Land advisor retires after 45 years in soil conservation

After nearly 45 years with Horizons Regional Council, and previous forms the Council took, land management advisor Kevin Rooke is retiring.

Kevin was brought up on an 80-cow dairy farm near Hamilton, went to Hamilton Technical College and worked as a farm cadet on three properties over four years. During his first year of a Diploma in Agriculture at Lincoln College he won the New Zealand Farm Cadet of the Year (1973) and spent a year in Britain on a scholarship. With inflation running rife by the time he finished his second year at Lincoln, he started work as a soil conservator with the Rangitikei Wanganui Catchment Board in Marton.

He was interviewed by John Hogg, one of the original soil conservators in New Zealand, and trained under Dave Harrison (Snr) and Don Clark, now both retired.

“They had a big influence on my direction. The emphasis in those days was farm plans and catchment control schemes. We had grant money from the government but we were competing with subsidies where farmers got money for stock retention, fertiliser and land development. That meant we had farmers farming what I call tiger country; they could afford to farm it because they had a financial partner: the government. In the mid-80s when the subsidies came off, they had to sit back and think, holy hell, what am I doing here? There was a lot of land that should never had been farmed.”

Through the 1990s, there was a move by forestry companies to buy properties to plant in forestry. “In a way, they were partially doing our job because for some of the properties, forestry was really the best land use.”

Initially he was looking after the Turakina Valley heading over towards Whanganui. 

Local government reorganisation took place in 1989 with the catchment boards, pest boards and other organisations merged into regional councils.

“So we had a name change to the Manawatū-Whanganui Regional Council, now known as Horizons Regional Council. My area moved down to include the Pohangina/Ōroua areas, although I was still based out of Marton. We got bigger, but it was business as usual. I worked more in the Manawatū district with a different soil type and different erosion problems to what I was used to.”

He has morphed from a soil conservator to a land manager to a land management advisor over the years, but the tasks have essentially stayed the same despite district differences and changing titles.

In 2004, a storm wreaked havoc across the lower North Island with a weekend of heavy rain, high winds, plummeting temperatures, thunderstorms, and hail. More than 1000 farms were flood damaged, 5000 sheep and up to 1000 dairy cattle were lost, and about 20,000 hectares of farmland were under water.

“I’m still amazed how that storm affected the entire region.”

He recalls the way the two streams in Feilding rose and joined as well to create havoc in the township, as well as the changes to the Turakina River, which comes out of farmland catchments, not out of the ranges like the Ōroua and Pohangina.

“I have never, ever seen a high tide mark like it. It was incredible. There was a lot of water in there. We have had ’04 storms before and we’ve had them since, but the difference was the ’04 storm affected the whole lower North Island.”

The storm marked the birth of the Horizons Regional Council’s Sustainable Land Use Initiative (SLUI).

“The old farm plans were all about soil erosion. SLUI ones are about potential erosion, water quality, biodiversity, farm and land management; the whole spectrum, and that came out of the ’04 storm. We’re still getting quite hefty government input into that programme through the Hill Country Erosion Fund, 16 years afterwards; and also from the rates. Farmers are rated a certain amount per hectare for the SLUI scheme.

“As per the name, it’s all about sustainable land use. Water quality is also a big issue with a lot of riparian fencing and planting. Swamps were being drained when I first started, now we call them wetlands and look after them for a whole host of reasons. We started fencing off that tiger country … that block out the back that’s better taken out of grazing and put into trees.”

In 2008, Kevin moved to the Woodville office to cover the Tararua area (Woodville to Dannevirke and out to the coast) as well as his beloved Pohangina Valley and Ōroua. He says it was a change in perception.

“On the west coast, the prevailing weather comes from the north/north west and clears from the south. Over here, they get their rubbish from the south. In this job, you have to have a reasonable grasp of the local weather; not to mention an idea of local farming systems.

“Farmers have to make a living, first and foremost. But then again, some of our stuff will help them make more. If you can put a fence around the tiger country up the back and put it into forestry and the farmer complains because his stock numbers will go down, but no, they’ll go up because they can spend the money on the good country that they were throwing away on the tiger country. That is one way we can improve production.”

He advises new land managers to ask about the history of their areas and learn from it, just as he did 45 years ago.

“…take on the experience of your older workmates and learn from them. I used to sit down with Gerald Groenidjk when he retired; we would spend an afternoon talking about things and he would tell me to watch out for this and watch out for that. I wanted as much knowledge as I could and he had so much in his head.”

Kevin says he also gleamed much of his education from a book about New Zealand’s catchment boards, Hold This Land by Lance McCaskill. But it’s a different world now without the subsidies of yesteryear and with improved education, science, and technology.

“There were no computers when I started; now I’ve got a computer on my desk, an ipad in my ute and a cellphone. When I started, we spent a couple of hours each night on the phone working through the toll operator to ring up farmers. There was no such thing as sending them an email or phoning them while they were out on the farm.

“Then we went out to do the field work for a farm plan, wrote the farm plan up and drafted the maps, tracing the lines of the paddocks and boundaries from the aerial photos. We’d put suggested works programme, soil types, land use capability, all kinds of things like that. We did the whole lot on big hunks of perma-trace. Now it’s done by computers with a few clicks.”

One of the highlights of his job has been seeing parts of New Zealand not accessible to many New Zealanders, what he calls “going out the back”.  He’s had 45 years of going to conferences around New Zealand as a member of the New Zealand Association of Resource Managers, NZARM, previously known as the Soil Conservators Association.

Locally, one of his favourite places to stop is the Valley Road lookout.

“I have a lot of satisfaction with what I’ve done, following on from my predecessors, in the Pohangina Valley. Although that might be because I live there,” he adds with a chuckle.

His best advice?

“Some older fellas used to tell me never to turn down a cup of tea because you never know when you’re going to get your next one.”

What will he miss most?

“The farmers. I’ve had some favourites who I’ve been working with for years and years. Now I’m working for their sons and daughters so I’m dealing with the second generation. I’ve nearly got to the third generation so I better go before there’s any more,” he says with a laugh.

“I have loved driving around the country looking at areas worked with, say, 10 or 15 years ago, and how they’ve changed. Some of my forestry jobs have been harvested and replanted again. I’ve watched Goulter’s Gully go from bare sand to so full of trees you can’t walk through it. Those are the things I’ll miss; being part of those changes.”

Retirement means a move to Foxton Beach and a lot of walking on the beach, with a spot of whitebaiting and “a lot of doing absolutely nothing at all”.