Perhaps we should regard possible climate change as being, in the trite
phrase, not a problem but an opportunity to create a new agriculture.
Arguments as to whether the drought is at an end aside, the dry spell
of recent months is, arguably, no worse, in terms of missing rainfall,
than many others we have experienced. Farmers find it more dreadful
for several reasons. They are no longer prosperous, and have no
financial reserves to tide them over.
Whereas once they stocked more lightly and managed more in expectation
of drought, now poverty forces many to farm always at the limit. Farms
rely much more on abundant water. Canterbury even supports dairy herds,
a thirsty extravagance in many places. It is possible, though, that
this drought is evidence of a long-term change in climate associated
with global warming. We must face the possibility that drier summers
may be normal in future.
If that were so, we would have to rethink our agriculture from the
ground up. Doubtless in some areas we could compensate for decreased
rainfall with irrigation. But as rivers and aquifers shrink,
irrigation water may be harder to find. Irrigation may involve
significant financial outlay. Our braided rivers are precious for
their own highly-specialised wildlife, and anglers, recreationists, and
conservationists will guard them jealously. Once farms depend on
irrigation for their very existence, they are highly vulnerable should
that water later become limited for any reason. And, for practical
reasons, irrigation simply is not possible everywhere.
The New Zealand tradition of farming, at which we excel, is of sheep,
cattle, and cropping. The only plants we grow are grains, clover,
ryegrass, and pine-trees. Orcharding and market gardening occur only
in comparatively few flat, fertile, well-watered areas. Our
competitive edge has, famously, always been that we can grow grass
better than anyone else. Drought may destroy that edge. What then is
to be done? We could try just continuing with what we know how to do.
But if drought renders large areas useless for half the year, that
would mean a crippling loss of overseas exchange. It would mean further
rural depopulation (and debt) as farms are forced to grow much larger
to remain economically viable.
It would mean committing ourselves further to often-unsustainable
farming practices, and, very possibly, to ultimately unprofitable
products. More pine plantations would mean great fire risks.
Perplexingly, in an increasingly over-populated world, it has become no
easier to sell what we produce. Heresy though it may be to say it, it
seems that many of our traditional products are not foods and fibres
which the world desperately wants or can obtain nowhere else or can
afford to pay us enough for.
Free-trade arrangements will not help us. Many countries either do not
want them at all, or want them only in order to make other countries
open their borders, not to do the same in return. Perhaps, then, we
should regard possible climate change as being, in the trite phrase,
not a problem but an opportunity -- to create a new agriculture
appropriate not only to our soils and new climate, but also to
potential markets, and, more importantly, to the sort of coherent,
sustainable society we would like on the land.
For many years rural populations have been declining, and rural living
becoming more difficult, as farms grow larger in efforts to make ends
meet, and as much land has disappeared under pine plantations. Few
farmers can afford to employ labour. Depopulation becomes a vicious
circle, with resulting cuts in services leading to further population
loss. So what are the solutions? Most difficult, perhaps, will be to
learn what useful plants and trees will flourish in our new climates.
Perhaps the currently fashionably Mediterranean staples will be part of
the answer, perhaps not.
Woodlands of trees of mixed age and species, native or European, for
high quality end-uses, seem promising. Research done over many years by
public-spirited tree-crops enthusiasts and others will assist greatly,
but inevitably much trial and error will occur. We need to encourage
closer rural settlement and smaller landholdings. Small intensively
managed holdings are capable of much greater productivity than large
ones. They also offer much more opportunity for employment, and
delicate and thoughtful care of the land.
As a small country on the world's edge, we should aim to grow high-
quality and therefore high-value produce, probably often "organic",
which will attract premium prices in overseas markets. To make a living
from agriculture, after all, we must either aim at wealthy niche
markets or mass-produce products in great demand. The refusal of
agricultural universities to do more to promote organic agriculture is
mystifying, and the determination of some farming leaders and
politicians to destroy the last shred of our reputation as a clean,
green sanctuary is insane.
We need a government which, unlike any government of recent years, is
genuinely interested in what is still the chief source of our
prosperity. This does not mean propping up unsustainable agriculture.
Governments should encourage the ending of unsustainable farming,
including assisting permanently drought-stricken farmers to leave with
dignity. They should encourage new farming experiments, ventures, and
We should make the country a pleasant and healthy place for those who
want to live there and are prepared to work hard and live simply but
fruitfully. We should recognise the hard fact that some land at
present farmed simply should not be. We should always remember that,
although farms cannot run at a loss, yet farming, the foundation of all
civilised life, is not just a business like any other, and can succeed
only if it is not understood primarily in economic terms.
David Round is a smallholder on Banks Peninsula, where he grows a
variety of tree-crops and breeds highland cattle.
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