• 12 March 2024

An article in NZ Geographic written by  | photographed by PETER JAMES QUINN

"About 20,000 years ago, the Waikato changed course, taking a sharp left-hand lurch halfway down present-day Lake Karapiro, forsaking the Hauraki Plains it had built. The plains remained wet and boggy, developing large stands of kahikatea and vast tracts of manuka and rushes. Peat built up in this marsh, 11 metres deep in places, and the open water of the Firth of Thames lapped at this indistinct edge, flooding and ebbing with tides and changes in sea level over thousands of years."

Just noted due to some facts especially about the peat being 11 metres deep in places.

"... for everything the plains offered up, something was taken away—the forests, the marshland, the clear productive waters of the rivers and coast of the firth.

This zone of land and sea would become the Petri dish for a young nation bent on development, a great demonstration of the power of primary industries to rapidly create wealth in the new colony, and the cost that would exact on natural systems and habitats."

"In 1876, Premier Julius Vogel agreed to sell the ‘Piako Swamp’—about 70,000 acres in extent—to a group of investors for half the advertised price of five shillings (50c) per acre, £10,000 for the lot. George Grey, MP for Auckland City West, bitterly denounced the sale as a sweet deal for Vogel’s rich pals, when the government could have developed the land into 400 valuable farms. The investors proved unable to drain and tame the land as promised, and it was taken over by the Waikato Land Association."

More facts - how did Julius Vogel acquire the land? As private, or government? How was it acquired?

".. on the eastern side of the plains, sawmilling of the lowland forest had begun. In 1869, the Hauraki Sawmilling Company commenced operations at Turua and became one of the country’s largest mills. By 1900, most Coromandel kauri had been logged, and by the outbreak of WWI, there was little timber left on the plains."

Bagnall's Mill in Turua.

"But the removal of the kahikatea forests was just an entrée for the main course: draining and reclaiming the land. The Hauraki Plains Act of 1908, followed by the Waihou and Ohinemuri Rivers Improvement Act 1910, set up a colossal project involving stopbanks, canals, drains and pumping stations along with roads, bridges and wharves. Between 1910 and 1914, 15,000 hectares was reclaimed and sold as 270 ballot farms—Grey’s vision was finally in action. Dairying quickly became the preferred type of farming in the district and many small dairy factories sprang up."

"MY MOTHER AND her sisters grew up on a small dairy farm at Matatoki, backing on to the Waihou River. Till the day they died, they loved that place, speaking with the fondness of hindsight about trudging five miles each way to the main road for school, every day. "

These are the same stories I hear from my mother, aunties and uncles. Very proud of the hard work, and the 'trudge'.

"I wanted to find out whether this was fair in the Hauraki region, and how significant the impact of dairying might be on the adjacent Firth of Thames, often considered the most vulnerable part of the Hauraki Gulf. I’ve returned to my roots, visiting the lower plains to speak to dairy farmers still working the land in the spirit of my family a generation ago."

Maybe I need to be asking questions too, although I feel uncomfortable destroying their image. They are elderly, but younger farmers are coming up.

"Periodic bridges cross canals and rivers—most the colour of liquid mud."

The rivers are both this colour. It comes up in my work all the time.

"Barry Flint milks 1000 cows, split into several herds in the Miranda-Kaiaua area. His family have been on at least some of the property since the 1930s. Flint is proud that he’s lifted the carrying capacity of the land from 2.5 cows per hectare to 3.2, though it’s cost him $1000 a hectare to do so.

“Drainage is the big thing,” he explained. “I’m on heavy marine clays and by gently humping and hollowing the paddocks, we improve drainage considerably. I’m now growing twice as much grass as 30 years ago. I’ve also switched from Friesian cows to lighter Jerseys. They cause less pugging damage and suffer less footrot, which means they can forage better.

“My father used to get 400 pounds of butterfat to the acre, which was pretty good, but I now get 1000 kilograms of milk solids per hectare.”

Barry is a contemporary of mine. His mother was my teacher at primary school in Ngatea.

"Like elsewhere, potable water is a major issue on the plains. “It used to cost 22 cents per cubic metre, but now it’s increased to $1.88,” says Flint, who received an annual water bill from the council for more than $35,000 until he put down his own bore. That also cost $35,000, but promised to be only $3000 annually to run. He’s since discovered, however, that the bore water contains toxic levels of iron and boron, which costs as much to remove as the annual council water bill. “I’m stymied,” he says. With bitter irony, Flint also pays the council to maintain stopbanks and drains to keep unwanted water out."

