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Returning Marginal Farmland to Nature

On a family sheep and beef farm near Te Puke, marginal agricultural land is being given back to nature.

One tree at a time.

Henry Whyte, a raised-on-the-farm ecologist, is leading this ambitious project and on a recent crisp autumn morning, he took Fertco on a tour of the farm to see regenerative agriculture in action.

Henry’s company EcoResto works with farmers and landowners in the Bay of Plenty to identify sections of land that are degraded, unproductive, or expensive to manage, and transform them into sustainable natural assets.

This particular project starts at the headwaters of the Ohui Stream.

The stream emerges from a pocket of old growth forest on the farm and runs from one end of the property to the other.

The surrounding gully is currently a patchwork of hilly pasture, pine forest, and isolated areas of remnant native bush.

Some sections of the land were previously planted in pine, harvested, and then converted back into pasture.

“But it's just low-productivity land,” Henry explained.

“It's steep, it's difficult country, you can't get machinery in here to farm it. So, you know, it’s had those various land uses, but none of them are fantastic.”

And so the gully surrounding the Ohui Stream has now been earmarked for native bush regeneration.

It has been fenced off from stock, pest plants are being removed, and native plants reintroduced.

“We're starting with mānuka. Mānuka’s great. It’s a pioneer species, the trees grow up quickly, stabilise the soil and introduce nitrogen. They're also a great nurse crop that'll create a nice environment for canopy tree species to establish later on,” Henry said.

“We are fortunate here because we do have some reference sites around the place that we can go to and say, well, māhoe grows here, kāmahi grows here, we've got some rimu, we've got a lot of rewarewa. So basically we're using those reference sites as a guide for what we're going to plant here. And it's just as simple as following what nature does already.”

For projects like this to work, however, they need to make sense economically. Henry knows that.

“As idealistic as I might be, I know that if the numbers don’t stack up, then any project is a no-go,” he said.

With that challenge in mind, EcoResto helps farmers and landowners access funding and programmes that minimise costs and generate revenue.

This farm project near Te Puke received support from the local district council, the regional council, as well as central government, including the One Billion Trees programme.

Henry said there are also economic benefits associated with transforming unproductive land.

“Streams and riparian margins typically don't make good farmland,” he said.

“The terrain is often steep, difficult to access, prone to erosion, it's hard to apply fertilisers and agrochemicals, and it's difficult for stock management. This makes them the most expensive areas to farm productively.”

He said well-fenced, planted riparian margins, on the other hand, do a great job of reducing issues such as erosion, sedimentation, run-off, and stock loss.

“They also serve as valuable ecological corridors that connect up the countryside. We think that giving the marginal agricultural land back to nature allows farmers to dedicate their limited resources to the best parts of their farms, making them more productive.”

Water quality in streams and rivers will also likely improve as a result, and that can have a positive far reaching flow-on effect.

At the edge of the farm, the Ohui Stream joins the Ōhineangaanga Stream, which flows down through Te Puke, into the Kaituna River, and then down through Maketū Estuary.

“So this is where it all starts,” Henry said.

“And, you know, if we look after the water quality on this little section of our stream, we've improved the water quality the whole way down. We didn't solve all the problem, but we solved our part of the puzzle.”

And that's what projects like this are all about. That's what EcoResto is all about – planting one tree at a time, fencing off one section of a stream, then another, until the puzzle pieces start to fit together.

“Farmers love their land,” Henry said.

“You know, they love their animals, they want to look after it. They intuitively understand the idea of sustainability. Because if you don't plan for the future, you know, what you're doing now is worthless.”

Fertco is proud to support regenerative planting and regenerative agriculture initiatives throughout New Zealand. You can find out more about EcoResto here.


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