Saturday, April 30, 2011

Owen McShane: The Role of Soils in the Roadblocks to Productivity

Now that I live in the countryside I tend to listen to “Rural Report” and similar programmes on radio. A few Saturday mornings ago I was intrigued by a “Country Life” interview with Ian Kerr, who raises hydroponic lettuce near Lake Karapiro in the Waipa District. It seems to be a nice little business, and a demonstration of how knowledge and skill contributes to productivity and efficiency. As I recall, Mr Kerr grows ten crops of about 10,000 lettuces a year within his hydroponic greenhouse – obviously a highly productive operation on his 60 acre farmlet.

Unsurprisingly, towards the end of the interview the reporter asked if Mr Kerr had plans for expansion. He obviously had plenty of room to expand, both on his land, and in the market place. Mr Kerr explained that while he had plans for all manner of activities, including expansion and diversification of his hydroponic farming, he could not realize them because of the rules in the Waipa District Plan. 

Like many rural Plans, this document is besotted with the need to protect so-callled “productive soils” against misuse, fragmentation, excavation and cover-up.

Consequently, the rules place strong limits on “non-farming” rural activities. And yes, hydroponic growing is a non-farming activity because:
·      the lettuce do not have their roots in proper “productive soil”:
·      the operation covers up “real soil”, and
·      prevents the soil being used for productive farming use.

Mr Kerr is allowed to use only100 m2 of his farm, as explained in the following rule:
2.4.9 RULE – Size of Activities
Activities shall not exceed the following standards: 
a) The aggregate floor area of buildings and/or land area used for the non-farming activity shall not exceed 100m2 provided that this condition shall not apply to that part of a dwellinghouse used solely for residential activity.
So where does Mr Kerr have his office?
b) The number of persons engaged in the activity at any one time on the site shall not exceed five persons.
Who cares about rural employment?

These rules are intended to support the following objective:
Prime Agricultural Land
In order to protect the intrinsic productive potential of prime agricultural land, activities which would permanently reduce that potential are discouraged or excluded from the Rural Zone. Effects on prime agricultural land such as soil coverage and/or compaction will only be acceptable where they are necessary for the effective use of the land by a lawfully established activity.
Mr Kerr explained that he had looked into applying for a Discretionary Activity so as to extend his “non-farming activity” but when he found it could cost $15,000 to $30,000 dollars, with no guarantee of success, he naturally flagged it away.

So the rest of his land lies idle.

These regulatory restraints on production and productivity are bad enough, but, as is so often the case with planning lore, these rules, and the attitudes that support them, are totally without foundation.

The RMA makes no reference to "productive soils" requiring only that we “safeguard the life-supporting capacity of air, water, soil (not land) and ecosystems; and … .”

After all, there is no such thing as productive land – agricultural or otherwise. Only human beings are productive. So how can land have an “intrinsic productive potential” given that “intrinsic” means independent of human value? Production and productivity are “instrumental values” because they depend on a human measure or application.

There is no case for ranking soils by fertility in such Plans because many crops do not thrive in highly fertile soils – grapes, olives and truffles come to mind.

The Waipa Plan’s obsession with protecting rural land from “unauthorized farm activities” even extends to moving soil off a farm (where it is presumably of high value) because it is typically moved to an urban garden – where apparently it is rendered immediately sterile and useless. So much for “Dig for Victory.” In the real world the topsoil in the garden may well be used to grow flowers that feed the bees that fertilise the farmers’ crops – but who cares about the bees? 

Here is the Plan's “Justification (3.1)” for these rules:
The removal of topsoil from a site removes a valuable natural resource, generally to urban gardens, and has an adverse effect on the sustainable management of the rural land resource and should be avoided wherever possible.
The removal of top-soil can always be avoided. So the Plan actually says it is “impossible.”

The Productivity Commission has a hard time ahead of it because District Plans are full of restraints based on similar economic mythology, and which are never tested before they are dumped on the unsuspecting landowners of the District or Region.

1 comment:

Sally O'Brien said...

My heading for this item would be Soiling Private Property Rights