Landcare Research - Manaaki Whenua

Landcare-Research -Manaaki Whenua

Innovations of the past: Creating the productive pastures of the present

FIGURE 1 Ploughing swamp lands for the first time c1890s (Photo: Palmerston North City Library Archive)

FIGURE 1 Ploughing swamp lands for the first time c1890s (Photo: Palmerston North City Library Archive)

In this the “International Year of the Soil” we reflect on past, present, and future contributions from soil science researchers that have underpinned our understanding of the behaviour of the soilscape in the natural environment in which we live.

Poor soil drainage was a major impediment to agricultural development by early settlers in New Zealand. Research into methods to solve this problem was one driver for the development of soil science as a research discipline in New Zealand in the 1930–1940s. In the Manawatu region, early settlers at the end of the 19th century were provided with small 40 acre (16 ha) blocks of land – and much of it was little more than useless swamp land (Fig. 1). They dug outlets to drain the land, and several of these channels are still maintained today as part of modern drainage systems.

Early in the 20th century farmers discovered the advantage of mole and pipe drainage (Fig. 2) originally developed in England in the 1840s. Over the following decades, assisted by soil physics and hydrological research, large areas of marshland and poorly drained land were converted to productive pastoral land in the Manawatu area (Fig. 3).

With the support of a grant from the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research in 1938, soil scientists at the Massey Agricultural College pioneered New Zealand research into land drainage, conducting experiments on the hydrology of mole drainage systems. This work led to the publication of a landmark book in 1940 “Mole Drainage in New Zealand” by Hudson and Hopewell. The Massey Agricultural College Drainage Extension Service was established in 1946.

Encouraged by farmers, local authorities, and Government Departments, they researched ways to overcome the limitations of wet, poorly drained soils for cultivation and agricultural production, to enable the local economy to develop.

As one travels through the farming districts of New Zealand, and of the North Island in particular, one cannot help being struck by the fact that there are thousands of acres on this country crying out to be drained….There is no doubt that as time goes on, more and more if it will be drained, and it has been the object of Mr Hudson and his assistant Mr Hopewell to get to the bottom of some of the more unsatisfactory aspects of drainage so that the work of development may be carried out with the minimum of mistakes and waste of money.

G.S.Peren, 1940, Massey Agricultural College, Palmerston North

Soils research played a pivotal role in the successful conversion of thousands of hectares of poorly drained soils in the Manawatu region into productive freer draining pastures. The Drainage Extension Service were active right into the beginning of the 21st Century, at which stage other commercial companies took over the installation and maintenance of the mole and tile drain networks laid by them in the preceding decades.

The development of this soil and water research discipline laid the foundation for our ability to tackle current issues such as the quality of drainage water, irrigation and effluent management. Now, in some regions of New Zealand, research is underway to understand which specific parts of drained landscape, might need to be reverted to wetlands to slow-down losses of nitrogen and phosphorus, in drainage waters, into surrounding waterways and groundwater.

Carolyn Hedley — Landcare Research