The effect of urban development on productive land.
Pukekohe Hill and the surrounding area is arguably the best district in the country for growing vegetables commercially. The soil is robust and has been coping with continual cropping for a century. It is the market garden for New Zealand’s largest city and also produces large tonnages for export. However, urban sprawl is eating away at this highly productive land and covering it with tarseal, concrete and housing. Governments, both national and local, seem unconcerned but local growers are.
Food security and soil security are closely linked, and while the robust and fertile soils around Pukekohe are used for market gardening, as they have been for 100 years or more, Auckland’s supply of fresh vegetables is well supported. Unfortunately, the soils are no longer secure and are being consumed by Auckland’s insatiable appetite for urban housing.
Stan Clark, whose family has owned land near Pukekohe town since the 1950s, is adamant that the Pukekohe area is far more productive than other districts such as the Waikato. This is partly due to its being virtually frost free but mostly due to the robustness of the soil.
“The Pukekohe Hill can grow most things all year round. Some growers plant potatoes and then after harvest put the area back into lettuce or broccoli, and then take that out and put in carrots or onions the following year, so over two years they could put in three or four crops. We have been growing celery on our land since the 60s and the soil can stand up to that,” he says.
“If you try to do that in the Waikato you get only one crop per year and if you do it for three or four years then growers usually have to grass it off and move to another block.”
As well as climate, soil and underground water, the advantages of the Pukekohe area include proximity to New Zealand’s largest market for fruit and vegetables and to export facilities. But it’s that closeness that also holds its greatest threat – the increasing demand for land suitable for housing. In the decade up to 2014 about 10% of the horticultural land around Auckland disappeared under tarseal, concrete and roofing.
In recent years the pace of change has quickened and the Auckland council has approved more and more subdivisions in the Pukekohe area. Land prices have skyrocketed. A 4ha block previously growing potatoes was recently re-zoned residential, which tripled its QV to $7 million. Such decisions have riled Stan whose land is in the middle of the large Belmont subdivision.
“The Auckland Council and the Housing Minister took the easy option to designate the land residential by placing all the Belmont plan land under notice within the Housing Accord Special Housing Area legislation. This meant that nobody could make submissions for or against the proposal through the usual Resource Management Act process,” he says.
“Opposition from affected parties wasn’t wanted because it could delay the fast track process, so they declared that all likely adverse effects would be ‘less than minor’. In our case one of these ‘less than minor’ effects was that stormwater from the neighbouring subdivision was diverted into a watercourse on our property – one that includes springs that we have taken water from for decades.”
“We were not notified of this nor consulted in any way. When I raised the issue with our local MP he said ‘Your land has gone up in value so put up with it’.”
Stan says that urban development taking land out of production probably started 20 years ago when some of the north sloping parts of the Pukekohe Hill were built on. Subsequently a large portion of Pukekohe to the southwest and west became residential. More recently when the Auckland Council brought out its Unitary Plan and proposed re-zoning more land to the southwest of Pukekohe Hill many growers objected and the Council had a temporary change of heart – temporary because it retained the rural designation for some land on one side of the road for 20 years but allowed residential development on the other side.
Sections are being sold with covenants stating that the neighbouring growers can carry on with their management practices as they have done in the past, but as one affected grower says it will only take one resident to complain about spray drift or lime dust and restrictions will be imposed.
The issue of residential people restricting horticultural practices has been going on for years, says Stan.
“I recall putting lime onto our land and someone from the Council turned up having had the complaint that we were poisoning everybody. There have been many problems of this sort. It’s no wonder that for some growers the temptation to sell is so attractive,” he says.
“They are saying they are never going to get rich growing vegetables so they might as well take the money and run. Our business is pretty hard and the problem is that the public thinks that vegetables should be cheap, but with all the protocols that we now have to go and through with food safety, health and safety and so on everything costs us money to do so you can't grow vegetables for nothing.”
Unfortunately, growers who sell up are unlikely to find new land as good as the property they sold. Both national and regional governments seem to ignore the fact that only 5% of land in NZ is deemed as suitable for commercial vegetable growing and that 20% of that is around Pukekohe. The elite soil in the area is an important strategic asset. Unfortunately, the population of the district is forecast to double in the next 30 years, meaning that much of the highly valuable scarce resource will be taken permanently out of production and Auckland’s food security, and hence its economic growth, will suffer.
“Some growers have gone out of business, others have moved away onto inferior land that can’t match the volcanic clay loams here that are capable of producing crop after crop after crop. Some people say that we are mining it and we are thrashing it but with proper management it recovers very easily,” says Stan.
“Other land may be inferior because the climate is less favourable and the soils are not as capable of producing continual heavy yields – they are too light and they can only crop once a year whereas the soils around here have been continually cropped and double cropped for many decades and there are no problems when well managed.”
Growers like Stan complain that the government and councils do not listen to them and are not interested. They are panicked by housing shortages and think only short term, ignore that future generations may have to eat imported vegetables that may not meet the food safety requirements imposed on local growers. “The biggest problem is the politicians – you can’t get them to look further ahead than their noses.”