Seeing the land

Wetlands became one of the ‘‘invisible worlds’’ covered over by the extension of grasslands...
Wetlands became one of the ‘‘invisible worlds’’ covered over by the extension of grasslands pastoral farming. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
We can see new possibilities for our farming landscapes, Prof Hugh Campbell tells Tom McKinlay.

Rendell Stream Farm is the happy setting for a note-perfect rural get-together, early in Prof Hugh Campbell’s new book.

There’s something from a nearby paddock on the barbecue and home brew in the glass, for the benefit of a lucky throng of visitors gathered in the shade of mature trees.

It’s a successful and innovative organic farm, we’re told, an exemplar; a mix of stock and crops, where farmers Violet and Mike do "interesting rotations ". It has rich social connections, it is linked to diverse markets, produce is sold locally, nationally and internationally and there’s "unusual and experimental activities".

All in all, idyllic.

Except for a jarring reality attached to the name of the farm. Rendell Stream is a tributary to the eutrophically euthanased Lake Ellesmere/Te Waihora — "a site of highly contentious environmental degradation partly resulting from excessive nutrient run-off from new intensive dairy farms in the catchment".

While the farm has been restoring its stream so water leaves "better than when it arrived", it is surrounded by the sort of land use that has been chipping away at the once unquestionable social licence of the Kiwi farmer.

Prof Hugh Campbell
Prof Hugh Campbell
Prof Campbell was there for an open day, Rendell Stream chosen because it points towards different options for pastoral farming in New Zealand — alternatives.

Such options, alternative ways, were for a long time rendered invisible by the unchallenged orthodoxy of New Zealand pastoral farming, Prof Campbell’s new book argues.

Farming Inside Invisible Worlds, published recently by Bloomsbury, was originally going to be all about those alternatives, Prof Campbell says.

But first he had to answer a question for himself: alternative to what?

Answering that question sent him back through history to the early contacts between European and Maori — to when Captain James Cook first observed Aotearoa as a garden, tended by Maori — then crashing forward through the subsequent decades of colonisation, invasion, forest clearances, wetland drainings and on to the modern farm of the grasslands revolution.

The result of that fast, turbulent history was that worlds that once shared Aotearoa New Zealand’s acreage became invisible, te ao Maori and the world of indigenous ecologies were displaced, ripped up and planted over with a veneer of rye and clover.

Prof Campbell’s gaze is unblinking, but his view is ultimately optimistic, zeroing in on burgeoning diversity across the rural landscape in more recent years, those invisible worlds re-emerging to pattern some of the pastured sameness.

He’s in a pretty good position to make an assessment, as a son of the land, descended from lines that can be traced back to the country’s first Pakeha farmers. Which is where the University of Otago professor of sociology, gender studies and criminology started — several years ago now — when he begin writing Farming Inside Invisible Worlds; thinking about the farms owned by his own family.

"I became interested in the family farms. The family farms that are talked about in chapter two are definitely the entry point.

"It was thinking about my own childhood, particularly with my grandfather and how I had this very, very vivid memory of being on our family farm with him.

"When I grew up in it, it was a full and satisfactory world all on its own."

Yet, looking back, Prof Campbell realised that sense of completeness was obscuring other important things.

Among them was a seldom recalled and rare early experiment called Heather’s Homestead, Marotahei, a trading post and farm established by Prof Campbell’s forebear Dennett Hersee Heather — with his Maori wife Unaike — in the Waikato of the late 1840s, at the heart of the collaborative economy between Maori and Pakeha in the years before the colonial invasion.

That collaborative potential future ended with Governor George Grey’s war on the Waikato, as the country set a course for a Pakeha "neo-Europe" as Britain’s distant farm — embarking on decades of land clearances and wetland draining, including prodigious forest burning.

It wasn’t inevitable; choices were made, Prof Campbell says — just as we still have choices today.

"You could have had a pile of Dennett and Unaike Heathers collaborating away between the Maori and Pakeha economy," he says.

"I think the thing that becomes inevitable, the thing that gets locked in and we end up arriving at about 1920 — urgently needing some new farming solutions because of the massively chaotic thing we have unleashed — is that when you are replacing almost an entire landscape, transitioning it from wetlands and forest into exotic grasslands, you are just unleashing ecological consequences that are gigantic in scale."

The scale of the forest burning and draining of wetlands that went on — rendering those landscapes invisible — is probably not widely understood, Prof Campbell says.

What happened in response, in the 1920s, was the grasslands revolution, when local scientists struck on a recipe of ryegrass, clover and fertiliser to hold denuded and rapidly eroding hill country together.

"It is such a powerful scientific intervention that for the next 100 years it would be the great intervention that would justify all subsequent scientific interventions," Prof Campbell says.

We can think about it like the discovery of penicillin, the way it justified a new approach to healthcare, he says.

The modernist farm was born — an equal part mix of robust blokey pragmatism and agricultural science.

