Keeping the hills alive

Keeping the hills alive

Who am I? Katherine Dixon is the co-founder of Nature Positive, a provider of research and advisory services for integrated nature and climate solutions, and a lead researcher for the Hill Country Futures Partnership Programme.

A thriving hill country farming sector is critical to New Zealand’s economy and to our regional communities. 

Hill country farms make up 70% of our pastoral area and farmers are making productive use of approximately 5.6 million hectares of land. 

These farmers are producing the world’s most sustainable beef and lamb with an environmental footprint far lower than many of our competitors.

However, hill country farming is also facing a series of unprecedented challenges. 

Climate change, extreme weather events such as droughts and flooding, erosion and the growing threat of afforestation mean in many cases farmers are being forced to do more with less.

That’s why it’s more important than ever that our sector works hard to future proof the profitability, sustainability and wellbeing of New Zealand’s hill country farmers, their farm systems, the environment and rural communities. 

The $8.1m, five-year Hill Country Futures Partnership programme, co-funded by Beef + Lamb New Zealand, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, PGG Wrightson Seeds and Seed Force New Zealand, is a research programme that is aiming to help us do exactly that.

Importantly, farmers themselves are at the heart of the programme and a core part of the research has been a series of 170 in-person interviews, asking farmers about the challenges and opportunities they face and their vision for the future.  

Farmers’ biggest concerns for the future were afforestation/carbon farming, rising costs and land prices and loss of communities. 

They fear this will impact retirement plans, deter the next generation from farming and create decline in rural communities such as falling school rolls, social and sporting opportunities and farmer support networks. 

One farmer told us his retirement plan had been to sell his farm but the only offers he had received were from pine companies. 

He was delaying his retirement because he couldn’t bear to see all his work destroyed. 

Numerous farmers told us they wanted to be good environmental stewards. 

They felt a strong responsibility to future generations and saw benefits for livestock, climate resilience, profitability, market access and personal enjoyment. 

At the same time, we heard that there are obstacles in the way of best environmental practice. 

Many farmers told us that they were struggling to keep up with requirements due to needing more time, funding and, in some cases, knowledge. 

Some of the new regulations were perceived as impractical and there was a lot of uncertainty about environmental investment, with many farmers wanting more local examples to follow. 

Farm ownership and the next generation of farmers was a common point of discussion. 

The average age of hill country farmers is increasing and, at the same time, family succession is becoming more complex and difficult. 

Inheritance and splitting the value of property between siblings can be challenging. 

Farmers told us how succession planning is now compounded by rising land prices, land-use competition, high debt levels, lowering profitability and increasing regulatory costs, which are all making farming “less appealing”.

A common opinion in the hill country farming sector is that diversifying businesses and land use may provide a pathway to reducing some of this uncertainty and building a more stable future. 

We sought farmers’ views on this and found a mixed bag. 

Many farmers are attracted to the idea of economic diversification, seeing it as a way to spread risk, enable more ecologically-sustainable land use and benefit communities and create employment. 

However, there are barriers to putting this into practice ranging from concerns about time required, geographic constraints, market difficulties, access to labour and a lack support to take such steps. 

More than a quarter of the farmers interviewed raised the topic of regenerative agriculture unprompted. 

There was a sense that it could align with personal values, create new market opportunities and fit with new regulatory requirements. 

Peer to peer learning was cited as an attraction of regenerative agriculture, with a community already building and knowledge being shared through grassroots farmer-led workshops, field days and online discussions.

However, many also had reservations and wanted to see more scientific evidence that it would work in the New Zealand setting. 

Overall, the key hopes for the future were to achieve sustainable environmental stewardship, to achieve ownership and financial goals and to enable rural communities to be able to thrive. 

Farmers see “rural and urban” working together as important to achieving these goals. 

They are seeking opportunities to share the stories of the good work being done; they want to have a direct input into decisions about their future and to help develop a feasible roadmap for the future of sheep and beef farming. 

They would like more investment in training for young farmers and greater access to support around succession planning

They are also calling for better physical and digital infrastructure development in rural communities, to support diversification and support to enable them to connect with people with the skills and resources to help with such projects. 

And they would like to work to depolarise agriculture, through honest discussions and farmer-led holistic conversations around the environment. 

This feedback is really valuable to shape future research and work programmes at B+LNZ.

The Farmer Perspective series, providing insights into the biggest issues identified through the interviews, is available here.