Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Land for Life project holds hill country hopes

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Hawke’s Bay council working on ‘template for recovery’ that champions farmers alongside trees.
Hawke’s Bay Regional Council Land for Life manager Michael Bassett-Foss says the project could provide a template for recovery in the region that keeps people and farming in the equation, alongside trees.
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Cyclone Gabrielle may provide the catalyst for wider adoption of a land management programme a decade in the making in Hawke’s Bay.

The Land for Life integrated land management programme aims to help farmers shift land use practices to ensure they can continue to farm, and in a more resilient fashion, in the face of climate change impacts.

Hawke’s Bay Regional Council project director Michael Bassett-Foss said Cyclone Gabrielle is prompting a re-think on how Hawke’s Bay hill country can recover.

Under the Land for Life project, which originated over a decade ago, “the council trialled using different eucalyptus species around Lake Tūtira, along with plantings of Mānuka and Kānuka”.

Sedimentation has long been identified as a key area impacting water quality and land loss in the Hawke’s Bay catchment. Estimates are 250,000ha of the catchment’s most erodible country contributes 6.2 million tonnes of silt a year to its river systems,  at a cost of about 1000t per square kilometres a year.

Six years ago under the “right tree right place” title, the council worked with research partners including Scion to advance the project to the trial stage. 

This included identifying distinct zones on a trial farm and mapping vulnerable areas suited to being planted in various tree species.

“Pine is okay to plant where appropriate but there are also other forms of harvestable trees that can be planted. In other zones it may be a case of shutting the gate and letting native regeneration happen naturally.”

Meantime the remaining and most productive parts of the farm may require reconfiguring, including paddock size/shape, water lines and possibly the stock types run.

“And other revenue schemes may be introduced, the most obvious being carbon.”

From here full cost-revenue streams can be projected out over 30-plus years to fit with harvesting cycles, providing valuable projections for potential investors.

Over $4 million in funding has been set aside for the project. One trial farm is in play and a dozen more are having their farm plans finalised.

The first farm is owned by Evan and Linda Potter (see accompanying article) in Elsthorpe, where ultimately 520ha of pasture will remain of the original 720ha once the planting plan is complete.

Bassett-Foss said the main barriers to adoption are likely to be a lack of confidence among farmers, a lack of finance to embark on expensive planting plans, and a lack of extension or education on what really is the “right tree for the right place”.

Having farmers like the Potters lead the way will go some way to instilling confidence in others. Meantime the council has forged a strong relationship with international conservation group The Nature Conservancy, which has experience in building financial markets for environmental initiatives.

“The aim is to take the data from the first farms in the project and aggregate it up to put into a business case to take to assorted finance groups for funding, and then to scale it up to 100 farms.”

He said the council is well placed to help farmers with the third challenge, the need for expertise and education.

“Council has 12 catchment advisors out on farms who have trusted relationships and knowledge on erosion control, and they can layer in or bring in other expertise for other areas including greenhouse gas sequestration, on-farm financing and tree species selection.”

Estimates are there are 500-600 farms in the region in the “highly erodible” category, with several hundred more in the next erosion tier.

Bassett-Foss emphasises Land for Life is not a regulated, enforced council land use requirement.

Rather, that it aims to capture farmers’ long-term vision for their farms, putting it into a farm environment plan that incidentally also meets the incoming regulatory requirements around GHG emissions and water quality management.

“On the Wairoa farm we have modelled a 22% reduction in GHG emissions and a similar reduction in sediment losses,” Bassett-Foss said.

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