Dairying has been so demonised for damaging the planet that the children of some Kiwi farmers have been beaten up at school, writes Joanna Wane. Two families who've been on the land for five generations talk back.
Northland dairy farmer Hal Harding describes his daughter, Anna, as "a bit of an eco warrior". The pair work alongside each other on land south of Dargaville that his early-settler ancestors bought back in 1877. But when Anna moved back home just before Covid struck, after a few years in Europe, she was having serious doubts about whether the life she'd been born into was on the right side of history.
"In the UK, there were plant-based cafes popping up left, right and centre," she says. "I started to think, 'Is that what we should be doing? Is dairying bad? Is this stuff all these people are telling me true?' There were facts for one side, and facts for the other that were just as convincing. But it felt too easy to say, 'Just eat plants and the planet will be saved.' When I heard about this whole regenerative farming thing, I was like 'Thank God'. My gut feeling landed; it felt right."
The Hardings have hand-planted thousands of native trees to reforest parts of the property and adapted their farming practices to nurture soil health by minimising the use of pesticides and commercial fertilisers. They're also planning to move away from the traditional grazing regime. For Anna, who's now 30, it's about believing that a different model of farming can be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem, at a time when the agricultural sector is increasingly under siege.
In July, the Howl of a Protest rallies that saw convoys of tractors descend on cities from Kaitaia to Invercargill showed just how embattled farmers are feeling right now, from the so-called ute tax to the Climate Change Commission's recommendations on cutting agricultural emissions. According to the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation, meat and dairy account for around 14.5 per cent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions globally (Ministry for the Environment statistics show the agricultural sector accounted for 48 per cent of New Zealand's total in 2019).
But when it comes to public vilification, it's dairy farmers who have really copped it in the neck. "Dirty dairying" has been blamed for polluting the waterways, depleting natural resources and degrading the environment, particularly as a result of rapid intensification in Southland and Canterbury. Over the past three decades, the number of milking cows across the country has more than doubled, with the amount of land used for the industry rising by 81 per cent. In 2019, dairy cattle were responsible for 22.4 per cent of New Zealand's emissions — largely methane, with a side of nitrous oxide.
Late last year, Waikato dairy farmer Stu Muir gave a TEDx talk in Ruakura called "Sorry Kids, Grandad Crashed the Planet", where he talked about the environment needing the same level of intensive care as we've wrapped around dealing with Covid-19. The father of four walks his talk that being a good farmer and a good custodian of the land are not diametrically opposed. His property at Aka Aka, south of Pukekohe, has been in the family for five generations.
Muir is restoring a 40ha native wetland area and whitebait habitat on the farm, clearing the clogged waterways and planting the banks with natives. With funding from the Waikato River Authority (as part of Tainui's Treaty settlement) and strong community support, he's built a boardwalk through part of the swamp – once a waka portage for Māori crossing from the river to the Manukau Harbour – and has placed 1500 bait stations on islands in the estuary to control pest species.
Effluent storage and woodchip composted from the previous year create enough fertiliser to cover almost half of the farm, with chicken manure accounting for most of the rest, minimising chemical use. Twelve years ago, he began planting his pasture in chicory and plantain, crops that are drought-resistant and convert nitrate into protein more efficiently. "So less nitrate comes out in the urine and the cows like it, which is just win-win all round."
A major problem in Canterbury is nitrate leaching due to the rocky soil. In retrospect, Muir reckons dairying should probably never have got a foothold there. There's less tension in traditional rural communities like his, he says, "but kids get beaten up in Southland and Canterbury because their parents are dairy farmers. Look at the stats [for farmers], suicide-wise. It's not good. You're under a lot of pressure and then everyone hates you as well. It gets to you after a while."
There's no question some sweeping changes are needed. Lower stock numbers (a 13.6 per cent cut nationwide by 2030), a replacement of some animals with horticulture, and reduced use of nitrogen fertilisers are all part of the Climate Change Commission's carbon-cutting roadmap. A farm-based emissions pricing system is being developed and New Zealand scientists are in the early stages of work on a methane vaccine for cattle.
Last year, the UK Government's official climate-change advisers recommended reducing beef, lamb and dairy consumption by at least 20 per cent. For a young generation defined by the climate crisis and the rise of veganism, there's a more radical solution gaining ground: not consuming red meat or dairy products at all.
Muir's daughter, Lexi, who's in her first year at university, laughs when I tell her none of the five (female) students in my daughter's Wellington flat drinks cow's milk — including one who grew up on a farm. "If it makes them feel better personally, that's great," she says. "But people spend a lot of time on things like drinking milk and eating meat when they could be focusing on big corporations and fossil fuels."
Lexi, too, began questioning the impact of farming as she became more aware of climate change, and would take any concerns straight to her father. "You'd hear it on the news: dairy farmers this, dairy farmers that. He'd always have really good answers — and we've always done environmental stuff. When we were kids, he was always getting us out planting," she says.
