, but does not work so well to reduce nitrate leaching.
"As you increase intensity it is more efficient on a per-unit production basis and you generally decrease greenhouse gas emissions," Crofoot says. "The trick is how you do this without increasing other impacts." He adds that delving into the detail on each farm can deliver improvements. "Doing the basics right is both good business and produces good environmental outcomes."
Forestry aiming for cleaner future
Smarter land use goes much wider than cleaning up the cow business. Peter Clinton of forestry specialist Scion Research believes that future forestry will be more carefully sited and diverse. This follows greater knowledge about erosion and effects on watercourses, and a new national environmental standard for forestry currently being put together.
Nearly two million hectares is covered with seemingly ubiquitous radiata pine plantation. Yet, far from being barren, nature is thriving under the canopy, helping our country's biodiversity and providing a safe harbour for nature's services; natural species that combat the ill effects of pests on the farm. According to a recent study at least 118 threatened indigenous species are found in the mix of exotic forest and native ecosystems remnants that make up plantations today.
Future forestry may make more use of native trees.
A Northland regional economic development study reported that a totara industry could be worth $70m within seven years. And planting native trees may also be more culturally acceptable, Clinton claims.
"The green movement and the desire to move agriculture towards sustainability is consistent with the cultural mores of Maori tikanga (best practice)," says Lloyd Carpenter, lecturer in Maori Studies at Lincoln. "But it takes more than a cultural legacy to see real change."
As mana whenua, many Maori try and work with landowners and farmers to mitigate the environmental effects of intensive production. Some have become modern farmers themselves and try to retain cultural values as part of the process; Ngai Tahu, for example, are especially concerned to prevent water contamination from their
dairy conversions, with areas set aside to establish native ecosystems.
Bright green future?
"Future land uses will be determined by environmental regulations and profitability," says Grant Edwards, a professor of dairy production at Lincoln University. "I think we are making considerable progress to reduce environmental footprint. There's not enough progress yet in increasing profitability, that's what we are really searching for and there's still some untapped potential."
He adds that New Zealand farmers have always been innovative and some of the solutions will come from them, working with scientists or on their own. Just as well, as more environmental regulations begin to bite over the next decade.
One potential development covered in Element back in January is planting Miscanthus x as a shelter belt. The tall grass provides better grazing, harbours nature's helpers and could be a source of local biodiesel.
Crofoot sees change ahead for the better. "Things change in time as people come to the realisation that because your grandfather did it doesn't mean you should keep doing it."
Keith Cameron is confident that using research and education we can significantly reduce and even reverse some of the environmental issues as we strive for increased food production.
"The future is actually bright. There are opportunities ahead that will make a big difference for the country's economy and environment."