Irrigators’ group launches initiative to engage more people with farming

The Waitaki Irrigators Collective Limited (WIC) has today launched a new social media campaign aimed at getting more people engaged with, and learning about, farming in New Zealand.
Called “Ask a Farmer,” the initiative invites members of the public to ask farmers questions about anything to do with farming life.
Policy Manager for the Waitaki Irrigators Collective (WIC), Elizabeth Soal, said that there seems to be a widening gap between the rural and urban communities in New Zealand, and social media has great potential to help bridge that gap. “Our population is becoming increasingly urbanised, and that means that fewer young people get to experience life on a farm, or have a good understanding about where their food comes from” said Ms Soal.
“For some people, it might be that the only exposure they have to farming is what they see through their car window as they drive down the state highway. We want to change that, and bring farming life to them through digital social media channels” said Ms Soal. “How many people have driven down State Highway One behind a strange-looking piece of farming equipment and wondered “what on earth does that thing do?” Or driven past a field and wondered what the crop is growing in it? We want to answer those sorts of questions” she said.
WIC is well placed to answer all kinds of questions about farming, as its farmer members have a diverse range of land uses, including horticulture, viticulture, dairying, sheep and beef farming, cropping, and deer farming. “Irrigation water is also used for sports fields, fire-fighting, supplying town and domestic water, and recreation areas” said Ms Soal. “We want to let the urban community know about all of this, and hopefully bring a bit of humour to it, as well” she said.
The launch video can be found on the WIC Facebook page, and questions can be left in the comments section of the page or by following WIC on Twitter using the hash-tag #askafarmer.

Water: North Otago’s Gold

North Otago agricultural consultant Keith Pheasant has recently released a fascinating book charting the development of irrigation in North Otago.

Water: North Otagos Gold opens with the commissioning of the North Otago Irrigation Company’s downlands scheme in 2006.  Keith describes this as “one of the final pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that has been the quest to bring water to Oamaru and North Otago over many years.”

The book then takes us back in time and follows the history of water use in the district, starting with construction of the Oamaru borough water race and the use of water in the Maerewhenua goldfields in the late 1800s.

Keith then leads the reader through the development of other water projects from the Waitaki: starting with the district’s rural water schemes followed by the Lower Waitaki irrigation scheme on the Waitaki plains; the (then) Upper Waitaki Community Irrigation Company, in the Kurow and Duntroon area; the Maerewhenua District Water Resource Company; irrigation from groundwater; and finally, full-circle back to the development of NOIC.

This book is a must for anyone interested in water management or the history of North Otago.  It illustrates how vital water has been to our community’s wellbeing and indeed how it is woven into the story of the Waitaki.

Copies of Water: North Otagos Gold can be ordered directly from Keith at

WIC produces films to encourage tree planting

Watch the Waitaki Irrigators Collective films on YouTube here:

The Waitaki Irrigators Collective Limited (WIC) has released three short films aimed at encouraging irrigating farmers to plant trees and integrate trees with irrigation infrastructure.  The films were made with the support of the Waitaki District Council from funding allocated to support projects that encourage the protection and enhancement of amenity and landscape values in the District.

WIC Policy Manager Elizabeth Soal said that the films were part of an ongoing programme to encourage tree planting that the Collective is undertaking.  “We have already produced a booklet for farmers with information about the benefits of trees and how to plan plantings, we have held an interactive workshop and field-day for local farmers, and now we are hoping to reach an even wider audience through the use of films” said Ms Soal.

“Trees bring benefits to the farm as well as the wider community, and we want to spread that message to all our members.  Introducing irrigation and changing infrastructure can mean trees are removed, but we’re encouraging farmers to retain as many trees as possible, as well as establish new plantings and consider other options, like creating wetlands” said Ms Soal.

The three films were shot on farms in the Waitaki District, and focus on the benefits of trees, planning and preparation; integrating trees with irrigation infrastructure; and planting along waterways and creating wetlands.

Waitaki District Council Planning Manager Peter Kloosterman said the Waitaki District Council is pleased to assist in this project, encouraging on-farm biodiversity and potentially creating areas of indigenous ecosystems.  “Last year Council adopted a Biodiversity Strategy and this project fits well with those goals,” says Mr Kloosterman.  “Council is committed to maintaining indigenous biodiversity and the work that is being done by the Waitaki Irrigators Collective and the farming community will contribute to this important goal.”