All that drainage, all the costs, so many costs - we should have left the land alone. It was beautiful.

"As with much of the area, the farm was originally a peat bog, and as a consequence has settled between one and two metres over the past century. This has exposed ti-tree and large kahikatea stumps in places. "

PETER WEST’S HOUSE is perched on a knob above the western margin of the Hauraki Plains at Kaihere.

"Land, Air, Water Aotearoa—an association of councils, Massey University, the Cawthron Institute and the Ministry for the Environment—rates the Waihou at Te Aroha in the worst 25 per cent of similar sites for turbidity, nitrogen and phosphorous and in the worst 50 per cent for bacteria. Only on acidity does it score in the best 25 per cent. The net summary of these values by the ministry scores the Waihou as New Zealand’s third-most-polluted river."

There are a lot of facts and figures to do with contamination in this article, which I read but don't note. Figures are not my best subject.

"The fish-farm plan has some critics. Bill Brownell is a quiet, elderly American living near Kaiaua who has a long history with mussel farming and a passion for the environment. He is a fishery biologist and retired United Nations fishery development specialist, and edited Muddy Feet—Firth of Thames Ramsar site update 2004, an examination and collation of all that was known about the southern end of the firth.

“I don’t like the way economic and political considerations drive decision making,” he says."

How do we stop 'economic and political considerations' driving decision-making? This seems hard to answer - it was what drove the initial drainage of the Hauraki Plains, but look at the costs!

"The truth is that the firth may have been balancing on this tipping point for much of its history.

Before humans arrived on the plains, it was already a turbulent place. In the past 6500 years, the rivers of the plains have carried down so much volcanic debris from the many eruptions in the Bay of Plenty-to-Egmont zone that the southern shoreline of the firth has moved north by 14 kilometres. Given that volcanic ejecta is rich in minerals—including nitrogen from nitric acid produced in eruptions—leached minerals could have enriched the firth for millennia."

"One recent paper estimates that 44 million cubic metres of mud was deposited into the southern firth over the 36-year period to 1918, equivalent to around 280 years of present-day sediment loads."

From gold-mining.

"Dairy farming is the latest in a series of challenges thrown at the firth, and most likely not the worst. The increased flow of nutrients into marine systems can sometimes render short-term increases in productivity and fishery yields. Phytoplankton production depends on sunlight and small amounts of nutrients—including iron, nitrogen and phosphorous—which drives the whole food chain in coastal waters. More nutrients, more productive seas, to a point. The firth is attractive to wading birds, fish and shellfish because of its nutrient-rich seas, but it can be detrimental in the long term because of the potential for eutrophication, acidification and anoxia. Is there a better, more sustainable model for development on land and sea?"

"One doesn’t have to venture far to see a future that borrows from the past. In Ngatea, between kilometres of dairy farms, is a new model of sustainable farming… or, rather, a much older model.

On a blustery spring morning, I visited a three-hectare farm belonging to the Supported Life Style Hauraki Trust, which provides a ‘whole of life’ 24-hour service for people with special needs and severe brain injuries—there are 60 in its care. Most of the ‘life stylers’ live in homes in Thames, where a cafe serves as a focus for their activities. The farm—which has been operating for 12 years—produces much of the food for the cafe, and is a place for the life stylers to work and learn basic skills. All the waste comes back to the farm and is composted, along with manure that is collected from the animals."

And some hope, some goodness.

"In its own way, this mixed farmlet is probably more intensively farmed than most dairy farms, and its diversified products more valuable. While it’s not built on a commercial model, it harks back to an earlier time when farms were smaller and more diverse. Like in my mother’s days on these plains, when cream was taken down the river on a launch to the factory, when the farms were embedded in the communities they supported, and when the communities supported the farms—the sort of rural idyll that many still yearn for today, selling carefully grown food through farmers’ markets and roadside stalls.

It’s interesting to think that a return to the past might be a progressive alternative. Or that a low-input model might be more rewarding than a high-input one. Or that sheep—on which the foundation of farming in New Zealand was built—might offer opportunities for the future of dairy. Whatever the case, as the market for milk ebbs and flows, the running calculation of natural cost and commercial benefit will remain on everyone’s minds."

A balanced article it seems, looking at both sides. Its done so what can be done now to ensure we 'develop' it in the best way? An NZ Geo subscription coming up as there are many articles on the subject of the Hauraki Plains.


Judd, Warren. "NATURAL VALUES." NZ Geographic. NZ Geographic, June 1, 2015.




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