Thu, Jun 8, 2023 12:27 PM

Caring for soils and our whānau


Sigrid Christiansen

PIOPIO farming identity Nick Collins is sharing his knowledge in a bicultural project helping 10 dairy farms revitalise their soil health – and that of their families.

Researchers have seen their first year’s results from the Waikato and Bay of Plenty-based project, including more worms, better grass growth, and improved animal health.

The programme, Rere ki Uta, Rere ki Tai is administered by AgriSea, an award-winning Māori whānau agribusiness with 26 years’ experience, and funded by Our Land and Water. It also involves AgResearch and other stakeholders.  

The project’s mātauranga Māori advisors include Erina Wehi and Taonui Campbell, who is also a researcher with Agrisea.

Its essence is regeneration more broadly: the goals are not confined to soil health.  

“It is about being proactive rather than reactive,” Nick said.  

“Rere ki uta, rere ki tai means Soil, Sea, Society and how we revitalise te taiao through knowledge into action.

“[There are] lots of interwoven threads of knowledge merging together and the blending of indigenous knowledge and western science.”

“Our key role is to help facilitate the transition to more resilient values-based farming systems which support and improve soil, animal, human, environmental, cultural, social and financial wellbeing.  

“Soil health is centred around fostering biodiversity of microbes, plants, trees and supporting these with biostimulants.”  

From AgResearch, project co-leader and scientist James Turner spoke about the project’s value for farmers.

“What’s valuable ... is that it’s starting with those 10 dairy farmers that they’re working with, and what it looks like when those farmers start thinking about the health and vitality of the soil, where everything starts from.  

“Nick’s been doing an amazing job of working with those farmers to understand their soils as a living thing.  

“The life of that soil is influenced by the practices they do on the farm around the pastures, the fertiliser, the animals grazing, all of those sorts of things, and in turn, how that health of the soil flows through to the health of the pastures, the animals.  

“And ultimately also, how it connects with the health of the farming family and waterways and those sorts of things.”

“They’ve already entered the second round of gathering information about these farms in terms of their soil, house, the pasture, the animals, and also there’s a social scientist interviewing the farming family.

“Already the farmers are talking about the benefits they’re seeing in terms of their animals and their pastures.

“Starting with the health of the soil and they’re already sharing with each other, ‘Hey, we’ve tried this and it’s making a real difference,.

“Farmers [are] talking about how it’s making them feel better about their farming because they’re doing something positive for the soil.”

Farmers had seen healthier animals, stronger grass growth, and the presence of more worms, James said.

“Nick does this thing with them where they actually smell the soil and you can smell that it’s healthy. It’s not anaerobic, not pungent like that.”

AgriSea co-leader Clare Bradley said the sharing of perspectives was a key part of the project.  

“Rere ki Uta, Rere ki Tai will provide experiences and exchanges of knowledge through mātauranga Māori, science and practitioner experience in order to change the way we view and connect to soil in farming.

“On-farm, the research considers whole-of-system wellbeing through metrics across soil health, animal wellbeing, milk and meat quality, and ecological and environmental health, as well as looking at financial measures of farm success,”  Clare said.

“Farming whānau wellbeing and insight is also integrated into the connected research, considering how on-farm changes affect our rural communities and individual farmers.  

“Lastly, off-farm, the research will measure whether the connection to Māori values and tikanga can attract a premium in export markets.”  

Rere ki Uta, Rere ki Tai aims to protect and enhance te Taiao through the implementation of the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, meaningful partnerships, and active participation. This includes protection of mātauranga Māori, whenua, livelihoods, the health of soils, waterways, air, and cultural and social wellbeing.

The whānau-based intergenerational model of management that is active across AgriSea is also brought to Rere Ki Uta, Rere Ki Tai. This model included collaboration with communities, research, land owners, rangatahi , markets, agri sector support, and regulatory systems.  

These groups are engaged with and invited into the steering and development of the kaupapa (programme), informed by the practice of tikanga (customs) and te reo Māori.

Agrisea co-leader Tane Bradley said the goal was to harmonise farming with the environment.  

“Building farming systems that work with rather than against natural systems, understanding and respecting the cycle of te taiao and our reciprocal role.”

Many hands make light work, and there is a strong team on the ground.  

Researchers from Lincoln University, Manaaki Whenua, AgResearch, specialist social science research consultants Heather Collins Consulting, and farm consultants RECO, are part of the on-farm teams who will assess the value of new approaches in partnership with tangata whenua, farm advisors, and sector representatives.

Half of the farms in the project are Māori owned, whether that be as family farms or properties run by Tainui more broadly.

The dairy sector is expected to benefit from this research, which is intended to inform decision-making for more resilient farms.

More information about the project can be found at  

This project is one of three connected initiatives: the others being in Taranaki and Wanaka.

Nick said although some participants used Agrisea products, the company did not otherwise have a commercial interest in the project.

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