Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Farming beset by mixed messages and mangled meteorology

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Alan Emerson has had it with the shifting sands where politics and agriculture intersect.
Farmer Mike Butterick created How We Roll in the Rapa, a fencing programme to help east coast farms that have had fences washed out – and there are plenty, says Alan Emerson.
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We keep getting mixed messages about the viability of some of our farming areas after they’d been ravaged by Cyclone Gabrielle. We’re also getting a tonne of conflicting stories about what the climate will be like over the next 20 or 30 years.

Being an optimist, I believe farming in New Zealand has a great future. It may not be farming the same products in the same areas that we have in the past. We’ll have to change – but we’ve changed continually since the 1800s and done so successfully.

I know NZ has two main islands, we’re long and skinny and have a sparse population by international standards, all of which creates major infrastructural challenges. Those challenges are going to increase.

The information we’re receiving on the effects of climate change are, at best, confusing. On the east coast we’re told we’re going to get drier. The reality is that the opposite has occurred. 

That’s important as farmers developed dams to help mitigate drought when flooding and slips have been the order of the day. That’s compounded by the fact there is plenty of grass available but at current prices there are few animals around that can be profitably raised.

I believe our weather forecasting is not good enough and needs to be fixed. The predictions locally about Cyclone Gabrielle weren’t accurate, which was unhelpful. Medium to long-term predictions also haven’t been accurate and need to change.

I also have issues with the proposed rebuild.

As evidenced internationally, there are some areas that shouldn’t be built on or even farmed. Deciding on the threatened areas will be fraught but needs to occur and occur quickly if people are going to have any degree of certainty.

There are Australian examples of entire communities being moved within a year and we can do the same.

Forestry and its byproduct slash have been in the news and I discussed this briefly last week. The reality is that when pine trees grown for carbon can be infinitely more profitable than sheep, beef and in some instances even dairy, people are going to plant trees.

Successive governments have huffed and puffed on the issue but currently it’s getting worse, not better. I’ve been aware of many sheep and beef farms that have been converted to pines but in the last short while I’ve been made aware of Taranaki dairy farms going the same way and that is a tragedy for all of New Zealand.

In addition, many of the trees that have been planted won’t be harvested so it won’t be slash that’s a problem in the future but entire trees.

I want to know what the political parties are going to do about the entire forestry / carbon farming issue, because doing nothing isn’t an option.

That’s for the future. The immediate issue is, where possible, to get the show back on the road and that’s where I strongly support the Feds initiative of the Farmy Army. So far they have over 500 volunteers and that is growing. Five hundred farmers can get through a lot of work, so that initiative is positive.

Locally we have the programme How We Roll in the Rapa, which was conceived by local farmer Mike Butterick. He’s been canvassing for fencing material to help local farms that have had fences washed out – and there are plenty. Mike reports that the reaction has been “fantastic” by both local farmers and industry.

The rebuild will take decades, not years and it won’t be easy.

The reaction to the crisis by many has been to say we need to slow climate change, which, again, I discussed briefly last week. Since then we’ve had students marching demanding action whatever that action may be. NZ could remove all cars and cows tomorrow and it would make no discernible difference to world GHG emissions. In fact removing cows would increase them as overseas farmers aren’t as efficient as we are.

We’ve had some stupid comments, including from Climate Change Minister James Shaw, who told the NZ Agricultural Climate Change Conference recently that “profitability shouldn’t be a driver of NZ farms”. My advice to him would be to stay in the shallow end.

In addition we’ve had many pledges to get to carbon zero but I’m unaware of any credible plan to get there.

I’m also aware of United States research that showed “removing animals from US agriculture would reduce agriculture GHG emissions but would also create a food supply incapable of supporting the US population’s nutritional requirements”.

Is that what we want in NZ?

The government has some major decisions to make and quickly. I strongly believe we need a far better weather forecasting system for both the long and short term. We need to decide what communities and areas need to be changed or relocated and the planting of exotic trees needs more than an inquiry, it needs decisions.

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