Understanding soil is vital for sustainable irrigation and a successful farming operation, Canterbury mixed cropping farmer Angus Aitken says.
Angus and his wife Elise farm a 550ha mixed cropping property in Waiau that grows a variety of produce, from sweet corn to red clover for lamb finishing.
The Aitkens have a consent to draw water from a nearby Waiau River tributary to irrigate the property and they use a small storage dam and a two-pump shed system.
While technology plays a large part in sustainably managing their irrigation system, the couple focused on managing their soils and soil structure through methods such as no-till farming, Aitken said.
"I think for a long time the focus has been on what's above ground and what you can see on the surface of your paddocks. But we are learning that understanding your soil characteristics and protecting the biodiversity in your soils can also help with water infiltration, crop performance and sustainable water use."
The Aitkens are the Supreme Winners of the 2021 Zimmatic Trailblazer Sustainable Irrigation Awards.
They were keen to use their win to generate discussion among farmers about sustainable water use, Aitken said.
"We support the national policy on protecting our waterways. While we don't own the water, we have a right to use it responsibly. It's for everyone's benefit that we use it sustainably to produce food."
Head judge for the awards and Irrigation NZ Chair Keri Johnston said the Aitkens' approach to irrigation was refreshing.
"It was well thought out and they have a willingness to try new things, learn and grow as food producers.
"They are also motivated to be a part of the greater conversations that need to happen around the future of irrigation in New Zealand and its role in ensuring that we have thriving and resilient communities.
The couple wasn't afraid of regulatory challenges facing the sector and preferred to see them as opportunities that were just part of farming, Johnston said.
"In their view, it's all about how you look at it.
"While the Aitkens are still early on in their journey, they have a sound plan and a vision. As a family, they have a proactive approach and a positive attitude. I am confident they will be great role models for the irrigation sector."
The Aitkens' operation is part of an irrigation collective in the Waiau area.
The collective is audited by independent assessors every year to ensure they have current farm environment plans and are employing good management practices.
"We are certainly not perfect!" Aitken said.
"We are only at the beginning of our journey and have a lot more to learn.
"We're not the only farmers trying to change things, but together over time I'm confident we can demonstrate that it is possible to run profitable and productive farming operations while protecting our waterways."