Levin's Woodhaven Gardens is finalist for the Ballance Farm Environment Awards in the Horizons region, but despite this accolade, its owners, the Clarke family, fear that proposed regulations such as those regarding nitrogen leaching proposed in Horizons' One Plan will spell the end to vegetable growing in Horowhenua. Further government legislation on land-use and water quality are likely to add to difficulties vegetable growers face.
Jay Clarke, a Woodhaven Gardens director, said no vegetable grower in Horowhenua is able to operate within the rules so none are able to get a consent from the regional council, because of the tight rules. He believes the rules are too much a case of 'one size fits all'.
"The blanket rule applies to beef, dairy, sheep farming, orchardists and vege growers and no matter what we do our nitrogen leaching per hectare is above the amount permitted, but the overall amount for vege growing is quite low."
Woodhaven Gardens stretches from Koputaroa to Manakau and grows 23 different crops of green vegetables, such as celery and zucchini on 1000ha of owned and leased land.
Clarke said they produce 27 million end pieces or between seven and 10 per cent of fresh greens in New Zealand, all of which are sold within the country.
"Eighty per cent goes to market in cases. Only a few such as spinach is packaged in a bag, without which the spinach will not last long."
For the past few years the company has been implementing regenerative farming principles, which means all green waste is "captured and incorporated back into the soil on the farm".
In the high season Woodhaven Gardens employs well over 200 people, 80 per cent of whom are locals.
They use 10,000 litres of water a day at the washing facility alone, all water from an aquifer.
"And then there is the irrigation, which is small compared to pastoral farming. Some crops only need 10mm."
Clarke said rainwater harvesting is not practical.
"Unless you implement a very rigorous testing scenario. For food safety reasons, this is not allowed.
"I understand that water quality is a big issue for the public. That's why we decided to find out what more we could do. Four or five years ago we started with community engagement to understand what iwi and environmental groups wanted from us. It was a positive process for us as it highlighted specific issues we could deal with.
"We also get that locals do want to keep vegetable growing to continue in Horowhenua. We live with the tension between the environmental impact we have as growers and remaining economically sustainable.
"We have some of the best soils in the country and the perfect climate for growing food. It doesn't make sense to put a stop to it.
He said the changeover to more environmental responsible farming has been hard on the firm and very expensive.
"Compliance costs come close to $1m a year," he said.
Some of the measures Woodhaven Gardens has implemented include grass buffers at the end of paddocks to stop nutrients escaping during heavy rain.
There are strips of land in each paddock for tractors to use and in doing so compact soils which facilitates leaching.
"Those strips of land amount to $10m worth of land that we can't use to grow on, but it is the best thing we could do to improve our environmental footprint, especially with regards to groundwater quality."
He said figures show Woodhaven Gardens has reduced nitrogen losses by nearly half.
"We are in an ecologically sensitive area," he said, close to Lake Papaitonga, the Arawhata Stream and Lake Punahau/Horowhenua.
"Initially we did not think there was a lot we as vegetable growers could do, but we have been amazed." As a consequence Woodhaven Gardens is now teaching other local vege growers what they can do.
"We cannot get a consent as the nitrogen gap is too high. It is set for dairy farming and vegetable growing loses less nitrogen than dairy overall but is at higher risk when it comes to nitrate, but per hectare we produce more than a grass paddock.
"On the plus side, we do not have any bacteria. The e-Coli in Lake Horowhenua is not from market gardening. We are not the reason people cannot swim in the lake.
"Nitrogen levels are used as a surrogate for controlling overall productivity of the land," believes.
""We can convert this land to dairying tomorrow, employ one 10th of our staff and grow one 10th of the food, without issues.
"Other regional councils are more pragmatic and have come up with separate sets of rules for vegetable grower. Why can't Horizons, a region which is dominated by dairy, be a bit more forthcoming?
"It is a bit of a miss, really. Perhaps we are being forgotten, being at the bottom of the region and because vegetable growing is such a tiny part of farming. Around the country vegetable growing takes up just 0.1 per cent of land."
