Day Three

I’ve moved a bit today, this is roughly where I’ve been all day.

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First stop Scott Lawson, an organic farmer near Hastings. This is a small 65 ha farm, surrounded mainly by fancy vineyards, and also the outskirts of town. Obviously on a farm this size, the agriculture is going to have to be pretty intensive to make a living. Running a few sheep on some grass isn’t going to cut it. The single main crop is blueberries, of which there are 15ha of bushes, each yielding up to 10kg/year. Scott produces 25% of the organic blueberries in NZ from this small area, and if you ever buy them in Tescos or Sainsbury’s there is a chance they have come from here.

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There are half a dozen or so varieties grown, including this one (pictured below), which is almost comically large. If an orange was this size proportionately it would be about as big as a football.

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Needless to say they were all delicious, albeit very different in character. This is a very labour intensive crop, as it is all picked, sorted and packed by hand. Of course, none of the farm is highly mechanised, as it is small scale and high margin.

A lot of attention has gone into building a brand, which allows prices to be set according to cost of production plus a margin. It’s a great way of adding value to the product without getting into processing.

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On the rest of the farm, lucerne is grown for around 4 years, being cut up to 5 times a year, and turned into silage for dairy cows. After this comes out, a cover crop follows – this could be an oat/vetch mix, or a mustard which acts as a biofumigant. The oat/vetch mix is actually half cover crop and half cash crop, as it can also be baled and used for animal feed.

Next in the rotation comes something more intensive, such as carrots, onions, potatoes or pumpkins. All of these need very fine seed beds, and so there is pretty heavy cultivation going on, although no mouldboard ploughs are allowed. There will usually be three operations to prepare the seed bed – disc harrowing, chisel ploughing, and finally a power harrow. During the growing period weed control is by mechanical hoeing, and by hand. This soil is moved a lot.

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There is some capping present, not surprising as the soil is so finely prepared

Scott is unusual as he is well versed and a big proponent of all the usual soil health principles, but not able to always put them into practice. This is a tricky situation as he must grow these high intensity crops, but has not figured out how to do it without moving so much soil, and damaging the structure. The soil in the picture above was very soft underfoot, and I’m sure would pick up compaction quickly. One solution will be some form of CTF, which has been shown to increase the lucerne yields by around 30%, as they have so many compacting passes when cutting, raking, baling etc.

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Blueberries & Rhododendrons have their own special type of mycorrhizae

It is interesting talking to an organic farmer about fertilising, as they are pretty limited in what they can use. I find it odd that it is permissible to use rock that is mined from the ground, for example sulphate of potash, but it is not acceptable to use nitrogen mined from the air, like urea. But the vagaries of Organic certification is a whole different thing…

NPK is supplied from compost, bone meal and blood meal. Potassium comes from SOP, as does sulphur. Although the soils are pH 6-6.5, elemental sulphur is applied to buffer against the water used for irrigation, which is a much higher pH; around 8.5. Phosphorous  come from soft rock phosphate which has been biologically activated by composting with “fish sauce” (I’m guessing it’s not Nam Pla) to make it more available to the plants. This isn’t an idea I’ve heard before, but it is an interesting one as this could make rock phosphate a more viable fertiliser for some people needing a quick fix.

We also had an interesting talk about insecticides, and trying to break the cycle of using them. Scott told a story of how one year the aphids were particularly bad, and had been hammering his lucerne – the neighbouring conventional farms, using insecticides, had to cut very early and so lost a lot of yield. On this farm there was not a large drop in the yield, and when it was cut the mower was covered in thousands of ladybirds. Would the ladybirds have been there under a conventional insecticide program?

I don’t normally plan two visits in one day, but it’s happened every day so far this trip. Fellow Nuffield scholar Hugh Ritchie lives a bit south of Scott, and farms 2200ha. 1500ha of this is hillside, which is used to fatten 18,000 lambs and 1800 dairy bulls every year. In the spring the stocking rate can go up to 50 lambs/ha(!).

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The other 700ha is arable land, of which 400ha is currently irrigated. There is a fairly fixed rotation on the irrigated sections:

  1. Grain maize, strip tilled and planted with a precision drill.
  2. Squash, for export to Japan, direct drilled
  3. Vining peas then runner beans, double cropped in the same year. Both direct drilled.
  4. Winter wheat, direct drilled
  5. Ryegrass, direct drilled. Grazed in the winter and then harvested for seed in the summer
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Runner Beans

All of these high value veg crops are grown under contract, and so there has to be a bit of flexibility in case they are not available. For example, there was some forage rape planted where runner beans were not possible. This will be used for sheep feed in the winter.

Carrots are a new crop, but like at Scott’s farm, they are very hard on the soil, which is ploughed and then bed formed. I’ve never seen carrots like it, they were 5″ across and a foot long, with another two months still to grow. Apparently they can weigh 2 kilos each at harvest. Amazingly they were also very tasty, not woody at all.

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Delicious runner beans, almost ready for harvest

Hugh has had a 6m triple disc drill custom made, which fits into a 6.15m CTF system. He will always use this drill without tilling first, although the leading wavy disc does do some cultivation. The drill is designed with a hydraulic drawbar, allowing the weight of the tractor to be put into the front discs, so they can have up to 500kg of down pressure each. There is obviously some work going into it, as the drill needs 50hp/m, not far off a Claydon. Interestingly, he found that a Cross Slot did not have enough penetration power all the time, and also the work rates were too slow for the width of drill that his tractor could pull.

Since no-till was introduced here 15 years ago, yields have stayed constant, but machinery costs have gone way down. Both fixed and variable costs have been reduced enough that Hugh reckoned he could lose 20%of his yield and still be better off than when they were ploughing everything.

The final interesting thing they are doing here is using RTK GPS to level out hollows. This doesn’t mean whole fields are turned into perfectly flat billiard tables, they are just filling in small areas to stop water ponding and damaging crops. If you wanted to go further, it is possible to put multiple different planes into a field, and customise precisely where your runoff goes. Not something I’ve seen anyone doing at home, but maybe now we all have GPS it is worth thinking about?

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Giant carrots being irrigated

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