Monday, April 22, 2024

Veteran land advisor steps down

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After nearly 45 years of providing land management and soil conservation advice to farmers in Manawatū, Whanganui, Rangitikei and Tararua, Kevin Rooke is retiring. He spoke to Colin Williscroft.
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Despite being satisfied with his contribution spanning his 45-year career, one of the things Kevin Rooke will miss the most during retirement, is being part of the changing farming landscape.

The former Lincoln College (now university) student and New Zealand Farm Cadet of the Year started work as a soil conservator with the Rangitikei-Whanganui Catchment Board in Marton during the mid-1970s.

It was a different world to how things operate today.

“We had grant money from the government but we were competing with subsidies where farmers got money for stock retention, fertiliser and land development,” Rooke recalls. 

“That meant we had farmers farming what I call tiger country. They could afford to farm it because they had a financial partner: the government. 

“In the mid-1980s, when the subsidies came off, they had to sit back and think, ‘holy hell, what am I doing here?’ There was a lot of land that should never have been farmed.”

Rooke said throughout the 1990s there was a move by forestry companies to buy properties to plant in forestry. 

“In a way, they were partially doing our job because for some of the properties, forestry was really the best land use,” he explained.

Initially, Rooke looked after Turakina Valley, towards Whanganui. Then in 1989, local government reorganisation meant catchment boards, pest boards and other organisations were merged into regional councils.

At the time, the name changed to Manawatū-Whanganui Regional Council, now known as Horizons Regional Council, while his area moved to include the Pohangina/Ōroua areas.

“We got bigger, but it was business as usual. I worked more in the Manawatū district with a different soil type and different erosion problems to what I was used to.”

Over the years, Rooke’s job titles have morphed from soil conservator to land manager to land management advisor, but the fundamental tasks have essentially stayed the same.

Even today, he is amazed at the havoc a 2004 storm wreaked across the lower North Island. 

A weekend of heavy rain, high winds, plummeting temperatures, thunderstorms and hail led to flood damage on more than 1000 farms. Around 5000 sheep and 1000 dairy cattle were lost, and about 20,000 hectares of farmland was left under water.

“I have never, ever seen a high tide mark like it. It was incredible. There was a lot of water in there. We have had ’04 storms before and we’ve had them since, but the difference was the ’04 storm affected the whole lower North Island,” Rooke recalled.

The storm marked the birth of Horizons Regional Council’s Sustainable Land Use Initiative (SLUI).

“The old farm plans were all about soil erosion. SLUI ones are about potential erosion, water quality, biodiversity, farm and land management – the whole spectrum, and that came out of the ’04 storm,” he said.

Rooke says 16 years later there is still significant government investment in the SLUI programme through the Hill Country Erosion Fund, although farmers are also rated per hectare as their contribution to the scheme.

“It’s all about sustainable land use. Water quality is also a big issue with a lot of riparian fencing and planting,” he explained.

“Swamps were being drained when I first started, now we call them wetlands and look after them for a whole host of reasons. We started fencing off that tiger country … that block out the back that’s better taken out of grazing and put into trees.”

In 2008, Rooke moved to the Woodville office to cover the Tararua area, as well retaining responsibility for Pohangina Valley and Ōroua. He says it required a change in perception.

“On the west coast, the prevailing weather comes from the north/north-west and clears from the south. Over here (Tararua), they get their rubbish from the south,” he said. 

“In this job, you have to have a reasonable grasp of the local weather, not to mention an idea of local farming systems.”

Rooke recognises that farmers have to make a living from their properties but some of the work the regional council does can help improve production.

Fencing the back-end of tiger country and putting it into forestry might draw complaints from farmers who see stock numbers going down, and recommends that they invest their money in the good country they still have, instead of throwing it at unproductive blocks.

He also encourages land managers new to their role to do what he used to and ask older workmates or predecessors about the history of their areas and learn from what they have to say.

Rooke spoke about how times have changed, and how it’s a different world now compared to when he began in the role with no subsidies and improved education, science and technology.

“There were no computers when I started. Now, I’ve got a computer on my desk, an iPad in my ute and a cellphone,” he said. 

“When I started, we spent a couple of hours each night on the phone working through the toll operator to ring up farmers. There was no such thing as sending them an email or phoning them while they were out on the farm.

“Then we went out to do the field work for a farm plan, wrote the farm plan up and drafted the maps, tracing the lines of the paddocks and boundaries from aerial photos. 

“We’d put (note) suggested works programmes, soil types, land use capability, all kinds of things like that. We did the whole lot on big hunks of perma-trace (transparent paper). Now, it’s done by computers with a few clicks.”

One of the highlights of his job has been seeing parts of NZ inaccessible to most people, what he calls “going out the back” but it’s farmers who he will miss the most.

“I’ve had some favourites who I’ve been working with for years and years. Now, I’m working for their sons and daughters, so I’m dealing with the second generation. I’ve nearly got to the third generation so I better go before there’s any more,” he said with a laugh.

Rooke loves driving around, looking at areas where he has worked in the past and seeing the developments made.

“Those are the things I’ll miss, being part of those changes.”

His latest change, retirement, means a move to Foxton Beach, a lot of walking on the beach, a bit of whitebaiting and “a lot of doing absolutely nothing at all”.

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