Wednesday, 10 April 2024 08:25

Disappearing land a major challenge

Written by  Peter Burke
Horowhenua mayor Bernie Wanden describes as challenging that many rural communities like his region with highly productive land is now feeling the pressure of urbanisation. Horowhenua mayor Bernie Wanden describes as challenging that many rural communities like his region with highly productive land is now feeling the pressure of urbanisation.

What was once, and to a degree still is, the food bowl of the lower North Island has now almost become another suburb of Wellington - 100km away.

Horowhenua, with its main town Levin, is like many rural communities with highly productive land that is feeling the pressure of urbanisation.

Local mayor Bernie Wanden describes this situation as "challenging".

The region is one of many other districts around NZ facing a similar challenge.

In the main street outside the bookshop that Wanden has run for many years is a very special garden where vegetables, not flowers are grown. In the middle is a beautiful sculpture of a Chinese market gardener working the soil. The statue was erected by the local Rotary club in recognition of the many Chinese vegetable growrrs who established the first major market gardens in Levin in 1912 and that have become a major contributor to the local economy.

Today there are still Chinese-origin growers, but many are retiring and their land is being bought by larger commercial growing operators. But as Wanden quickly points out, there is more money for retiring growers if they sell to a developer rather than another grower.

To that end Wanden says they (the council) can to some degree control this and still make land available for housing.

"With district plan changes we can limit growth in certain areas because we know for Horowhenua that there are many class one and two soils that we would never consider allowing building to be put on," he told Hort News. "But we are lucky because there are other spaces where we can create residential development where there's land - especially south of Levin - that is not really suitable for farming or horticultural development, but perfect for greenfield development."

With the advent of the Transmission Gully highway and other roading improvements, Wanden says Levin is attracting people from Wellington who want to live in the district.

"That new roading infrastructure has definitely been a catalyst for those who are retired and want to get out of the capital or are first home buyers in a town where house prices are 40% to 50% lower than Wellington."

It's a perect place for asset rich, cash poor Wellingtonians and a new lifestyle village, Speidhurst, with its own café and entertainment options, is growing exponentially.

But a little known secret about the district, according to Wanden, is that it has the third lowest income per household in the country - sitting just behind Northland and Tairawhiti. So, the local council has an additional goal of trying to create more jobs with better salaries.

With more flexible working hours post Covid and a road that can get one to the capital in just under an hour, more people are choosing to live in Levin and commute a couple of days to the city. That in itself will boost the local economy.

Wanden concedes there is some pressure on the council from developers and those determined to retain the highly productive land for horticultural development. He says, at present, the district can cope with the development.

"But there is a pinch point coming in about five years when the council will have to upgrade some of its infrastructure - especially the waste water plants."

What Are The Answers?

Levin has quite an established light industry sector and also a number of companies that service the rural sector - horticulture and dairy farming but also sheep and beef and a significant number of lifestyle blocks.

In terms of horticulture, brassicas, leafy greens, asparagus, strawberries, onions, potatoes and squash are the main crops grown.

One of the biggest operators is Woodhaven which has 2000 hectares in production, produces 24 types of products and employs 220 staff. It's a family owned and run business which has been in operation for 44 years. There are also a number of other large and established commercial growing businesses within the district.

But the question facing Wanden is 'where will the jobs come from?' He thinks it will be industry and more small niche horticultural businesses such as Ohau Gourmet Mushrooms and Genoee Foods, which produces pesto. As a business person himself, he understands that doing business is not easy these days. He says Woodhaven is successful because it is large.

"Many years ago, I saw truckloads of fruit and vegetables from Horowhenua arrive at the Wellington markets in Blair and Allen Streets. It was a hive of activity. The Horowhenua market gardeners also used to make an annual pilgrimage to parliament to showcase their produce."

Today Horowhenua runs a very successful taste trail, but for the most part it's a case of huge truckloads of vegetables being quietly shipped out daily to consumers around the country.

Wanden says the region completely undersells itself and thinks it could do a better job in this regard.

Right now, Horowhenua - and other rural regions - are at a crossroads of trying to balance rural drift and the need to preserve the core economic rural platform, and the clock is ticking fast.

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