The films are also to be promoted through the Landcare Kakanui Community Catchment Project (KCCP).  Project Co-ordinator, Nicola Holmes said “the videos are an excellent resource to present messages on the value of enhancing environmental stewardship on farms.  Improving water quality, reducing soil erosion and increasing biodiversity are the cornerstones of the KCCP and the videos are both informative and motivating to encourage changes in some farming practices”.

Ms Soal said that the videos were produced with the assistance of Harriet Palmer, a contractor with significant experience producing similar films and projects for the New Zealand Farm Forestry Association.  “Harriet’s experience and skills were really invaluable in bringing the films to life” said Ms Soal.

Ms Palmer said “the videos clearly show that some Waitaki farmers are doing great things with trees on their properties and are reaping the benefits – for example better water quality, livestock shelter and shade, and increased biodiversity. The videos show what can be done with vision and hard work, and I hope they will encourage many other farmers to get out there and start planting.”

Waitaki Irrigators launch innovative water safety film


Children and water is a recipe that spells danger for the managers of irrigation scheme infrastructure.

 In a bid to reduce potential risks this summer, the Waitaki Irrigators Collective has funded an innovative water safety DVD which has been distributed to schools and swimming clubs in the Waitaki and Waimate Districts to warn local children and families about the dangers inherent in the scheme’s open race channels.

Lower Waitaki Irrigation Company Race Manager Ross Bishop says it’s the first time they’ve used animated characters to promote water safety, but he thinks they’re onto a winner.

 The nine-minute animated film tells the story of a brother and sister exploring the countryside when they come across an open race irrigation channel. Luckily Bobble the water safety character catches up with the pair before they get into trouble and the animated characters then discuss the dos and don’ts of water safety around water races.  Digital Media graduate Logan Adams created the film after Mr Bishop saw an opportunity to take a different approach to water safety.

 “We have always had a fear in our irrigation scheme because it is an open channel system. It’s a health and safety nightmare because of the siphons and drop structures and it’s really quite difficult to put physical barriers around the infrastructure. We’ve tried in the past and it’s caused huge problems. I’ve talked to race men from other schemes and they have similar fears,” says Mr Bishop.

 With a changing population in the district, Mr Bishop says it’s even more important irrigation scheme managers take a pro-active stance to warn people away from swimming in the races.

 “We are a more nomadic society now due to dairying and there are a lot of different families coming through, many of them are immigrants. The local school has increased its roll three-fold and some of these new people coming in are not totally aware of the situation.”

 Waitaki Irrigators Collective Policy Manager Elizabeth Soal says the DVD will be valuable for other open race schemes and their investment in the film – to the tune of several thousand dollars – is seen as an investment.

 “Given there have been some tragic events around water, we want to keep children in our district safe. We’ve got the DVD out before school finishes so they will see these messages before the weather gets really hot and they are out and about over the holidays.”

 Water Safety NZ previewed the DVD before the collective began distributing free copies to Waitaki and Waimate schools and Ms Soal has secured the support of the local principals association.

 As well as its educational programme, the Lower Waitaki scheme uses floating booms attached to red buoys to draw attention to the most dangerous parts of the canal network.

 “They are there as a kind of warning. If anyone falls in there’s also something there that they can grab onto,” says Mr Bishop.

 IrrigationNZ CEO Andrew Curtis says the Waitaki’s water safety DVD is another example of the connectiveness of irrigation schemes to their communities.

 “The DVD is an innovation that addresses a very real concern in our industry, which is how to ensure the safety of the public around irrigation scheme infrastructure. We think it’s a brilliant little film and applaud the Waitaki Irrigators Collective for coming up with this idea and funding its development,” says Mr Curtis. 

‘Intense’ El Nino event requires irrigators to plan now

IrrigationNZ says irrigating farmers need to plan now for how they will use their seasonal irrigation volumes as a severe El Nino could mean many farmers will run short of water half way through this season.

