Fieldays - farming for the future

Farmers visiting Fieldays at Mystery Creek in June could not have missed the take-home message: that science and innovation are key to their continued success.

Science featured strongly among displays, stalls and talks: from introducing dung beetles or growing plantain to reduce nitrogen leaching, to deer milking, take-home kits for laboratory soil testing, and robots that autonomously navigate kiwifruit orchards to capture fruit data.

From a humble start in 1968 at the Te Rapa racecourse, Fieldays is now the largest agribusiness event in the Southern Hemisphere. It attracts more than 130,000 visitors from all over the world. In celebration of its 50th anniversary, this year’s theme was the “future of farming” – focusing on agricultural innovations and ideas. The organisers kicked off a discussion on what New Zealand’s farming’s future will look like.

Understanding future farming scenarios is the focus of NIWA’s work on climate change adaptation for rural communities. NIWA’s Fieldays site showcased a range of climate-based services that help farmers and growers make confident and informed operational decisions, such as when and where to irrigate, fertilise, spray, harvest and move stock.

NIWA’s Chief Scientist, Climate, Atmosphere and Hazards,
Dr Sam Dean says that by making sound choices now, and in the future, farmers can adapt, increase resilience, and reduce risks and costs for themselves and future owners of their farms.

“If we are to build a more resilient, better-prepared agricultural sector, we need to make decisions informed by good knowledge and science,” he says.

Dean says while farmers are known for their resilience and adaptability, climate change will go beyond any previous experience they’ve had. It will increase the likelihood of extreme weather events that cause flooding, drought, and erosion. These will affect almost all on-farm activities, including harvest times, crop choice, productivity, irrigation, groundwater recharge, and pasture growth.

“Climate change effects are accelerating. Farmers understand significant change is coming, and some of it is now inevitable – so planning how to adapt and thrive is a priority.

“Optimising current farming practices, informed by good science, is one of the most effective adaptation strategies,” Dean says.

Computer games

Farmers visiting the NIWA site were able to find out what climate change might look like on their own farm, using highly detailed computer graphics.

An inventive table top board game helped them explore different climate scenarios and pathways they could take to mitigate or realise potential opportunities from a changing climate on their own farms.

The ‘Climate Adaptation Challenge’ game works a bit like Monopoly. One version of the game was created for dairy farming and the other representing a dry stock farm. Using 3D-printed pieces and specially-designed NIWA play money, players were encouraged to make decisions about their own farming practices, in response to expected increases in extreme rainfall brought on by climate change.

Each player rolled a 12-sided dice to simulate 10 years on the farm. Three sides of the dice represent 'severe flood', four 'high flood' and five 'no event'. Players used the 'pathways approach' to explore, develop and implement strategies to address climate impacts, without compromising or shutting off other options.

Ari, Kalarni and Nikau Henman from Awakeri playing the Climate Adaptation Challenge at NIWA Fieldays 2018. [Photo: Sarah Fraser]

Climate Change Minister James Shaw plays the Climate Adaptation Challenge with NIWA's Rob Bell, Paula Blackett, Susie Elcock, Stephen Fitzherbert and Stu Mackay looking on. [Photo: Sarah Fraser]

‘Pathways thinking’ is a strategic planning approach, giving farmers a framework to consider many different options, how long these might be effective for, and when it might be time to change tack.

“Serious gaming is now a well-regarded social science tool, which enables conversations with scientists and between partners, that they might otherwise be reluctant to have,” says NIWA Senior Communications Advisor, Alex Fear.

“It’s been really interesting to see the conversations it has kick-started between husbands and wives about what they would do on their own farm. There’s been some rigorous debate about what future actions or steps they might take.”

Climate Change Minister James Shaw also visited the NIWA site and was impressed with how the game demonstrated that responding to climate change is about choices.

“If we’re educated about what the risks are and what the choices are, and how much money you’ve got available to make those choices, I found that quite empowering.”

Dean says he wants those in the agribusiness sector to make decisions based on good science, because although climate change brings risks, it also offers new opportunities, such as diversification and development of new crops.

“If we understand the climate projections, we are better informed about what our choices might be. We can feel a real sense of opportunity about the future – what role science can play, and how people can contribute.”

Farmers visiting the NIWA Fieldays site could pick up a 16-page workbook, showing them how to use pathways thinking to develop their own farm business climate change strategy.

What climate change will mean for farming:

Some future scenarios predicted by NIWA's current climate modelling include:

  • A mean temperature increase throughout New Zealand
  • Fewer frosts, meaning pests that cannot survive in cooler regions, may spread
  • Increasing hot days, particularly in the north and east, when temperatures will be higher than 25°C
  • Changing rainfall patterns, with increased rainfall in the west and south, and less in the east and north
  • Increased droughts, putting stress on water resources and animal feed
  • More extreme rainfall events, resulting in flooding, slips, landslides and damage to infrastructure.