"No one is trying to deny that things need to change. There are some pretty terrible farmers around who didn't fence off their waterways for years after we had, and we'd find their cows in the river. But now that I'm a bit older, I've realised we're doing our part. I've got nothing to be ashamed of."
In the 1880s, Waipukurau farmer John Harding sent his three teenage sons up north to strike out on their own. Each settled a separate block of land and it's fair to say their fortunes were mixed. "Maurice drowned in the river, Edwin got the stitch with farming and buggered off down to Auckland. Alfred hung around. He was my great-grandfather," says Hal Harding. "He built this house, married the local schoolmistress from down the road and cracked on."
Hal grew up on the farm, which he later returned to with his young wife, Penny Smart, whose parents farmed in Waipū; she's now chair of the Northland Regional Council, where she represents Kaipara. In the mid-90s, Hal and his three brothers sat down to nut out a succession plan. Initially, they all leased-to-buy separate parts of the farm from the family company. Gradually, Hal and Penny bought out parcels of land surrounding the homestead, to make up the 500ha they own today (one of Hal's brothers still farms next door).
The couple grew squash and kūmara before converting to dairy but, a few years in, Hal became concerned about the deteriorating health of his herd. "Walking down the race, I could see something just wasn't quite right," he says. "Then I was sitting here at this table with the fertiliser rep on her computer doing her recommendations and it came out at about a quarter of a million bucks to put on what she thought we needed for one year. I thought about it over the weekend and on the Monday I rang back and said, 'Nah, just flag that. We'll try a different tack.'"
Hal had heard about biological farming and went along to a seminar in the Waikato on declining soil fertility and the link to poor human health. He found himself sitting next to a couple of farmers from southern Hawke's Bay who told him what a difference adapting their practices had made to the health of their animals — replacing pesticides and chemical fertilisers with a biological mineral spray and molasses to provide food for healthy microbes in the soil.
The Harding farm is a flagship site for the Kaipara Harbour Integrated Management Group, an initiative set up in 2005 to reverse degradation of the harbour from sediment, nutrient and faecal contamination, by adopting a more sustainable approach. Stock numbers have been reduced and milking cut back to once a day. They're now working towards a regenerative model of rotational grazing and pasture diversity.
The cows have put on some beef and costs are down (the annual spend on fertiliser has fallen to about $100,000), but going natural is more labour-intensive. In many ways, says Hal , it's a return to farming the way his father did. "It's challenging, but we'll get there. When you're brought up on a farm, you're interested in the way it connects with human health, all the way through to planetary health. It just makes so much sense at all those different levels."
Advocates for regenerative farming believe it can improve the health of our waterways, reduce topsoil loss and increase drought resilience. A white paper released in February — the result of a collaboration between New Zealand farmers and the wider sector — found there's already a significant overlap with mainstream practices.
However, lead author Dr Gwen Grelet, senior researcher at Manaaki Whenua-Landcare Research, says evidence is urgently needed to back up the anecdotal evidence for its benefits. The Climate Change Commission's report also noted the lack of a "robust" evidence base. "It is not a magic bullet," says Grelet, "but its grass-roots popularity with farmers and food consumers mean it has huge potential for driving the transformation of Aotearoa's agri-food system to move our country closer to its goals."
A recent international study by researchers in the US, Australia, France and China found that making livestock production "greener" will help cut more global emissions than switching to a plant-based diet. However, while New Zealand has one of the world's highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions due to the country's extensive agriculture sector, our farmers are already among the most efficient producers in the world. DairyNZ chief executive Tim Mackle points out that private transport emissions have increased at a much faster rate over the past decade. Last year, the top four most popular new passenger cars were all SUVs.
Mackle, whose parents still farm in Kaikōura, admits there's an older generation of farmers struggling to cope with the rapid pace and scale of change. "I don't speak for Groundswell [the farmers' advocacy group that organised the Howl of a Protest rallies] but I wouldn't call it anger; it's more frustration. There's vulnerability and a sense of despair sometimes from farmers over the attitudes towards them. They're not saying we don't have stuff to fix."
Stu Muir says a lot of the current literature on regenerative farming is based on the United States and Australia, which operate very differently. When he assessed his own farm against the regenerative model, most of the recommended practices were already in place. "That's why I'm a bit bemused by it, because it's what we've been doing for generations. Thousands of farmers all over the country are doing this stuff."
It's too early to say whether any of his children will extend the farming lineage to a sixth-generation. But he and wife Kim Jobson, a goldsmith who works from a studio on the farm, have come up with a business plan to ensure the land will stay in the family.
Spending lockdown at home last year made daughter Lexi appreciate just what her parents have achieved and their vision for the future. "If someone without the same ethos as Mum and Dad bought the farm, they could undo a lot of that hard work," she says. "That's the cool thing about keeping it in the family. When you're a kid, you can't see the big picture, but my perception of things has really changed. I could see myself living here, for sure."