He said he believed vegetable growing is a hugely environmentally efficient farming system.
"But it is intense - our nitrogen leaching per ha is higher than that for dairy." He said he's seen figures that say fresh vege loses 1.2 -1.5kg of nitrogen, while dairy loses 4-8kg and beef farms 20-30kg per tonne of consummable fresh product.
"Vegetable growing is worth $100m a year to Horowhenua and employs more than 800 people. Then there are the affiliated industries. We buy all our cars, vans and tractors locally and they are serviced and repaired by local firms.
"The majority of the food we should be eating to be healthy are vegetables, right? But we have a regional council that puts in rules that are not enabling that to happen."
Clarke said he is looking at other forms of land use such as growing kiwi fruit.
"We may need to find a happy medium between alternative land uses - still growing vegetables but having a lower impact."
He is also thinking about a large scale wetland that can take the run-off from all farming activity in the area.
When it comes to fertiliser Woodhaven Gardens has a precise and complex system in place now that measures nitrate in the soil, before fertiliser is applied.
"That tells us how much we can put on. Science is a great tool for us to help make better decisions. We may change over to liquid fertilisers, because the nitrogen uptake is better and we will need to use less.
"But it is a complicated process to understand what we do growing multiple crops in different rotation throughout the year.
"I am proud of the work we have done and the results we have to date."
He believes the One Plan is designed to make life difficult.
"They said at the time that if we could show good management practices we could get a consent. We are actually the only grower in the country that is independently certified under Hort NZ's and Ensure Quality environmental management standards.
"An independent auditor looks at everything you do, such as your farm plan, your nutrient budget and establishes what is good and needs more work.
"I have four or five big folders of documents to show the evidence. We spend $250,000 a year on data capture alone.
He shows tractors with a GPs and transponders on board.
"You know at all times where they are, they travel up and down the paddock in the same place every single time.
"That is important because tractor tyres compact soil, and you can never grow crops there and walking or driving on soil - that is the number one way to increase your nitrogen leach. More aeration means better organic processes and a higher yield with a better uptake of fertiliser.
"The transponder also tells us how fast the tractors are going and another computer on board takes that speed and adjusts the flow of fertiliser to make sure the crops get exactly the amount the need and not more."
Other measures include riparian planting, buffers, retiring land, better and bigger drains. "We have sediment traps on all drains and 98 per cent of sediment goes back on to the paddock and that reduces phosphorus leaching which is charged to the soil.
"We no longer spray weed or hoe the remains of a harvested crop into the soil anymore. We let the weed grow and leave the roots of the crops in the soil, so they can take up nutrients, form a habitat for bees and other insects.
"By not mulching straight after harvesting any access nutrients will be taken up by the plants that will grow again. We work the soil just before we plant the next crop."
Woodhaven Gardens employs one person who tests nitrate in the soil.
"Taking test samples is all he does and it helps us make better fertiliser decisions. It is a job that did not exist until recently. And that is one of the aspects of our programme recognised by the Farm Environment Awards.
"They have seen a willingness from us to try new technology and to look at farming in a different way.
Another option they have chosen is growing maize in empty paddocks. Maize has roots going down 1.5m and so sucks up 150kg of nitrogen per hectare. From the maize they create biomass which is harvested and sold to other farming for cow feed.
"We try to find ways to turn a negative into a positive wherever we can," said Clarke.
"Winter green waste used to be put on paddocks. We no longer do that because in winter the chances of leaching are much higher. We turn green waste in winter into fodder for pig farmers.
"In the summer we get chicken manure from a local chicken farm and put that on resting paddocks, which will be used for growing grass later and the chicken farm doesn't have chicken manure leach on his property.
"We are no longer growing to a recipe, we use science to inform decisions.
Woodhaven Gardens has five fulltime scientists on staff. They test soil, scout for pests and diseases all day, every day.
"We now only do something when the plants need it and if we intervene we try to use the softest options possible, such as bio pesticides, bio herbicides and bio fungicide.
