Future Landscapes

Drought: Adapting the Primary Sector

In this panel, representatives from a range of primary industry bodie were asked how their respective organisations were adapting to the changing climate, and what future policy needs to deliver to effectively support adaptation

The following article summarises one of several symposium sessions on drought and the changing climate, part of the Growing Kai Under Increasing Dry rolling symposium held on 31 May 2021, a collaboration between the Deep South, Resilience to Nature's Challenges, and Our Land and Water National Science Challenges.

At this point, the symposium shifted perspective from farmers and growers to the industry/sector level to explore the role of industry bodies, their interactions with policy, and with farmers and growers on the ground.

Panel members' individual statements have been compiled and summarised, below. While there was a high level of agreement amongst panelists, the ideas and experiences communicated in the following discussions do not necessarily constitute a consensus.

The panel was facilitated by Anita Wreford, an economist based at Lincoln University and leader of the Impacts & Implications programme in the Deep South Challenge. Panel members were:

  • Edwin Massey, general manager sustainability at New Zealand Winegrowers, responsible for the implementation of the wine industry Environment Strategy.
  • Gavin Forrest, Federated Farmers policy team manager, who has close to 30 years policy and advocacy experience across local, regional and national issues affecting the primary sector.
  • Ivan Lawrie, general manager of business operations at the Foundation of Arable Research (FAR). He has extensive experience in arable research having worked in the area for close to 20 years.
  • Liz Tupuhi is the scientist lead at DairyNZ, a position she has held for the past 2½ years.
  • Michelle Sands leads HortNZ's environment policy team, and works with growers across New Zealand to better understand their horticultural operations.

Facilitator: What is the role of government in supporting or enabling adaptation to drought and other adverse events?

The first question government should ask is: ‘Should we do anything at all?’, and then ‘How do we make things better not worse?’. This may be a tall ask, because the government seeks to help people.

More specifically, government has a duty to:

  1. Provide a good regulatory framework that works, is practical, and achieves outcomes with minimal disruption to what farmers do.
  2. Fulfil a safety net function, particularly in response to dramatic events.
  3. Provide a fit for purpose research and development infrastructure.

Facilitator: What about the role of industry bodies in supporting and enabling growers to adapt?

Industry bodies should perform four key roles:

  1. Co-ordinate and help out with short term issues.
  2. Provide farmers with access to important and useful information, including research findings related to climate change adaptation. They should be an advocate for inserting industry needs into research questions.
  3. Collaborate with government and other industry organisations on common themes.
  4. Inform research directions

Collaboration is happening more often across sectors. In the past, farming was very siloed, but now collaboration across sectors is more common, for example on challenges such as biosecurity – this is an approach we need to take for adapting to climate change. Collaboration should be driven from ground level, and this includes farmers and their ideas to experiment with different activities.

One panelist suggested, industry bodies should not be limited to current farmers, but might also lobby for growers of the future by promoting an ideal future. Policy advocacy on the consideration of highly productive land, for example, is focused on New Zealand’s natural assets into the future:

“One of the roles our sector can take is to advocate for: the growers of the future that they have policy settings now that will enable our landscapes to continue to be productive in the future.”

Facilitator: Where do you see the role of research in adaptation?

Research is an essential part of adaptation, but only if it is collaborative and participatory because scientists need feedback from farmers on the ground if they are to respond to their needs. Organisations such as DairyNZ, AgResearch, LIC and Fonterra are working with scientists to ensure the right questions are being explored.

Relevant questions include: ‘What is the impact of heat and heat stress on the animals?’, ‘What are the impacts of animals on the environment from leaching and methane?’, ‘What is the right forage base in the right place?’, ‘How do we ensure we have the right animals in the right place?’, ‘How do we store water within the soils?’, and ‘How do we responsibly harvest water from rivers?’.

Investment in extension has been demonstrated to support research being applied on-farm, and industry bodies can assist with that, not least through explaining to people why behaviour change is essential. Without extension investment, promising research can stay stuck in the lab.

The role of research in adaptation is only strengthened through good communication that translates work in the lab to work on-farm.

“One of the key benefits of working in partnership with your industry and government is that you get the expertise you need on-farm and influence people, to show them the behaviour change needed to generate different results.”

With hydrology, current recommendations are often based on the past, but with climate change this becomes a less useful method. This new uncertain reality needs to be better communicated to farmers so that they understand, for example, that when they are applying for consents that are based on past behaviours, these are not necessarily going to be a reliable predictor for the future.

While there is a lot of knowledge that the climate is changing, and there are research models, that research translation through to regional planning process is not happening to the extent it should. Similarly, getting these insights through to growers so they can understand future changes in risk and consider alternative practices to feed into their own future decisions needs work.

One specific area where more evidence is needed is showing the implications of current systems at play. There is frustration amongst farmers about how their activities are so harmful on the environment, whether it be water quality or climate change. Once a true picture of the status quo has been gained, it will then be possible to confidently explore what will make a positive difference.

“There seems to be a lot of misinformation out there, and that’s hard for farmers – it doesn’t make them feel very positive about the future.”

02 Panel
Illustration by Pepper Curry

Facilitator: Where does drought sit in relation to other pressures or concerns for your sectors?

Panelists noted that while drought is an issue across sectors, there are other risks that are just as significant, if not more so.

Drought is a significant risk in sectors that use trees and other perennial crops because they are a longer term, static crop with a 10-15 year investment period. Because change is not a quick thing in this situation, advocating to regional councils for root stock survival water allocation to keep root stock alive during dry periods has been a priority for one industry body. If droughts become more frequent and trees are not saved then orcharding becomes too risky. A policy that is mindful of protecting the resilience of trees is important.