IrrigationNZ CEO Andrew Curtis was responding to NIWA’s prediction that the current El Nino pattern is on track to be ‘the second most intense since 1950’, with soils around the country drying out fast and irrigation in full swing as temperatures rise.

Guidelines released yesterday by Government urged farmers to use irrigation water efficiently and plan for water restrictions as they prepared for El Nino (

Mr Curtis says the focus for irrigators needs to be on spreading their water allocations further this season.

“Timing is everything in a marginal season. Irrigators need to start the season well and maintain consistent performance. Inefficient irrigation now will have a huge impact on whether your irrigation volume will see you through to March.”

“Irrigation scheduling is central to this, particularly now irrigators are limited in the water they have through seasonal volumes. With water meters in place, irrigating farmers should be keeping a close eye on what they are using, regularly reviewing soil moisture levels and crop requirements and applying water efficiently as possible. Off the back of another dry winter there’s no room for wastage or poor performance as every drop of water will be needed this summer. We recommend sitting down and planning your water budgets so you know exactly where you are at.”

Alongside appropriate irrigation scheduling, checking irrigation equipment is well maintained and performing to specification will minimise down-time, leakage or delivery problems, says Mr Curtis.

“Ensuring irrigators are working as they should guarantees you’re getting the best from the water you apply. Simple early season calibration checks can save a lot of water over the season and are a no-brainer to execute. Some systems may be 20-30% out and using more water than you need will shorten your irrigation budget significantly.”

As the season goes on, regular maintenance will be essential, says Mr Curtis.

“Checking pressure and sprinklers is recommended. Down the track when we get squeezed, water re-nozzling might help stretch out volumes for longer. Alternatively if you operate a number of irrigation systems plan ahead now to shut off the less efficient ones; long laterals in pivot corners for example, if water restrictions start to bite. That way you can continue to operate more efficient irrigators such as pivots and linear moves for longer.”

Mr Curtis says the key to surviving this summer will be all about preparation and support is available for irrigating farmers to arm themselves before El Nino worsens.

“Our website ( includes checklists and guidelines covering early season maintenance and we offer training workshops and resource books to upskill irrigators who need advice. Next month, we’ll also roll out a SMART Irrigation awareness campaign across much of Canterbury to remind farmers of the pathways to become SMART Irrigators. With an intense El Nino breathing down our neck and the depressed dairy price, it’s more relevant than ever to be talking about how we can save money, time and energy by moving towards more efficient and effective irrigation practice,” says Mr Curtis.

WIC launches tree planting guidelines

WIC has produced a guideline booklet for farmers wishing to undertake tree planting on irrigated farms.  The guideline was launched at a “trees on farms” workshop, held in conjunction with the New Zealand Farm Forestry Association, with support from the Ministry for Primary Industries and the Tane’s Tree Trust.  The workshop included presentations covering what to consider when planting trees, species selection, and the role of trees and plantings in nutrient management.  2014 Ballance Farm Environmental Award winner Mark Slee discussed the role trees play on he and his wife’s Devon’s mid-Canterbury dairy farm.  Participants then visited Kokoamo Farms near Duntroon, to hear from farmers Matt and Julie Ross about their extensive plantings and future plans.  Sally Brown from Blueskin Nurseries and Julie also demonstrated effective planting and maintenance techniques at Matt and Julie’s created wetland.

The guideline provides some basic information on planting in riparian areas (next to rivers and streams), creating wetlands, and planting around pivot irrigators.  It also advises where farmers can go for more information.  An electronic copy of the guideline is available through this website (see the “community and environment” page), or a hard copy can be ordered by phoning 03 434 5472 or emailing


Riparian planting on the Waikakahi Stream, a north bank tributary of the Waitaki River.

Sally Brown (left) and Julie Ross demonstrate planting and maintenance techniques at Kokoamo Farm.

Sally Brown (left) and Julie Ross demonstrate planting and maintenance techniques at Kokoamo Farms.


Dry period highlights the importance of reliable irrigation supply

North Otago and South Canterbury are experiencing the driest conditions in many years, which starkly demonstrates the importance of reliable irrigation water for the districts, says Policy Manager for the Waitaki Irrigators Collective, Elizabeth Soal.