Other local vegetable growers are keen to learn from Woodhaven Gardens and attend workshops to hear what progress Woodhaven Gardens has made.
Jay Clarke is proud of the work done so far, but admits Woodhaven Gardens does not yet run a fully blown regenerative system.
Dr Nic Peet, Horizons Regional Council Group Manager Strategy and Regulation, acknowledged there is tension for horticulture thanks to the One Plan and the proposed Plan Change 2.
"They 're small overall, but significant in Horowhenua. We do recognise the importance of vegetable growing, particularly in Horowhenua."
He said it is the regional council's job is to manage land, water, air resources and various government statutes such as the Resource Management Act guide that work.
"We want to improve water quality and that work is guided by the regional plan. The One Plan was started in 2004 and became law in 2013. We have identified waterways with poor quality, such as Lake Horowhenua."
Algal growth, phosphorus and nitrogen are the big problems when it comes to water quality.
"Four categories of farming are regulated: dairy, horticulture, arable cropping and irrigated sheep and beef farming. There is no difference between the rules for these categories and that is because the RMA does not make a distinction between these forms of farming either," said Peet.
He said that Plan Change 2 (PC2) to the One Plan is there to provide pathways to getting consents - "if ongoing improvements are happening." In 2017 there was a court case challenging that approach, resulting in Plan Change 2.
"We recognise that vege growers and others have been unable to get a consent since 2014. We are working on a mechanism for consents for those who cannot get one now. We are aware of the work the growers are doing, but we need to now wait until the plan change has gone through."
There are also beef and dairy farmers who cannot get a consent, he said.
Peet said that converting an existing block to a different use isn't as simple as Woodhaven Garden's Jay Clarke suggested. "There are now much stricter rules for conversion."
He said he is impressed with the amount of work horticulturalist are doing to get across the line and "that is brilliant."
An independent panel of commissioners has been appointed and people can submit to the proposed change. A hearing date has been set for mid 2020. Commissioners run that process and have expert knowledge.
"Their decision will lead to a recommendation to the council. In the meantime we are working with farmers for mitigations options."
Horowhenua District Council said in its submission on PC2 that it "supports the intent to manage the effects of land use to meet freshwater quality objectives and set nitrogen limits".
HDC expressed concerns about limited information and pre-consultation, "given the impacts of the plan change on existing horticulture activities".
HDC also points out in its submission to PC2, that this plan change could be "premature as it is being notified prior to the scheduled catchment review processes".
"PC2 will drive land use changes away from nationally important food production activities to lower nitrogen activities like silviculture, which have lower earnings and much lower employment opportunities ...and has significant implication for urban development and infrastructure planning," HDC submitted.
Horowhenua District Council is asking Horizons to can PC2 in its current form and opt for a more collaborative process, such as set put in Part 4, Schedule 1 of the RMA and "provide managed transition and pathways to meet updated limits".
Horowhenua District Council's principal police planner Cynthia Ward said the issue is about a change of management system many growers use, which may not be the one they want to use as it could lead to tensions with what their markets require.
"Horowhenua District Council would prefer a catchment-wide approach. We have looked at all the stakeholders in our district, including horticulture. We would like to get everyone around the table and make a plan that works for all.
"There is no doubt everyone wants to improve the region's water quality. We are asking the regional council to adopt a collaborative approach, rather than the proposed one size fits all."
She said the system used to measure leaching is based on pastoral farming, which does not suit horticulture which has multiple cycles. "The regulatory system does not work for horticulture and is pretty blunt. "
She said Plan Change 2 will also affect the district council. "Council will have to comply with the urban stormwater rules."
Farm Environment Awards entries are judged on a number of different criteria, such as:
production, nutrient management, biodiversity / habitat / environmental enhancement,
health - stock and crops, financial and strategy In business practices/ compliance, people and community, soils, water quality / use and efficiency.
Winners will be announced at a gala dinner in Palmerston North on March 19.