Living With the Enemy

Now that uni exams are over I’ve been able to dust off the lap top and write again, its actually been that long since I’ve written on The Farming Game that I can’t remember the last time I wrote a blog. So I think I’ll kick things off with an SBS TV show that I watched on Wednesday night.

“Living with the Enemy” is a six episode TV series that wrapped up on Wednesday night, each week it featured two people from opposing sides of an issue who had to live at each others house and enjoy their favourite activities for five days before swapping. The latest and final episode was on hunting and featured the farmer, professional shooter and hunter Steve Lee along side Felicity from Animal Liberation. And while this may not be directly related to agriculture the episode really highlighted the issues with trying to show someone the facts when they are so emotionally driven.

I felt that Steve did a great job explaining to Felicity and her crew the role that hunters play along with why we hunt and what we get from hunting. I did however find a few of his comments a bit rude but after watching the episode again I realised he was just trying laugh his way out of an awkward and intense situation. He gave the experience all he could and even took part in a Animal Liberation protest while wearing one of their shirts, which is more than a lot of us would of done.

Felicity on the other hand didn’t really give it all she could and let her intense views block her from fully taking part in the experience or understand what a hunt was really about. The entire episode she blocked and protested everything that was put forward to her with the view that she was right and there was no compromise. I did find it ironic that when she stated that it would be hard to show Steve their point of view because of his religious views.This just highlighted to me the how difficult it is to debate with who are this narrow minded and difficulties we face as an industry because of them.

I highly recommend watching the episode available through the link below.

Living With the Enemy

NZ Irrigation – Part 4

When we reached the next farm couple of kilometres down from Mike’s property we immediately noticed the centre pivot on either side of the driveway. Manager Craig Wellington met us as we got off the bus and immediately blew us away with some incredible production statistics for the 1200ha property.

Each year they finish off 30,000 lambs and 1,000 Friesian bulls while also cropping a variety of high value crops on their 360ha of irrigated cultivation including tomatoes, sweet peas, maize and sweet corn. The tour was just blown away by those statistics and I think it just goes to show how productive New Zealand and Heretaunga Plain can be, along with how well it is managed by Craig.

As the tour group recovered from the shock of those statistics we ventured out into the field to look at one of the swing arm centre pivots. This type of centre pivot works in the same way as most other centre pivots, in that it followers a buried wire to find its way around the field. The main difference is that instead of it being one rigid structure the end section has the ability to bend or turn. The swing arm on the end of the pivot allows the centre pivot to get into the corners of a field and cover more area. This means that instead of getting the classic circle shaped field when using centre pivots you’ll get a rectangle with rounded corners, this allows Craig to use more of the field’s potential and have less wasted land. The other interesting feature of Craig’s centre pivot system was that if it breaks down the pivot would automatically call his mobile phone to let him know something was wrong.

Classic Centre Pivot (Taken near Inverell NSW)

Classic Centre Pivot (Taken near Inverell NSW)

Leaving the centre pivot we walked over to Craig’s dam via the main homestead’s extensive and impressive gardens. The garden just seemed to keep stretching on as we wound our way through it, the sheer variety and volume of plants was just staggering. We left the garden simply stunned by its sheer size and by the thought that there was just one gardener who was able to maintain all of it.

The Swing Arm Centre Pivot

The Swing Arm Centre Pivot

Craig’s dam wasn’t as big as his neighbours but his was built first and was one of the first properties in the area to have a dam constructed and shares a lot of similarities with Mike’s dam. The dam was built before Craig took over as manager and like Mike’s dam it was built out of a need to increase the farms water security to ensure the survival of their high value crops. Craig’s dam is also filled by water that is gravity fed along a channel from the nearby river. Unlike Mike’s dam Craig’s was built onto to side of a hill instead of between two spurs meaning it took more time and cost more to build with about 1km of wall needing to be constructed.  While Craig’s dam may be smaller than  his neighbours it is more than capable of meeting his irrigation needs and has been able to easily see them through their longest water ban so far.

Craig's Dam

Craig’s Dam

Leaving the dam we walked back via another part of the garden and boarded the bus for Napier, this trip had been an incredible experience and it was great to see how things were done across the ditch.

NZ Irrigation – Part 3

The bus continued to motor on through the passing showers to the other side of the Heretaunga Plain, by now the plains area was distinctly a wine region with grape vines as far as the eye could see in every direction. We were here to see Mike Glasbourgh’s (spelling may be wrong) property in particular his dam and his arrangement with “Constellation Wines”.

Mike’s property was right on the edge of the Heretaunga Plain and was made up of both the plains country and the hills that surrounded it. On his property he ran sheep and cattle as well having some cropping and the vineyards that we’ll talk about later, but the main attraction to the property was his dam.

The need for the dam arose from Mike starting to grow more high value crops and need for more water security that came with. My understanding of way NZ irrigation works (I may be wrong) is that you can irrigate from the river as needed without a total limit on how much water you can use, however if the water level in the river drops below a certain point a water ban is called and no one can irrigate from the river. Mike initially looked at sinking a few bores on his property but in the end he decided that a dam would be the way to go.