Rainfall figures were extremely low for the second half of 2014 – with some months seeing only a third of average rainfall, “but within the Collective, there are 80,000 hectares receiving reliable supply via the hydro lakes’ storage, which provides the region with a level of economic resilience which may be absent in other areas” said Ms Soal.

“We’ve had a very dry spring followed by a dry summer – it’s a reminder that North Otago/South Canterbury is one of the most drought-prone areas in the country, but its highly productive when water is available” said Ms Soal.

Many of the South Island’s East Coast rivers have restrictions in place on them, which reduce the amount of water that can be used for irrigation.  “Thankfully in the Waitaki, we have the most reliable water in the country – nearly 100 per cent – which means our farmers are able to continue to contribute to our local and national economies” said Ms Soal.  “If the irrigation schemes in the lower Waitaki were to have their reliability reduced through changes to planning rules and regulations, the districts could be suffering now” said Ms Soal.

The Collective’s chairman, Fraser McKenzie, emphasises that “farmers in the district are used to, and extremely good at, farming under dry conditions.  But without reliable water, there will be significant lost opportunities, for example as farmers sell capital stock they would otherwise hold on to for longer” said Mr McKenzie.

This is echoed by Chair of the Waitaki Independent Irrigators Incorporated Society, Reuben Allan: “this is the year that we really appreciate how great the Waitaki river system is. Reliable water equals maximum growth which equals maximum opportunity. Even those with irrigation are having to look at fine tuning their systems as those that aren’t operating at the highest level of efficiency are showing it. Very tough years like this affect the whole community, not just farmers” said Mr Allan.

Geoff Keeling, who owns a 1600 cow dairy operation near Duntroon, and is Chairman of the Kurow-Duntroon Irrigation Company, says that his farm “requires reliable and secure feed supply 365 days of the year. An irrigation supply with high reliability and operational efficiency is the most essential ingredient to this” said Mr Keeling.

Farmers are concerned that there will be a shortage of winter feed for stock, as supplies were provided and supplemented largely by dryland blocks, but this year dryland yields are likely to be well down on previous years, partly due to premature ripening, according to Lower Waitaki Irrigation Company Chairman and cropping farmer, Chris Dennison.  “Winter feed crops require moisture now as they start to bulk up” said Mr Dennison.

North Otago Irrigation Company Chief Executive, Robyn Wells, notes how economically important reliable water is, particularly now when the dry period is coupled with lower dairy payouts and slipping commodity prices.  “Reliability also gives farmers the confidence to manage their water efficiently, which can bring better environmental outcomes through just-in-time irrigation based on soil moisture deficits, rather than irrigating in anticipation of future restrictions.  Not only that, but not having to worry about water reduces stress and therefore improves farmers’ mental wellbeing” said Ms Wells.

Ikawai dairy farmer, Gert van’t Klooster, a shareholder of the Morven, Glenavy, Ikawai Irrigation Company says that “without reliable irrigation we would be destocking now and drying cows off, as well as feeding supplements made for the following autumn to spring” which would then have significant effects on operations later in the year.  “Reliable irrigation gives you the opportunity to farm the soil to its potential without the limiting  factor of a shortage of water – it gives you  the certainty to farm in the black and gives you the possibility to be green” said Mr van’t Klooster.

Ms Soal notes that although there has been some rain this week, unless it continues steadily for a long period, it will provide little relief for dryland farmers, and those with unreliable water supply.


Contrasting dry-land and irrigated land in the Waitaki. Courtesy of Caswell Images


Contrasting dry-land and irrigated land in the Waitaki. Courtesy of Caswell Images


Contrasting dry-land and irrigated land in the Waitaki. Courtesy of Caswell Images

The challenging issue of irrigation on Prince Edward Island

The economy of Prince Edward Island, in Canada’s east coast maritime provinces, is dependent to a large degree on its primary sector. Fishing, aquaculture, and agriculture produce the majority of the province’s gross domestic product. The largest agricultural sector is potato growing.


The potatoes grown are both table supply and supply for processing into end products such as potato chips and French fries. Irrigation is already used in the potato industries, and is considered ‘supplemental’, as the island receives a regular supply of rainfall. Although it is variable across the Island, average precipitation is 1100 millimetres per year. Irrigation is not used every season, and when it is, it is only at certain critical times of the potato growing cycle. Sometimes this is necessary to ensure that the potatoes grown are of a suitable size, shape, and quality for the processing companies. In many years, only 50 millimetres of irrigation is applied in a season.


