Farmers and residents find common ground

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Cow grazes by ocean in rural New Zealand Image: Ian Kuik / Unsplash License

Farmers and residents aren't just neighbours but co-stewards of their rivers, food, and the health and wellbeing of everyone living in this small New Zealand town.

There’s such a dynamic, wonderful feeling there as a group. The surprising ease that comes with doing hard things, together.

A group of residents make their way across a paddock towards a row of mounds in the soil late one summer afternoon. Many have come straight from their work shift or the school pick-up to uncover the first harvest of their community-grown kūmara or sweet potato.

Ranging from toddlers to grandparents, they’ve been working together for the past nine months to increase food security within their community. 

Gently loosening the soil with her hands, a group member brushes away the dirt to reveal a nest of thick red tubers. The group cheers. There’s enough kūmara for everyone to take home. 


Working together, they pack the rest into cardboard boxes for the town's local growers market. Selling their harvest there will raise funds to buy seeds for the next growing season.

New Zealand is a farming nation, with 40 per cent of land dedicated to agriculture. It produces enough to feed 40 million people, eight times the country’s population of just five million. Yet one in five children are living in food insecure households, with Māori and Pasifika families disproportionately affected. 

In the west coast town of Raglan (Whāingaroa), the Whāingaroa Environment Centre (WEC) works with local residents to care for the environment and build community resilience. 

An essential part of this effort is food security - something that’s becoming more tangible, and relevant, in residents' minds. The area’s main supermarkets are outside the town, and the access road is increasingly at risk of weather-related closures.

“But really, it’s about food sovereignty,” says Tania Ashman, Food Security Coordinator for WEC, “which is about power. It means asking who’s controlling our food systems. Who gets to decide what’s grown, how it’s produced, and who has access to it?”

These are important questions in a country where 90 per cent of all food produced is exported, with international markets, rather than local needs, heavily influencing production. As the supermarket sector is also dominated by a duopoly, choice and affordability are further limited. 

Tania adds: “We must recoginise that food sovereignty can’t be fully realised in New Zealand until Māori achieve sovereignty, however they define that, including the autonomy to grow, harvest, distribute and access food according to their traditional knowledge and values.”


Finding ways at a local level, as Tania says, “to bring power back to the people who grow the food,” is crucial. Yet, during WEC’s initial meetings with residents, access to land kept emerging as a barrier to local food growing.

Things changed when resident Meryn Wakelin, who raises livestock on her land, got involved. By offering up a section of her property for growing, the project quickly expanded from a few backyards, as originally planned, to a large paddock in the countryside just out of town.

There’s such a dynamic, wonderful feeling there as a group. The surprising ease that comes with doing hard things, together.

So far, the plot has yielded successful harvests of kūmara and pumpkin, which have already been shared with 14 families. The project’s initial success has also inspired another local landowner to get involved, contributing a flock of ewes for the group to explore ethical, community livestock husbandry. 

“This is just the beginning,” says Tania. “We want to see the project self-seed out, inspiring others and growing across the region.” 

But Meryn says a “mindset change” is needed to encourage more people to contribute their land for community use. “They need to see it in action first. When everyone contributes in whatever way they can - time, land, knowledge - the whole community, and everyone in it, wins.”


Another community-led initiative in Raglan has proven what’s possible when communities work together in this way. 

Over the past three decades, farmers have voluntarily planted rows of native cabbage trees, flax, and manuka on their land at their own cost, to trap and naturally process pollutants. This effort has helped transform Raglan’s harbour from one of the most polluted to one of the cleanest in the country.

Local farmer Fred Lichtwark and resident Fiona Edwards were the ones to spark action. Thirty years ago, the harbour was a mess,” Fred says. “We had some of the lowest fish stocks in the country. Dead animals were washing up on the shore, and surfers were getting sick with stomach ulcers.” 

They sent out leaflets and gathered a small group of concerned residents at the town hall. From that meeting in 1995, Whāingaroa Harbour Care was founded, along with a native plant nursery offering locally-sourced seeds and planting services to farmers for less than $4.

“It was an incredibly cheap but professional service offered to farmers in acknowledgment of them retiring key areas of land from production to protect water quality,” says Fiona. More than 80 per cent of local farmers have since participated, planting over 2.5 million trees along 1,200km of waterways, resulting in significant improvements to water quality and fish populations. 


Agricultural runoff poses a significant threat to New Zealand's water quality. With the majority of farming land dedicated to livestock, 95 per cent of rivers in grazing areas exceed safe nutrient levels. The new government’s budget cuts to freshwater programmes, revealed last month (May 2024), make finding ways to mitigate this crucial. 

Fred and Fiona’s harbour project is frequently held up as a blueprint for action. Previous Minister of Conservation, Eugenie Sage, referred to it as “a national model of riparian and catchment management.” 

But Fred says it wasn’t easy to get farmers interested. “Many were sceptical, thinking they’d lose production and be out of pocket.” So he set up a demonstration site on council-managed farmland and when the site reported a 40 per cent increase in productivity, with a big drop in stock losses and improvements in pasture growth rates, people started listening. 

“From that point, the local farming community began to get on-board. Word spread quickly as they started telling their neighbours over the fence about the economic benefits.” 

Since then, a number of projects modelled on its success have sprung up across the country, from Northland to Invercargill. 


Both Fred and Tania stress that their respective projects’ successes have depended on their delivery by community members themselves. 

An important part of this has been the local knowledge residents have brought, helping preserve expertise within the community.

For Fred, this has meant sourcing local seeds instead of commercially-grown plants from other regions. “Using seeds that are adapted to the local environment has had a huge success rate with our planting. It’s also helped maintain our natural local stock genetics, and reduce the spread of disease.” 

Young people have also learned about conservation and water protection through volunteering, with the project even receiving recognition from the local police for helping reduce youth crime. 

Tania reflects on WEC's project: “We’ve been so privileged to have people in our group share their knowledge of Māori cultivation practices.” They have played a crucial role in sharing traditional methods of growing kūmara. This includes planting into raised beds, farming according to the lunar calendar or Maramataka, and curing and storing.


These two projects - and the many farmers behind them - are leading examples of the potential for local action. 

Both show what’s possible when local solutions are invested in and supported, empowering communities to learn about, protect and use their environment sustainably, for everyone’s benefit. They also demonstrate what can happen when residents get buy-in from farmers and landowners, rapidly expanding reach and impact.

Yet the Ministry of Social Development, a key early funder that helped get WEC's food security project off the ground, along with funding similar projects across the country, announced spending cuts last month

Fred's harbour project, despite its thirty-year success, regrettably closed its doors at the end of 2023. Fred cites several reasons, including what he sees as the privatisation of Harbour Care's work, with outside organisations, and plants, being brought in instead. 

"Regional councils should employ more community groups like us to do this stuff,” says Fred. “There’s a real pride of place that comes with local residents doing it. They become guardians of that land.”

Meryn adds: “There’s such a dynamic, wonderful feeling there as a group. The surprising ease that comes with doing hard things, together.”

This Author 

Emma Seery is a freelance writer focused on environmental issues, currently based in New Zealand.