Another fantastic edition of new magazine GOOD has just hit the shelves, with one of the highlights being the article “The Real Dirt on Dairy Farms” (see page 4). Written by environmental reporting stalwart Dave Hansford, the piece outlines some of the ways in which Kiwi dairy farmers are stepping off the intensive, corporate farming treadmill and choosing to farm more smartly.
Scarily, corporate dairying is all the rage in New Zealand. It’s like a vine that’s taken hold and crept across the land. Gone are the days of most farmers gently tending their clover and knowing their cows by name. Today it’s all about chemical fertiliser, and output output output. Quality of soil and product be damned.
Deforestation for pasture in the Central North Island. 25,000 hectares are being cleared in this area alone.
In the stampede to convert land to pasture, forests are being massacred. Tens of thousands of hectares of forests have already been felled and another half million hectares are at risk; over seven times the size of Lake Taupo and a quarter of the nation’s total plantation.
Dairy conversion of forestry land functions as a ‘double whammy’ on the climate; it destroys forests (carbon sinks) and replaces them with intensive dairying, which is one of the most greenhouse gas intensive forms of land use.
Meanwhile, down on the farm, the most potent greenhouse gas around (nitrous oxide- 300 times more climate-damaging than CO2) is being produced in ever-increasing quantities, due to fertiliser use. Nitrous oxide emissions in New Zealand now exceed all those from the transport sector. High use of fertiliser also allows more and more cows to be jammed onto each hectare. And they’re burping like there’s no tomorrow; their health diminishing because of the bad pasture and chemicals they’re imbibing.
Fonterra is the economic driving force behind this intensification, but other key players are reinforcing unsustainable farming practices. Top of the list are the fertiliser companies; the more farmers drench their soil with chemicals, the better the fertiliser companies' bottom lines.
In adopting a high-input farming model, farmers are unwittingly creating a fertility time-bomb in their soils. The more fertiliser used, the more the natural sources of soil fertility are destroyed, and more fertiliser you need each year just to maintain production levels for pasture growth. It’s like any drug addiction. Each time you need a bigger and bigger fix to get high.
As Ototohanga dairy farmer David Miller says in the GOOD article: “farmers have lost the art of thinking. The experts come along; the vet would make his sales pitch, the fertiliser company, the drench company, would make theirs….do what you’re told and you’ll get good results. And the majority of farmers went down that path, not understanding why.”
David and his wife Alisa have eschewed the treadmill and are bloody thankful they did. They stopped applying so many chemicals, substituting them with organic fertiliser. Now the cows are happy as Larry, and the grass is literally greener. Healthier soils reduce nitrous oxide emissions and lock up more carbon, so the climate also benefits.
The article features other farmers who’ve chosen a more sustainable path. Check it out. It shows there is a way forward for our biggest polluting sector.