Irrigation water is sourced primarily from groundwater, although there is also some surface water abstraction.


Prince Edward Island is entirely reliant on groundwater for its drinking water. The deepest drinking water wells are at a depth of around 800 metres, but the most productive wells are less than 200 metres in depth. Most private bores for drinking water extend to a depth of around 60 metres. Although the Island abstracts a fairly high volume of groundwater for irrigation, drinking water, aquaculture, and food processing, its aquifer levels are maintained through extremely high recharge rates. Thirty four per cent of precipitation goes directly to groundwater recharge.


In 2002, in order to limit the amount of groundwater which can be abstracted, the Provincial government paced a moratorium on new groundwater abstraction for irrigation purposes.


In order to ensure that there is adequate water supply for irrigation during the critical growth phases, there have been requests to allow for further abstraction of groundwater from deep groundwater sources, using ‘high capacity’ wells which draw water at a rate of up to 50 litres per second. These requests have been led by a producing and processing company, Cavendish Farms who have requested that the government lift the moratorium.


The Ministry for the Environment’s abstraction policy which calculated the amount of water that can be withdrawn was previously related to the amount of recharge. In 2013, in response to some community concerns around the effects of increased abstraction should the moratorium be lifted, a new policy was developed which linked the amount of water available for abstraction to the effects of abstraction on connected surface water stream flows. However, this new policy has not alleviated the community concerns, and many on both sides of the debate are unconvinced as to the accuracy of the scientific modelling of the aquifers which has been undertaken.


It should be noted that irrigation for agricultural purposes only accounts for one percent of the Island’s groundwater abstraction, with the same amount of water being abstracted for the watering of golf courses, thirty percent used for industry and food processing, and sixty percent used for residential purposes. No moratorium applies to abstraction for any of these other water uses, and are still granted.


A complicating factor is that nitrate levels in the Island’s groundwater is increasing. A government appointed commission to examine the issues of nitrates made a series of recommendations to the government in 2009 as to how nitrate rates should be reduced. There have been some improvements in farming practices in recent years, due to programmes such as the Alternative Land Use Services programme, which provides financial incentives to farmers to undertake actions above and beyond basic compliance, in consideration for the provision ecological goods and services. This programme is cost-shared between the Federal and Provincial governments.


The government has also supported the development of Community Watershed Planning Groups, to undertake stream enhancement projects across eighty per cent of the Island’s 255 watersheds.


Despite these good processes, water quality issues remain concerning, with anoxic events occurring frequently in the Island’s estuaries, and fish kills occurring due to pesticide contamination.


In order to address all of these thorny issues, the Provincial government has announced that it intends to legislate in the form of a new Water Act. Ostensibly, the policy direction and content of the Act has not yet been determined, rather it is intended that the Act will reflect the will of the community. A third party is to be engaged to lead an extensive process of community consultation, the outcomes of which will inform the content of the legislation. As well as setting new rules around abstraction, the Act could include regulations around nutrient management to control nitrates entering ground and surface water.


The government is attempting to bridge the gap between public opinion on the one hand, and the need to support economic development through support for the Island’s largest employer.


Winston Churchill Fellowship to Canada – water management, farming practices, and research programmes

As Policy Manager for the Waitaki Irrigators Collective, I have been fortunate to have been made a 2014 Churchill Fellow and was awarded a travel grant from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.


I am using my travel grant to journey to Canada, to spend some time in most of the country’s provinces, learning about the Canadian approach to water management, various assessments of beneficial farming practices, and integrated research programmes. The Canadian Water Network (CWN) links different groups together in various watersheds to develop programmes and assessments of all issues related to water management. The CWN are hosting my trip, and have been very generous with their time and support in helping me develop my itinerary and linking me up with people on the ground.


My journey started in New Brunswick, where I spent time touring the nuclear power facility at Point Lepreau with the New Brunswick Energy Institute, followed by time with New Brunswick government representatives who showed me the new dam and reservoir at Turtle Creek which provides municipal water supply to the town of Moncton. I then visited a New Brunswick dairy farm, where I learnt about the dyke system which prevents the inundation of farmland from the high tidal bores experienced in the Bay of Fundy. I explained the dyke system in more detail in my first post.