The large dam (complete with water ski jumps) was built in a shallow gully between the spurs of two different hills, with the dam wall extending about 100m from spur to spur. The dam is gravity fed (without the aid of pump) from the river via channel that runs for a few kilometres, from the river to the dam. While at the time of construction it would have been simple enough to just bring in the bulldozers and set about building the wall Mike decided it had to be done properly, with a geological survey being undertaken first to make sure the site would be stable enough for the dam and that the wall wouldn’t leak.

Mike talking to us about the dam

Mike talking to us about the dam (Notice the ski jumps in the background)

While in size it is somewhat smaller than the dams you would find around Moree it is more than capable of meeting their needs for protection against droughts and frost, with the biggest test so far being a six week water ban last year that only caused the dam to drop to only two thirds its normal level.

The dam has led to some exciting opportunities for Mike including a deal with Constellation Wines who have leased a large area of his property to grow the grapes for their wines. One of things that attracted Constellation Wines to Mike’s property was the water security that it offered due to the dam; the other main attraction was his close proximity to their winery.

As we left the property we were given a demonstration of its frost protection system, like the other farms that we had visited they used water (from the dam) to prevent frost damage and had sprinklers along the vines. Due to a recent harvest there were a few geysers in the field from where the grape harvester had knocked the sprinkler heads off, but for me this only just added to the demonstration showing the amount of pressure in the system.

After watching the demonstration we were off to our fourth and final property just down the road to look at their mixed cattle and cropping property. Hopefully I’ll be able to get the fourth and final part of the tour up a bit quicker than I got this part up.

Flat out

I’ve been a bit delayed in writing NZ irrigation-part 3, holidays are over so I’m back at uni and studying leaving me with little spare time. Then the spare time I have is being taken up organising the East to West Postie Ride for Farmers.

What’s that? You say, Well…….

Myself and my friend James Mackenzie are riding our postie bikes from Moree NSW to Broome in WA via the Plenty Hwy and Tanami Track, leaving Moree on the 16th of June and reach Broome in just seven days. We hope to raise $10000 for Aussie Helpers to support their great work.
For more information go to http://www.postieride.com and to donate go to our Everyday Hero page https://give.everydayhero.com/au/east-to-west-postie-ride-for-farmers

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NZ Irrigation – Part 2

After we finished up at Mark’s Kiwi fruit and Apple farm we were back on the bus and on our way to the next farm. This farm was an all organic vegetable and blueberry farm that belonged to the Lawson family and was run by Scott Lawson. The property is located on some of the newest and most fertile soils on the plain; you can almost draw a line in the dirt where it goes from gravel to this rich fertile soil. Apparently these gravel soils were once home to sheep at really low stocking rates before it was discovered that you could grow NZ’s red wines in them.

In the vineyards there was an array of wind turbines, at first I thought that they were there for power generation but we were soon told that they for frost protection. In a normal frost they use the turbines to stir up the warm inversion layer above the crop and use it to keep the vines warm; however in a polar frost where there is no inversion layer using the turbines would probably just make the effect of the frost worst.

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The Blueberry Bushes

The Sign on the driveway read “Lawson’s True Earth Organics” which was their brand and is proudly displayed on all their produce. As the bus trundled up the driveway we noticed that while a few of the fields were all in Lucerne while the others divided up into rows that were only a few metres across. We learnt later that this type on intensive strip cropping was to increase diversity in his fields in order to avoid the creation of a large monoculture, while the fields filled with Lucerne were being spelled and the Lucerne was there to build up the soil, add nitrogen and act as a cover crop.

As we got off the bus we were handed our packed lunches and ran for the cover of the packing shed as the sky’s opened up again. Scott started to give us the run down on the organic farm; they grow a range of vegetables including Pumpkins, Carrots, Potatoes, Onions as well as Blueberry’s and Lucerne hay (while we were there they had pumpkin’s, carrots and onions in the packing shed). Making for a diverse and busy operation.

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A Full Packing Shed

Scott said that while the farm is organic they still apply almost anything they need for soil health and pest control as long as they get it from a certified organic source, which it more difficult and expensive to do (eg. Blood and Bone as a natural fertiliser). While selling an organic product does attract a premium the inputs such as fertiliser and seed (organic seed is bought when possible but untreated seed can also be bought) also cost more so there is little gain in cost margins.

The best way to save money is to limit inputs and the best way to limit inputs is to maintain excellent soil health. One of the ways he achieves this is that all his machinery runs on auto steer so his wheels always run in the same tracks and will only create compaction in those tracks. As I mentioned earlier the other thing he does is he spells fields for 2-3 years and grows Lucerne in them while they are being spelled. As Lucerne is a legume it adds nitrogen to the soil which helps to increase the soil fertility, the other method he uses is when he is not cutting the Lucerne for sale he will cut it and mulch it back into the soil to build up organic matter in the soil.

Aside from vegetables Blueberries also play a large role in his operation. So in a brief gap in the rain we walked over to where they grow Blueberries to take a look and listen to Scott explain how they grew their Blueberries.

