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Marginal land transformed into an organic oasis

Marginal land transformed into an organic oasis

A research and development project on an oasis of land near Christchurch is transforming the property into an organic farm producing high value agricultural products and creating jobs for its Maori owners.

Orohaki, the Dawson family property at Oxford on the foothills of the Southern Alps, is a traditional Maori growing area known to be used more than 300 years ago to produce food crops like kumara, taking advantage of a micro climate that makes the area frost free and the soil highly fertile.

The property is one of five South Island Ngai Tahu farms using research and new techniques to improve returns and create sustainable industries. The initiative is being viewed as a blueprint for improving the productivity of Maori land.

In recent years Orohaki has been used to farm beef cattle but, as a result of a partnership with the Christchurch-based Agriculture Research Group on Sustainability (ARGOS), the Dawsons are diversifying into growing organic capsicum, chilli peppers and aubergine to supply the Christchurch market. The crops are being raised in portable tunnel houses constructed on-farm by the whanau in collaboration with ARGOS consultants, with the two working as a team to introduce low cost but innovative technologies and growing techniques.

ARGOS is a joint venture group established to investigate different practices that improve environmental, social and economic sustainability of farming in New Zealand. This includes working with Ngai Tahu landowners like the Dawsons to improve returns from economically marginal Maori land and provide employment for extended whanau. The Foundation for Research, Science and Technology is the key investor in ARGOS, contributing NZ$1.45 million per annum for six years through its environment fund. Around 8 percent of the ARGOS budget is being spent annually on the Maori sustainable development initiative.

Bill Dawson and his sons have been farming their 283 hectare property since 1989 and joined the ARGOS initiative to find ways of improving returns and creating jobs that will bring family members back to live in the area.

“As a child I was told stories about the gardens that used to flourish here,” he says. “The Blow Hard Track passes near the land and ours was a resting place for travellers to the East Coast who could always find food and nourishment here. It’s almost virgin land with very little spraying over the years, so it’s ideal for conversion to organics.”

The Dawsons also plan to produce honey and are looking at growing other high value niche crops. Bill Dawson says work has already been created for around four extra people with other family members likely to ‘return home’ as the enterprise grows.

Tim Jenkins, who provides technical expertise and advice on farm production to the Dawsons, says the scheme is effectively an incubator with support provided while the owners gain the skills needed to run the venture themselves.

“The crops grown have been selected because they command good prices and are not hugely labour intensive to produce – you don’t have to harvest three times a week – and the portable tunnels housing the crops have been scientifically proven to provide a good growing environment that is easy to manage.”

The Dawsons are also keen on establishing off-farm income through tourism by, for example, hosting Maori cultural events on the property and setting up a heritage garden illustrating how the land was used hundreds of years ago while also showcasing innovative new technologies. A significant spin-off from the project has been researching the history of Orohaki which the family now wants to share with the wider community.

“It’s a real learning curve for us,” says Bill Dawson. “My dream is to bring the extended family back here by being able to provide work for 10 to 12 people over the next few years. To do that we need to be producing crops and running other activities that provide a steady income.”

The project’s research leader, John Reid, is based in Te Runanaga o Ngai Tahu. He expects a further cluster of ‘case study’ farms to join the initiative next year. He says a range of high value but relatively low cost crops, such as gourmet mushrooms, linseed and buckwheat, are possible options on different communal tenure farms. The research will work to discover what development options work best in the Maori social context, while meeting financial goals and achieving environmental sustainability in each micro climate.

The broader ARGOS research programme is working on a range of other research and development projects designed to improve export performance and environmental sustainability in the primary sector.

Carmel Howley, a Business Manager with the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, says initiatives being driven by ARGOS are an excellent example of the benefits from applying science expertise to farming in an innovative and practical way.

“ARGOS is putting a big emphasis on monitoring its work with the farming sector, meaning farmers involved get meaningful results that help them benchmark themselves on their productivity and practises and see how they can improve.”

ends

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