Following New Brunswick, I moved on to Prince Edward Island (PEI) where issues around water quality and the use of groundwater for supplemental irrigation are creating considerable debate amongst the local community. My next report will be on irrigation in the potato industry on PEI. My trip to the island was made more exciting by the arrival of the post-Hurricane Arthur storm which hit the Atlantic seaboard of the USA and Canada! Power went out on much of the Island for several hours and a large number of trees and property were damaged.


I then went on to Ottawa, where I will be met with various groups, including the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, Agriculture and Ari-Food Canada, the Canadian Federation of Dairy Farmers, and the Ottawa Riverkeeper. I also be met with an academic and writer, and the New Zealand High Commissioner and our First Trade Secretary for Trade and Economy. I was able to spend time with a representative from the South Nation watershed Conservation Authority, when I learnt about their nutrient trading programme, which is made successful through their incentive funding for the implementation of farm management practices to reduce nutrient runoff.


Following on from there, I have been to Toronto and regional Ontario, and I will then be going on to Manitoba, Alberta, and finally British Columbia. I will try and provide regular updates on this site about what I have learned, including case study reports like the one on the dyke system.


Thanks to all those who have supported me so far on my trip, and I hope you enjoy reading about my travels and experiences.


Elizabeth Soal

The New Brunswick dyke system: 300 years of water management


During the Acadian settlement of New Brunswick during the 1700s, in the Atlantic Maritimes area of Canada, the settlers recognised the productive potential of the clay soils adjacent to the Petitcodiac River. This land provided a much more stable soil base from which to farm, compared to the more mobile soils in the rolling downloads further from the River.

However, the Petitcodiac River is not like any we know of in New Zealand. It drains into the Bay of Fundy which, due to its unique funnel shape, creates the highest tides in the world. The tides near Moncton are known as tidal bores. The incoming tide creates a wave down the river, historically up to nearly two metres high. The tide’s sheer size and speed would create an audible roar, and would travel upstream at an average velocity of 13 kilometres per hour. This tide would inundate the fertile land on the riparian margins. Conversely, the retreating tide leaves the entire fairway in a condition more akin to an estuary than a river. The tidal events became a significant tourist attraction and curiosity.

In order to prevent the daily inundation, the settlers built a system of hydraulically controlled dykes, which would prevent the tidal flood, but would still allow water to drain off the farmland in times of heavy rain. The system proved highly effective, and the dykes continued to work as flood control mechanism for over 200 years. The ultra-high tides that occurred annually would over-top the dykes and so some natural inundation remained. The stable soils mean that there is little in the way of run-off, despite its close proximity to the River.

However, in the 1960s, it was determined at a political level that there must be a better, more permanent

solution could be developed. Where the River passes through the city of Moncton, a large causeway and dam structure was built to allow traffic to cross the River, and stop the tide before it reached the farmland upstream. Initially, this seemed to be an effect solution. However, the Petitcodiac River is naturally very high in silt, and much of this was carried up the River by the tide as suspended sediment.

The introduction of the causeway meant that this silt could no longer be distributed over a wide area of river bed, and instead it started to build up on the downstream side of the causeway at a rate of 1cm per high tide or 2cm per day.

This gradual build-up of sediment meant that the River could no longer perform in any way close to its natural function. The Moncton bore was reduced to a normal tidal event, with little wave and no sound. It was felt widely that something important had been lost.

In 2010, the dam was permanently opened, and the dykes again became crucial structures for flood control. The sediment loads in the River bed are reducing, and the tidal bore is now able to be surfed! The causeway remains, but it will likely be replaced in the future by an alternative transport route, likely a bridge.

Geological movement means this part of New Brunswick is sinking, whilst climate change increases sea levels. The dyke system may become even more important for protecting New Brunswick’s productive farmland than ever before.

An interesting aspect of the system is that maintenance of the dykes rests with the provincial government, rather than the landholder on whose land the dyke exists and protects. The Province recognises the importance of the dyke system to its economic wellbeing, and maintains a management partnership with its farming community.