For the dairy industry, risk is variable across the country because drought tends to be regional and so impacts and responses are more localised. Other pressures of note include: labour, National Policy Statement on biodiversity, floods , and pressures on fresh water.

Drought may in fact be the easier risk to cope with, and the main approach for many has been diversification. This can be achieved horizontally through buying property with different pressures so that stock can be moved around, for example, or vertically, through engaging in a range of farming pursuits, or establishing contractual relationships with reliable land areas. There are more tools in the tool box for managing drought than for other challenges.

“Climate change isn’t the problem, it’s the unpredictability that’s difficult.”

Arable farmers are in a similar position with being able to manage drought. In Canterbury, for example, technology is applied in the form of irrigation. Further, growers are learning through research how to bank rain through reduced cultivation and using different crops to improve soil structure, and new cultivars such as winter crops that are more efficient in capturing rainwater throughout the year and give improved resilience heading into the summer.

Annual crops allow faster adaptation through annual modification of crops and practices. Plant breeders have played a positive role here through providing new seeds, which contributes to changes in pasture composition as farmers continue to adapt to climatic changes.

Facilitator: Should future approaches to adaptation in New Zealand be regional or national?

Panelists agreed that effective adaptation will be a balance between some national direction and local decision-making, rather than an ‘either-or’ situation:

“National policy has to be enabling, especially for innovation, but it’s important to have regional and local input because from a national level you just don’t see what’s happening on the ground and so you can’t respond to it.”

“There are some questions that require national direction, for example, for intergenerational equity and making decisions so that people who are making investments now can understand the future of land.”

“It has to be local/regional, with some consistency around national policies – not a one size fits all national policy.”

“The sector will be driven by the cumulative decisions made by individuals and therefore it can’t be a national drive. It might even be that the catchment group level is the best place to address climate change issues.”

“Decisions around adaptation need to be owned and implemented by local people.”

Facilitator: Is the current siloed approach to industry extension, knowledge transfer and translation, working or are there other models that would work better for farmers?

A point made a number of times during the Symposium was that the primary sector is not as siloed as people may think. While this might have been a shortcoming in the past, currently, sectors are a lot more connected, not least because of the increasing incidence of diversification.

As one panelist explained, in farming communities where there are multiple operations in different primary sectors, the relevant information is being shared throughout that network. However, additional assistance could be useful to ensure this information is gaining traction with the people who need it.

Industry bodies recognise that ongoing learning is important for farmers, particularly as they continue to move into diversification. While they may have good processes around delivering science to farmers, not all farmers are receptive to the research findings.

It was noted, however, that during last year’s event when farmers shared feed with drought-affected sheep farmers in the Hawkes Bay, it became evident that some of the skills and knowledge around feeding barley grain to sheep had been lost, and so it was necessary to disseminate instructions. Panelists were concerned that some on-farm skills are being lost, and in this case, using the donated feed was challenging because sheep need to be trained to eat different fodder before droughts hit or they won’t know what it is.

There are already examples of inter-sector partnerships such as Primary Sector Partnership for Climate Change (He Waka Eke Noa) and the Biosecurity GIA, and it is likely that these types of partnership approaches will become more common across the industry in the future.

“There is a lot of good stuff going on that it would be good for the public to know.”

Facilitator: Are we beyond peak irrigation, and how do we lessen our reliance on irrigation in places where it is not sustainable?

There was good agreement among panelists that irrigation is a necessary farm tool. Te Mana o te Wai provides guidance on irrigation inside environmental limits. There was also acknowledgment that some people are anti-irrigation because in the past, it may have changed land use and caused contaminant loadings beyond environmental limits. But this does not have to be the case, as long as irrigation is designed properly, and water storage also comes into play here.

Improved precision and efficiency needs to be an ongoing focus for researchers. One of the challenges in Canterbury, for example, is to move away from inefficient systems that flush nutrients into the environment. Already, improvements are being made through using moisture sensors, smart irrigation systems, and apps.

Panelists wanted to stress that rather than being a drain on the environment, irrigation can actually improve soil structure, water-holding capacity and porosity. Additionally, precision irrigation provides a wider range of choices for food production in dry areas; without irrigation it would be difficult to grow very much in places like Northland, which would be restricted to dryland farming.

“If we can maximise efficiency then we can move land use to a use that is better to achieve low carbon economy.”

Facilitator: Where would drought-focused government funding best be spent?

Panelists shared several specific areas for drought-focused government funding, including:

  • Looking for opportunities to drive behaviour change in terms of water use. In particular this could be instilled into young farmers and be achieved through requirements to measure, plan and report water consumption on an ongoing basis.
  • Bringing together the plethora of data that has already been collected over the years. There is a lack of funding available for making use of that data, creating models, and extracting meaningful insights on how to adapt.
  • Investing in multi-hazard assessment across landscapes and into the future would be a good use of funding according to one panelist. There would be benefit in more integrated and strategic planning that considered the entire country, looking at opportunities down to individual catchment level so that farmers can better understand their choices.
  • Investigating GE and what this might offer in terms of new cultivars and species.
  • Supporting research into how soils can retain water in soils, practices for slowing overland flow, decreasing evapotranspiration etc. Research in Australia is slowing flow in water systems and this is helping to retain water in the soil. A push for harvesting high flows and building storage would also be useful.

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Jo-Anne Hazel

Jo is a 'knowledge herder' who specialises in bringing together knowledge and insights from a variety of sources.

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