Bridging the Rural Urban Gap

July 2017

Bridging the gap between rural and urban communities in Manawatu

Dairy farmer James Stewart is working to bring farming to the leadership table in the Manawatū district where he sees more in common between people than differences. The Federated Farmers president who farms on the outskirts of Palmerston North enjoys building networks with the business and tourism sectors, iwi, conservation interests, researchers, entrepreneurs and schools. 

To help bridge the gap between town and city, in late 2015 James built a new dairy shed with a viewing room where 30 people can watch milking. In March 2017 the farm hosted the launch of a Federated Farmers-sponsored Hackathon, where software experts sought high-tech solutions to farming problems. 

James says acknowledging that farming does have a footprint along with urban and industrial pollution, is a first step towards negotiating solutions. 

James is the fifth generation of his family to farm on the land where they settled in the 1880’s. He started dairy farming on the outskirts of Palmerston North 20 years ago, today he is milking just over 800 cows on two units totaling 400 hectares, plus 400ha of support land. This is a family business run with his brother Tim and their parents, who manage the Hiwinui Country Estate luxury lodge on the property. 

James was galvanised into becoming politically active, when the Manawatū River was described in the media as among the most polluted in the western world. Since then he has been busy not only farming 500 dairy cows, but also making frequent trips to town, as chairman of Manawatu Federated Farmers dairy section for three years, then provincial president. 

“Let’s not beat around the bush. Dairying does have a footprint, along with sewage and industrial waste,” says James. “But there’s a lot we can do about it, then it’s about getting the numbers to show progress is being made.” 

His mission is to make sure farming has a credible voice at the table, identifying and helping activate solutions then working with others to balance negative publicity with positive.

“It about telling our story in a practical way and being credible.” 

The Manawatū remains beautiful, with pollution generally not visible, says James who operated a jet-boating business on the river from 2004 until 2007. In his experience, water is no less swimmable than when he was a boy. The main change he’s noticed is the amount of sediment washing down rivers and building up along the coast. 

People living in the district have a common love for the area, which is a strong starting point for making improvements, James says. 

Manawatu/Rangitikei and Tararua Federated Farmers are signatories to a River Leaders’ Accord along with 34 diverse stakeholders including iwi, District Councils, environmental groups, DOC, tourism organisations, meat companies, Massey University and Landcorp Farming. 

“Ours” is the mantra of the group, which launched a second five-year action plan in March 2016. The first plan saw over $30 million invested in eight projects aimed at cleaning up water quality in rural and urban areas. 

“I was getting sick of being told farmers weren’t doing anything,” says James. In 2014 James ran a survey showing that in the previous five years, the dairy industry had spent $100 million in the region on effluent upgrades such as bigger ponds and better discharge application methods, bridges, culverts and riparian plantings. 

Federated Farmers NZ later extended the survey to find that in the same period, the dairy industry nationally spent $1 billion towards improving water quality. 

Federated Farmers and the Manawatu Chamber of Commerce have reciprocal membership and James sits on this regional business organisation’s advisory board. A common project is Accelerate 25, aimed at increasing job opportunities and quality of life in the Manawatū-Whanganui region by connecting people, business and the environment. Among recognised opportunities are untapped potential for dairy and arable farming, sheep and beef production and tourism. 

With Massey University based in Palmerston North, Manawatu farmers have a unique chance to take part in conversations about futuristic trends in the food and farming industry, says James. The NZ Agrifood Investment Week based in the city in March 2017, for example, brought together researchers, entrepreneurs, government, iwi, investors, consumers and farmers to look at ways of connecting and growing the agri-tech industry.

As part of this week, the Stewart farm hosted an AgTech Hackathon, where teams of tech geeks from companies including Microsoft considered possible software and hardware solutions to agricultural problems. Geeks and farmers were paired up and got on surprisingly well, discovering a common passion for problem-solving. 

On James’ wish list is drone-based technology for accurate nutrient management. One day he hopes farms will be mapped to highlight their potential to absorb nutrients so application rates can be targeted. Plantings could be concentrated on any hot spots. 

Unlike Overseer, this would be a tool to help farmers rather than used for compliance.

Hackathon was designed not only to help solve problems, but also start connections and conversations between urban and rural communities. Manawatu Federated Farmers and Building Clever Companies joined forces to run the event. 

James admits that living only 10 minutes from central Palmerston North, he enjoys frequently getting off the farm to put a practical perspective on Manawatū issues. “We recognise that a love of the region is what drives us all. I liken the city to a house with a section around it. We all want both looking really healthy.” Any disagreements, for example with environmental groups, tended to come from a national level. 

Proximity to the city also brings the farm many visitors, from overseas academics to school groups and also guests at the luxury lodge run by James’ parents on the property. Keen to bridge the rural-urban gap and improve understanding of dairying, in 2015 he included a 30 person viewing room in a $1.5 million, 54-bail, rotary dairy shed build. 

Spending a bit extra on the viewing room was worth doing so visitors could see cows were healthy and professionally milked. He can point out new technology including automatic cup removers, teat spraying, mastitis testing and drafting. 

The shed is run by only one person and recycles “green water” from the effluent pond to wash to milking platform. Thistles sculpted into supports add an artistic touch, harking back to the Stewart family’s Scottish origins.