To increase the growing season he grows two varieties of Blueberry one that has a picking season of October through to December and the other had a picking season of January through to May. Throughout this the Blueberries are picked by hand every two weeks and taken to the packing shed. At the packing shed each berry is individually inspected by hand to make sure it has the right colour and firmness before they’re packed into a punnet and labelled with the “True Earth” label.

 

Some "True Earth" Carrots

Some “True Earth” Carrots

 

The blueberries are irrigated from dripper lines that run about 30cm off the ground, irrigation is critical to the blueberries as they only have short fibrous roots unlike other plants. Scott like all the farmers we visited on the tour uses ‘Hydro Services” to monitor soil moisture and determine their irrigation schedule. Drip irrigation was the preferred choice for the blueberries as it is more efficient than sprinklers and won’t trigger the berries to burst. From what I understood of what we were told rain or an excessive amount of water on the berries can cause them to split and burst open.

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A Split Berry

Frost was again the main worry in the Blueberries and like the Kiwi Fruit farm they used sprinklers for frost protection.  He also has lights set up around his property that turn on automatically when the conditions are right for a frost, to warn to turn the frost protection system on. The other main problem that they have in the Blueberries is damage from birds; however this problem drops off significantly once the grape vines start fruiting. While obvious solution to keep the birds out is to put up netting over the berries it is very expensive and has to be weighed up against the loss of production (A recently planted section of blueberries has been netted). While he didn’t know exactly how much damage the birds did he did say the believed it was probably greater than realised, but having just heard some advice a few days before he was going to put out water for them so they wouldn’t have to get moisture from his berries.’

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The Irrigation Drip Lines

Soon enough the sky’s opened up again and pressed for time we got on the bus and headed off for the next farm. Where we looked at Mike’s dam, his property and how he was leasing part it to “Constellation Wines” to grow their grapes. So keep watching this space for the next part in the NZ farm tour.

NZ Irrigation – Part 1

Yes that’s right I’m out of the country and on the road travelling New Zealand, the weather has been damp but the rain and the drizzle of Napier didn’t stop me going on Irrigation tour of some local farms yesterday.

We boarded the bus by Napier’s board walk and headed out to the Heretaunga Plain just outside Napier, on the way out to the first farm our guide explained a bit about the region’s history and the area’s geology. The Heretaunga Plain has a wide range of soil types from old deep coarse gravel to some new (Couple of hundred year old) highly friable soil.

Our first farm had an Apple orchid and Kiwi Fruit plantation and was run by Mark Ericsson whose family had been farming their block of land for the four generations. When we got off the bus we were straight into the kiwi fruit, which were just about ready for harvest. The vines were set up in a way to increase growth and yield, with this year’s crop being on the lower lateral vines and the following years vines growing up to a stake above the main vine. So when this year’s crop is harvested the vines that the fruit grew on are removed, the new vines are brought down from above to where the old ones were and then the new shoots start to grow up to the steak. This method allowed for only a slight loss in production when he recently changed varieties, he simply grafted the new variety onto the vine and grew it up over the old variety, then when he harvested the current crop he brought them down and continued on as normal.

The vines holding the current crop grow laterally while next seasons vines grow up towards the steak.

The vines holding the current crop grow laterally while next seasons vines grow up towards the steak.

The Kiwi fruit were irrigated from sprinkler system that ran along the base of the vines using bore water, however if a frost was to occur the sprinklers could be moved to the top of the vines and turned on to stop the frost setting in and affecting the plants. (Emphasis on frost mitigation would quickly become a common theme on the tour.) Using “Hydro Services” he is able to measure the vines water usage and the soils moisture profile, helping to reduce the amount of water used in irrigation. Another technique he uses to prevent water losses is that after he has planted a new set of vines he will use a watering schedule that encourages deep root growth so the vines can access water from deep down in the soil profile.

The sprinklers at ground level

The sprinklers at ground level

Pipe reaching up to the canopy that the sprinklers can be placed in for frost protection

Pipe reaching up to the canopy that the sprinklers can be placed in for frost protection

Mark tries to run the property as close to organic as he can in order to minimise inputs and therefore reduce costs but would never go fully certified organic as it would limit his market access to the European market. In order to achieve this all the cut down vines are mulched and then brushed up against the vines to act as mulch that retains water. He is also very mind full of compaction in his fields as it can hinder the soil’s ability to take up and hold water. There are also peacocks that roam the vines mainly for aesthetic purposes but they are also used to help keep the grubs at bay.

Old vines cut off and painted over

Old vines cut off and painted over

As I mentioned earlier Mark said he would never go organic as it would limit his market access to Europe, however his main market for his Kiwi fruit are Japan and South Korea as they prefer yellower colour and high dry matter content of this variety.

While the Kiwi Fruit and apple orchid was interesting and we were soon back on the bus and onto the next farm, so watch this space over the coming days as I write more about the tour.

 

 

Old Vines cut off and painted over

Old Vines cut off and painted over

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The sprinklers at ground level

The sprinklers at ground level

Peacocks for aesthetics and grub control

Peacocks for aesthetics and grub control

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