It's fair to say that while Ngai Tahu has had an increasing influence in the South Island economy in recent times, its participation in the commercial agriculture boom has been minimal up to now.
However, that is changing as it converts its vast tracts of plantation forestry land in North Canterbury into dairy paddocks, which could eventually make it one of the biggest dairy farmers in the country. But more importantly it aims to be a leader in sustainable dairying.
In the 15 years or so since its $170 million Treaty of Waitangi settlement with the Crown, Ngai Tahu has successfully grown its asset base to around $1 billion, mainly through investment in property, fishing and tourism.
A 6700ha block of the Eyrewell Forest on the north bank of the Waimakariri River was bought in 2000 at market value under provisions of the settlement. As well as the land at Eyrewell, Ngai Tahu also bought more than 9300ha of the Balmoral Forest further north, close to the big dairying area around Culverden.
So potentially the tribe has 15,000ha available for conversion to dairy farming, dairy support or other farming types in the two areas.
However because water quality for mahinga kai (customary food gathering) and other cultural and environmental aspects are vital considerations for tribal members, the move to dairying is being approached cautiously.
In 2010, Ngai Tahu Property was given a mandate by the wider tribe to develop three pilot dairy farms at Eyrewell. It was seen as necessary to produce the evidence to show tribal members that large scale dairying could be sustainable and not a threat to customary practices and traditions.
At the same time a mana whenua working party was established, made up of members of Ngai Tahu hapu (sub tribes) who have mana whenua (authority) over the Waimakariri and Hurunui catchments where the Eyrewell and Balmoral developments would occur.
This group advises on cultural, environmental and social aspects of the catchments to make sure Ngai Tahu values are recognised and provided for in the developments.
In parallel a dairy advisory group, including people from Lincoln University and the South Island Dairy Development Centre, has been advising on setting best practice standards.
The three adjacent farms developed so far total 1250ha, of which 85 per cent is irrigated. They are running 3750 cows, which are milked through three 64-bale rotary sheds.
Key measures that will be undertaken in the Ngai Tahu- Lincoln University partnership are the installation of 40 lysimeters on the farm to directly measure nutrient movement, in particular nitrate, through the soil profile, and a project which puts more than 150ha aside for the establishment of native ecosystems on the farms.
Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu deputy chairwoman Lisa Tumahai says hard work has gone into ensuring best practice on the farms.
"We're all prepared to go that step further to make sure what we do is right. We're cautious in our approach to farming because we want to safeguard the waterways.
Clare Williams, who is chairwoman of Ngai Tuahuriri hapu which has authority over the area and is a member of the mana whenua working party, says the main concern is nutrient levels in waterways. "We don't want our farms to adversely affect our waterways because that's where we get our kai from.
"We've really drilled down into the detail of what's happening on-farm to ensure we are doing best practice."
Lincoln University chancellor, Environment Canterbury Commissioner and former Federated Farmers president Tom Lambie says the ECan land and water plan, which commissioners signed off on a few days previously, for the first time put nutrient limits on farming. "The collaboration today is really at the forefront of the things we've been talking about."
When the lysimeters are in place it will be the most sophisticated monitoring system on any commercial farm in New Zealand, he says.
The biodiversity programme on the Ngai Tahu farms showed great vision. "What you will see in five, 10 and 20 years' time will be amazing. I'm really excited to be here."
Environment Minister Amy Adams supports the partnership. She says farmers can't grow and intensify without thinking much more carefully about what they do.
The approach the Government has taken is not, like most places overseas, to tell farmers what to do with their land, but to mitigate the effects of what they do. "That supports much more innovation. To get that to function, a partnership like this is crucial."
Head of the biodiversity programme, Professor Nicholas Dickinson, says biodiversity will be very much a part of the future of dairy farming.
"Biodiversity is not just about looking nice. We will show biodiversity improving the quality of water and soil."
Out in the paddock, Professor Keith Cameron explains how a lysimeter works. He says the 40 lysimeters will be installed on the property this month for the first measurements in May.
"The aim is to get good sustainable production and at the same time protection for the environment." Fairfax NZ
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