Protecting our land

Our high-class agricultural land is under threat, particularly in areas adjacent to cities and...
Our high-class agricultural land is under threat, particularly in areas adjacent to cities and towns due to incremental conversion to urban uses.PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

While we are renowned worldwide for our farming and agriculture productivity, New Zealand does not actually have much high-class agricultural land, writes Sean Connelly. 

Sean Connelly.
Sean Connelly.

High-class agricultural land is our most productive and versatile land in terms of a combination of  favourable soils, climate and slope that can support a wide range of crops for food production. 

Nationally, this land amounts to only about 5.5% of our total land area (1.5 million hectares), with the bulk of it  in Canterbury, Waikato and Southland.  It is also under threat, particularly in areas adjacent to cities and towns due to incremental conversion to urban uses.

So how might we preserve it?  One approach would be to make it off-limits for any kind of development or land use that does not support agriculture. 

This is the approach that was taken in  Canada in the 1970s.  All agricultural land in British Columbia  (4.7 million hectares) was placed in the Agricultural Land Reserve to ensure  it was available for agriculture forever.

  Forty years on, the rapid urban development of Metro Vancouver has occurred while protecting valuable agricultural land in the region, contributing to increased urban density and reduced real estate speculation on agricultural land. 

A simple and comprehensive solution, but politically very complicated.  On its own, it is effective at preserving the land, but does little to directly preserve agricultural livelihoods.

Another approach would be to support agricultural land uses by ensuring that food production is valued and profitable.  This might ensure that existing producers keep using their land productively and might entice a new generation of food producers to make a living off of high-class agricultural land. 

Generally, these kind of approaches focus on improving access to consumers or providing skills, training and mentorship to support the individual success of food producers. 

Farmers markets are one example.  They offer food producers access to consumers at a relatively low-cost and low-risk.  Each week, vendors have access to thousands of customers without having to invest in a brick and mortar shop, or to spend money on attracting potential customers to their site.  In that regard, it is the ideal business incubator.

There are also a range of mentoring, training and business support programmes to support new entrants to food production.  Farmhand is a good local example that connects young people with skills, training and experience in growing food.  Similarly, Otago Organics offers a mentoring programme where experienced organic growers offer support to new growers and provide work experience on organic farms.

These kinds of programmes are effective at building the skills required to grow food.  However, mentoring skills and education and access to markets all depend on access to good-quality land where they can be put to use.  It is a big and risky leap from gaining the growing skills and developing a business model to fronting up the high up-front costs of purchasing, leasing or renting land to try out those skills. 

Internationally, land share programmes have developed to fill this gap.  Land share refers to a range of initiatives that seek to match people with land that is not being used for food production with potential farmers who do not have access to land.  Generally, landowners and growers agree to terms of the arrangement that cover access, permitted activities, growing techniques and length of relationship.  For growers, it provides a low-cost and low-risk entry into food production that provides opportunities to trial new skills, crops and business models.  For land owners, they are often compensated in labour elsewhere on the property, in shares of produce or in shares of income.

Our Food Network is exploring the feasibility of a land share program in Dunedin.  Further afield, the Common Unity project in Lower Hutt has recently launched its Urban Kai Network that will connect urban farmers wishing to expand their production with suitable landowners willing to provide land in exchange for weekly vegetable boxes.  In addition, it is  looking to secure large plots of land in the area that can be used for more intensive farming and to support grower education.

These kinds of approaches are effective at building capacity of growers and supporting livelihoods.  However, they are based on the assumption that land will be available.

If we want to preserve our ability to feed ourselves, we need a two-pronged approach.  We need to be vigilant about the loss of high-class agricultural land.  However, we need to be equally vigilant about preserving skills and livelihoods of growers by ensuring they have access to that land.

- Sean Connelly is a senior lecturer in the University of Otago department of geography. Each week in this column, one of a panel of writers addresses issues of sustainability.


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