It’s fair to say that Gray Baldwin is a man of the land. Overseeing a 290ha dairy farm in the heart of Putaruru, with rolling hills dotted with cows and lined with fences, Gray and his wife Marilyn are a picture of quintessential Kiwi farming. Both are steeped in farming tradition: Gray’s father and grandfather were sheep and beef farmers in the heyday of sheep farming in New Zealand, while Marilyn was born and bred on a dairy farm in the Manuwatu. Now they live in a home atop a hill, complete with gravel road, pet lamb out the back, and gumboots lined up at the back door.

While the scene is picturesque, Gray and Marilyn—like all New Zealand farmers—are at the centre of a matrix of responsibilities. Managing profitable farming practices while caring for the ecology that sustains their livelihood, and finding the modern balance between farming tradition and a growing consumer influence on the ethics of the industry.

The first problem? Those cows dotting the hills, or more specifically, what comes out of them, and where it goes. Grazing stock leave manure and urine, rich in nitrates and phosphates on the paddocks. When it rains, these nutrients wreck havoc on surrounding waterways, and the ecosystems that depend on them. While effluent from the sheds and barns is captured and turned into fertiliser, runoff from the fields will flow into the Pokaiwhenua Stream, and ultimately the Waikato River. The Baldwins are on a mission to fix it.

“If you were a farmer a hundred years ago, and a little bit of effluent [ended up in the river] it wouldn’t matter a sausage because it’d flow down to the ocean in around three days,” says Gray. “Now it takes months for water to get through the Waikato River system.”

Nine hydro dams have changed the flow of the Waikato River. Combined with pipelines that now deliver an increasing amount of Auckland’s water supply northward, you’ve got an entirely different environment that Gray says they have to take into account when thinking about the impact their waste will have on the water system.

“1.5 million Aucklanders wanting a clean shower versus 600 farmers [in the district] trying to make a living? Unless we change what we do now, we will not be farming here, doing what we’ve done for years, particularly dairying.”

With this challenge in mind, the Baldwins have started a journey to restore the natural wetlands on their property, to stay ahead of eventual government intervention they expect will see legislation specify levels of nitrate a farm can have in runoff.

Where others have sought improvements by restricting the number of stock, or holding animals in sheds, Gray and Marilyn are first looking to the land; specifically the swampy wetland terrain that Gray calls the “lungs of the land.”

Wetlands are not particularly beloved. Along with marshes and swamps, they’re often synonymous with dangers, delays, and problems. But their thick mats of plants and water catch waste water, breaking down its chemicals and runoff­—processing, absorbing, and neutralising pollutants before they flow into the river system.

On farms all over New Zealand, previous generations of farmers drained the wetlands on their farms, turning swamps into flat paddocks—maximising grazing pasture and tidying up the landscape. This practice has been so widespread in rural and urban settings that over the past 100 years, New Zealand has lost 90% of its wetlands.

Now the thinking is beginning to change. Farmers, like everyone, are beginning to think about ways they can best counteract environmental damage. Inspired by advice from acclaimed environmentalist Gordon Stephenson, who visited their farm and saw the potential of the low-lying paddock as a restored wetland, the Baldwins decided to test the theory—and measure how much the wetlands could do in the fight against farm runoff.

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The Baldwins’ reinstated wetlands cover just over one percent of their farmland: seven interconnected ponds nestled at base of the surrounding hills.

The ponds are planted with 12,500 wetland plants funded in collaboration through Dairy NZ, the Waikato River Authority, and the Waikato Regional Council, as well as various environmental groups, interested researchers, and local iwi.

When it rains, the runoff flows down the hills, through the water catchment that streams down the centre of the farm and into the first of the ponds. There it’s caught in its tracks, straining through the thick web of plants which digest and filter the nitrates and phosphates from the water, before the rush meets the river.

The National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research (NIWA) has put $30,000 monitors at the start and finish of the pond process—to measure nitrate levels going in and coming out—which will give an indication of the effectiveness of the wetland project.

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NIWA Principal Scientist Dr Chris Tanner says the Baldwins’ project is going to be helpful in understanding just how effective a wetland project can be: at present there’s very little information about exactly how much they can reduce nitrate levels. There is curiosity across the industry about how restored wetlands might serve farmers, but farmers are cautious, especially given how much money has been spent on converting them into useful paddocks.

