Central Hawke’s Bay farmer Evan Potter believes Cyclone Gabrielle was Mother Nature running a highlighter over the region’s most vulnerable land, prompting a re-think on how that land will be used in future.
Potter and his wife Linda’s Elsthorpe property is the first farm to be trialling the Land for Life integrated farming model, incorporating mixed forestry and native plantings alongside pasture, with the toughest country retired.
Ultimately, they aim to have 200ha retired, leaving 520ha in pasture.
Sponsored by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council, the project may provide a template for the region’s response to Gabrielle and remediating the devastation it inflicted.
Late last year the first trees were planted. Planting was going to continue over the next two years before being brutally interrupted by Gabrielle.
After Gabrielle, Potter said, all the low-producing country stood out as taking the hardest hit, slipping and eroding heavily.
“It reinforced our decision to plant it in trees was the right one. It is unfortunate though we were not 20 years down the track when it struck.”
He said they have lost some of their younger trees to land slips, and recovery requires them to put this year’s plantings of 20ha of pine and 5ha of other exotics on pause while they attend to damaged fences and infrastructure.
“I can honestly say none of the plantings have made the outcome worse than if we had not planted. It has definitely reinforced to us the plan is on track.”
He said there are also some valuable lessons emerging for future Land for Life farm participants.
“There is a need there to keep it simple, to clearly explain the benefits and highlight how profitability will be increased.
“The financing needs to be ironed out so it is not stifling farm businesses that lack the capacity to fund a large land use change.”
For this reason, he welcomes the engagement of TNC with its ability to help leverage affordable financing options with banks.
However, he also cautions that farmers in the region are still raw from their Gabrielle experience, and some may not be overly receptive to changing practices and farm layouts.
“They have a lot on their plate. How receptive they will be will come down to the individual.”
He is also pushing for better communication about the downstream benefits the project brings, such as holding back sediment and vegetation that is otherwise dumped on the flats, and the win-win that brings for the entire region’s community.
He acknowledges he and Linda probably need two more years to provide a visual, tactile example of how Land for Life could benefit farmers and the region.
“This will put us back 12 months before we get back on track.”
Meantime his advice to fellow farmers is not to rush into a plan post-Gabrielle, but give themselves and the land some time to steady, and assess options.
“But this general concept of doing a plan and identifying areas to change has a lot of merit.”