Opinion: Climate change - is land use change the solution?

  • 14/12/2018

By Andrew Hoggard.

OPINION: In the discussion around climate change, the topic of land use change often comes up as the solution. This is the idea we can all just flip a switch out here on the farm and change from meat, milk or wool and do lettuces, avocados or quinoa instead.

At a macro scale this may look all good and simple however when you get down to the farm level, then you discover all the disruptions and challenges involved. Land use has changed in the past, but those past changes have occurred on the basis of market signals driven by actual consumer demand for a product, not a decree from Wellington. 

A change in farm land use isn't something to be taken lightly. The first challenge of course is on the people side. As a farmer you build a level of practical and theoretical knowledge around your particular type of farming, so changing that means learning new skills, but with learning usually comes mistakes, so expect to make some mistakes and lose some money doing so. 

The other issue on the people side is of course your employees, at present most livestock-based farms employ permanent staff year-round. 

If I was to change my farm over from dairy to say grapefruit, (which I know I can grow well because I have some excellent trees in the garden really delivering crop wise) suddenly I don't need permanent staff, I just need a truckload of people for a very short window.

I often look at our pretty awesome grapefruit tree in the garden and think 'damn that's a lot less work than waking up at 4am to milk cows'.  I think my total effort invested in that tree was 5 minutes to plant it 10 years ago. It makes me think perhaps I could dump a couple cows and put a paddock into grapefruit. This then brings up another big challenge  what do I know about the grapefruit market? 

Am I even growing the right grapefruit?  Would anyone buy my grapefruit?  I don't have to worry about any of that now, Fonterra does it for me. That's one of the reasons why farmers formed co-ops, so we could just worry about farming well.  

Another challenge with moving to a mixed farming model, is suddenly I move from just the one grapefruit tree which I just pick off a fruit each morning as I walk past for breakfast, to needing to do it properly. I need new equipment, possibly a pack house too. By having an economy of scale in dairy, it means I can invest in newer technology and suitable equipment to do the job well.

Farmers should of course make changes to their land use to stay abreast of consumer trends and ensure that their farm continues to provide a good livelihood for them, their families and their employees. There are great opportunities arising in other land uses, but the farmer should be the one making that decision.        

Andrew Hoggard is Federated Farmers Climate Change spokesperson.