Dr Tanner says it’s all about changing perspectives, and increasing understanding. “I think there’s real value not only in [Gray and Marilyn] doing what they’re doing, but also getting some information to help other people to quantify the performance of the system. [It will] help other farmers and even regulatory agencies to give farmers credit for the value of wetlands in improving the water quality.”

With so few wetland projects out there, Dr Tanner says all eyes are on these experiments, with proponents eager to get verified data that would encourage farmers to return to nature’s water filters, to help them clean up the waterways.

“If [farmers] change their thinking around, they can say ‘Well [this patch of land] could be more valuable to me as [an effluent] mitigation option than it would be spending a lot of money trying to make it into a high producing little bit of pasture.’”

The tension of working the land profitably and sustainably is just one of the many delicate balancing acts farmers need to perform.

With modern consumers ever more aware of the ethical ramifications of their purchasing power, farmers are grappling with a merry-go-round of expectations, from consumers that don’t necessarily know the full impact of their demands on farming practice.

To illustrate this point, Gray shares the story of his neighbour, a farmer who responded to market demand for free-range eggs; making a huge investment to bring his hens out of the barn. 

“The chooks, in the interest of animal welfare are being taken outside, and causing an environmental mess, because they poop all over the land and it gets washed into the river. And on dairy farms here and overseas, farmers are building million-dollar barns, pouring all this concrete, with a massive carbon footprint, to take the cows into the barn [to minimise excrement on the land], which becomes what? A compromise to animal welfare. Cows prefer to be ‘free range.’”

The Baldwins have a similar story to share. Before the global financial crisis hit, the word on everyone’s lips was “organic.” Fonterra heralded the opportunity, offering a big premium for organic dairy products. Gray and Marilyn grabbed the bull by the horns and became a fully organic dairy farm for seven years, before deciding it wasn’t for them.

The biggest deterrent? The environmental impact.

For a farm to be certified organic, farmers have to jump through a lot of hoops. For instance, there can be no tanalised timber used in structures on the farm, meaning that large scale organic farmers replace treated wood with unnecessary amounts of concrete, which has a larger ecological footprint. Add to this the fuel burned to truck in specialist supplements and detergent to use in farm management, the amount of coal burnt in the sterilisation of milk processing plants, and the environmental impact of one organic milk truck driving all over the North Island each day to collect milk from a few organic farms. Going organic turned out to be a venture the Baldwins didn’t think was environmentally or economically sustainable, even before Fonterra cut the premiums.

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Part of this expense and inefficiency could be tagged to the small number of farmers willing to get on board—if every farmer was certified organic, then the efficiencies of the entire dairy system would cut out the waste required to sustain a niche industry. Gray notes that a lot of farmers tend to be of the “wait and see” frame of mind. The Baldwins, however, are no strangers to being alone in their way of doing things. They also only milk their cows once a day, which they believe is both kinder to the animals and yields better results in the long term, as they don’t lose as much weight in the Spring, meaning they can be back in calf sooner. While this makes them somewhat of a curiosity in the dairy industry, Gray thinks a big reason why twice-daily milking is the norm across New Zealand is simply because people think “that’s how it’s always been done.”

The Baldwins don’t approach anything with a “but that’s how we’ve always done it” approach

For them, finding innovative ways to marry commercial and environmental sustainability is not just a nice “to-have,” it’s an imperative.

After all, for Gray and Marilyn this isn’t just a business, they’re hoping to pass on a legacy.

As Gray says, “My definition of sustainability is ‘can we be doing it in a hundred years time?’ I see us as trying to have the benefits of a profitable commercial dairy farm but realising we have to change the way we do it if we’re going to carry on.”

Gray and Marilyn are acutely aware of the ethical and environmental challenges facing New Zealand’s producers and consumers, and they are looking for ways to change what they do to protect the life they love, in an industry that helped establish our country. But while forging ahead with a wetland project that may carve out a fresh path for farmers across the country, the dreams dearest to Gray’s heart are a little closer to home… “I’d like my kids and grandkids to have the chance to go farming.”

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Hannah Bartlett

Hannah is a journalist for NZME, working in the Newstalk ZB newsroom. She recently finished her postgraduate journalism studies at AUT, after spending a number of years working in communications. With experience in the non-profit sector in the United States, Hannah has a strong interest in civic education and social justice. When she’s not juggling the early mornings and late nights of radio journalism, she enjoys getting caught up in crime novels, and watching Christmas movies all year round.