Farmers and residents find common ground
6 mins read

Farmers and residents find common ground

So far, the plot has yielded a successful harvest. kumara and pumpkins, which have already been shared with 14 families. The initial success of the project has also inspired another local landowner to get involved, providing a flock of sheep so the group can explore ethical, social livestock farming.

“This is just the beginning,” says Tania. “We want the project to grow on its own, inspiring others and expanding throughout the region.”

But Meryn says a “change in attitude” is needed to encourage more people to give their land back to the community. “They need to see it in action first. When everyone contributes in whatever way they can – time, land, knowledge – the whole community and everyone in it wins.”

Rivers

Another community-led initiative in Raglan has proven what is possible when communities work together in this way.

For the past three decades, farmers have voluntarily planted rows of native cabbage, flax and manuka trees on their land at their own expense to capture and naturally process pollutants. This effort has helped transform Raglan Harbour from one of the most polluted to one of the cleanest in the country.

Local farmer Fred Lichtwark and resident Fiona Edwards were prompted to take action. “Thirty years ago, the port was in shambles,” says Fred. “We had some of the lowest fish stocks in the country. Dead fish were washing up on the shore, and surfers were getting stomach ulcers.”

They sent out leaflets and gathered a small group of concerned residents at the town hall. At that meeting in 1995, Whāingaroa Harbour Care was founded, as well as a native plant nursery offering local seeds and a planting service to farmers for less than $4.

“It was an incredibly low-cost but professional service offered to farmers in recognition of the fact that they had taken key areas of land out of production to protect water quality,” says Fiona. More than 80 per cent of local farmers took part, planting more than 2.5 million trees along 1,200km of waterways, resulting in significant improvements to water quality and fish populations.

Resistance

Agricultural runoff is a major threat to water quality in New Zealand. With most farmland given over to livestock farming, 95 per cent of rivers on pastureland exceed safe nutrient levels. The new government’s budget cuts to freshwater programmes, revealed last month (May 2024), make finding ways to mitigate this critical.

The Fred and Fiona Harbour project is often held up as a model for emulation. The previous Environment Minister, Eugenie Sage, described it as a “national model for coastal and catchment management”.

But Fred says it wasn’t easy to get farmers interested. “A lot of them were sceptical, thinking they’d lose production and money.” So he set up a demonstration site on council-managed farmland, and when the site reported a 40 per cent increase in productivity, a big drop in herd losses and improved pasture growth rates, people started listening.

“From that point on, the local farming community got involved. Word spread quickly as they started telling their neighbors over the fence about the economic benefits.”

Since then, numerous projects have been built across the country, from Northland to Invercargill, building on its success.

Community

Both Fred and Tania emphasize that the success of the projects depended on their implementation by the community members themselves.

An important part of this process was the local knowledge brought in by residents, which helped retain expertise within the community.

For Fred, that meant sourcing local seed rather than commercially grown crops from other regions. “Using seed adapted to the local environment has brought huge success in our planting. It has also helped maintain the natural local genetics of our herd and reduce the spread of disease.”

The young people also learned about environmental and water conservation through volunteering, and the project was even recognized by the local police for helping to reduce youth crime. Tania recalls, “We were very honored that people from our group shared their knowledge of Maori cultivation practices.”

They played a key role in sharing traditional farming methods kumaraThis includes planting in raised beds, cultivating according to the lunar calendar or Maramataka, and curing and storage.

Future

These two projects and the many farmers who implement them are prime examples of the potential of local action.

Both show what is possible when local solutions are invested in and supported, enabling communities to learn, protect and sustainably use their environment for the good of all. They also show what can happen when locals gain buy-in from farmers and landowners, rapidly scaling up reach and impact.

However, the Ministry of Social Development, a key early backer that helped implement the WEC food security project, as well as funding similar projects across the country, announced spending cuts last month

The Freda Harbour project, despite its thirty-year success, has unfortunately come to an end at the end of 2023. Fred cites several reasons for this, including what he sees as the privatisation of Harbour Care’s work, with the incorporation of external organisations and facilities.

“Regional councils should employ more community groups like us for these types of tasks,” says Fred. “There’s a real pride in the place where local people do this. They become custodians of the land.”

Meryn adds: “There’s this dynamic, wonderful feeling in a group. A surprising ease that comes with doing difficult things together.”

This author

Emma Seery is a freelance environmental writer currently based in New Zealand.