So New Zealand had a market in Britain, a recipe for pasture and a "sensationally white" Pakeha farm ownership model that incentivised development for capital gain.

"I wasn’t born until 1964, but the farm I was growing up in was extraordinarily in love with this self-mythologisation of the Pakeha family farm," Prof Campbell says.

Even if it did throw up some pretty funny phenomena.

"We were one of the world’s great dairy producers and we had five kinds of cheese. And the fifth kind of cheese was the mixed up odds and ends of the other four production runs, emulsified and called Chesdale."

It was an incredibly emaciated food culture, he says, not aided by weak connections between the farmer and the consumer. Once the product left the farm gate — the world full and satisfactory all on its own — the farmer often had little engagement with its destination, at least once the meat works or dairy factory had weighed its worth.

"The story of the modernist farm is how much of a straightjacket we ended up in — essentially covering the whole landscape with a very specific style of pastoral farming, with a very specific culture of farming and with a very technical and scientific approach to how we understood the workings of a farm and how you think of pathways for it."

To give it its due, it worked well for 50 years, in its own terms, ushering in a "golden age" of farming.

But then Britain joined the European Economic Community, neoliberalism rewrote the relationship between farming and the state, Cyclone Bola demonstrated that ryegrass and clover have their limits, and agricultural science began to be contested. The use of some chemicals in the environment was called into question, in the years after Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, and the prospect of genetically modified crops proved controversial.

The way in which intensive dairy farming crashed through further ecological boundaries, pushing land to become a "machine for producing grass" in ways that impacted the wider environment beyond the fence line, particularly freshwater, has further undermined faith in the modern farm.

"In one sense, you can follow the scientific footprint all the way from the grasslands revolution in the 1920s to a big centre pivot unit in Rakaia."

There have been painful years since Britain’s fateful decision to become European in 1973. Prof Campbell did his doctoral thesis on the rural disruption wrought by Rogernomics a few years later, but he says the unwinding of the modernist consensus means other previously invisible worlds are now reasserting themselves, presenting new possibilities.

Among them is post-settlement revitalised Maori farming — part of the taniwha economy; billions of dollars of land assets in communal ownership doing well.

"And of course a completely different ontology of land — dots lined up, everything is connected. The land has to produce more than just a product — it has to work socially; it has to work environmentally."

There’s been the rebirth of stodgy old state farmer Landcorp as Pamu, adopting all the new best practices: wetlands restoration, holding water in the landscape, reforesting, riparian planting, worker training and welfare.

It has become a massive exemplar of best practice that is making money, Prof Campbell says.

"They are the lead harvester of a whole lot of innovations that are happening in terms of environmental land management and revisioning land management, and they just deploy them across their farms and demonstrate that, actually, it works."

Then there are individual farmers having conversion experiences.

"It is in the on-farm encounter with your farm ecologies, which I think have been tremendously different over the last 20 to 30 years."

It has meant, for example, that wetlands are no longer necessarily regarded as pieces of wasted pasture.

An example used in the book is the Southland farmers of Manuka Mire, Gay and Ron Munro, who blocked a drain on part of their land to hold water on the farm and watched as a wetland recovered.

Fish and plant life returned with it. What had been rendered invisible by previous futile attempts to extend the grasslands revolution to the land, was visible again.

"They had a massive ecological encounter on their farm that changed the whole way in which they thought about their farm."

There is now a QEII convenant on 64ha of the wetland.

On other farms people are putting convenants on stands of bush only to find the regeneration helps with land stability.

"The five or six farms that I chose to use [in the book] as exemplars are just the tip of the iceberg, they really are, of people engaging in new ways of farming and thinking about their land.

"There really is just a revolution from below happening in a whole lot of places across New Zealand farming," Prof Campbell says.

"Now with the regenerative agriculture thing, what surprises me about it is how much tolerance and acceptance and mild curiosity there is from mainstream farming about it."

Once — when orthodox agricultural science was ascendant — the sort of alternative approaches that regenerative agriculture propounds might have been met with scorn.

"We have a lot of baked-in expectations now that we’re on a change trajectory," Prof Campbell says. "And we are thinking about different ways to do things and we are thinking about the ways in which our farms act environmentally and the ways in which we make them succeed economically."

That’s exciting for a new generation.

"For a lot of the younger farmers, this is the exciting part of being a farmer now. We are on a journey of change and we are not simply learning to farm like our parents and grandparents did. We are going to farm quite differently."

The fortunate thing is that these possibilities remain open; the New Zealand landscape hasn’t gone past a point of no return, Prof Campbell says.

"Out there in our landscape we still have the remnants of wetlands, we still have latent seed in the ground that can regenerate into different tree and plant species. We have experienced a renaissance of older styles of land use and knowledge from Maori.

"The opportunity for exciting collaborations and partnerships between humans and land and ecologies and wider society and economy all still exist."

The book

Farming Inside Invisible Worlds, by Prof Hugh Campbell, is available to read and download free at

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