Rod Oram is cycling the length of New Zealand, and sharing some economic and environmental insights along the way.

On Monday I set off from Cape Reinga to cycle to Bluff. Over the next month I’ll ride 3,000km through the complete kaleidoscope of Kiwi countryside of beach, bush, mountains and farmland, with lots of settlements, a few small towns and two cities along the way.
All that wonderful variety of New Zealand, plus the companionship of fellow riders on the biennial Tour Aotearoa cycle event will be a real treat. Just as rewarding, though, is the chance to chat to lots of people and see plenty of examples of economic life down the country.
So, this and the next three columns will be about some of things I learn along the way. This week I’ve been in the Far North and Northland and I’m writing this column about them on the  Kewpie Too boat of Kaipara Cruises. It is carrying some of us Tour cyclists  from Potou Point on the north head of the Kaipara Harbour to Helensville.

The contrast between departure and arrival place is sharp. Potou Point  is 65km down a very quiet peninsula from Dargaville. Helensville is becoming in part a dormitory suburb of Auckland, with the likelihood of commuter rail service soon rather than later.
Over the next three weeks I’ll be cycling down the Waikato Rail Trail, the Timber Trail, the Rimutaka Rail Trail, the Pioneer Heritage Trail, the West Coast Wilderness Trail and other cycle routes and roads all the way down to the bottom of the South Island.
The three Kennett brothers of Wellington, keen advocates for cycling and publishers of cycling guides and books for some decades, pieced together the tour route down the country from the fast expanding networks of cycle tracks plus rural back roads but few main roads for the first tour in 2016.
Being biennial, this is the third. It has attracted some 1,200 riders, who leave the Cape in waves of about 100 a day over many days over a three week period. The staggered start is timed for low tides, and thus hard sand for cycling, on 90 Mile beach. The first leg includes some 80km of beach.
This is a brevet, to borrow the European term for such events. You have to spend a minimum of 10 days getting to Bluff. Or you can take a maximum of 30.
Yes, there are serious athletes who race down in the minimum time, hence a rule you must not ride more than 18 hours a day. But the rest of us are just keen cyclists. The oldest rider is likely Thomas, aged 79 from Oregon and a veteran of long distance events such as across the US without a support crew. The youngest is Adam Kennett, 12 years old, riding a tandem with his Dad Paul.

The Cape is a glorious and spiritual place to start a journey. But 20 years ago the amenities were rather depressing. There was only a car park and old lighthouse keeper’s house from which was sold postcards and soft drinks, as I remember.
Then Ngati Kuri the Guardians of Te Rerenga Wairua, the Cape, were given the opportunity to help develop it, most importantly with information boards which explain its spiritual significance to Maori. Now far more people are drawn to the Cape, and they learn more about it.
Driving up to the Cape on Sunday the impact of the current drought was very apparent. Given the scientific analysis, we know the local climate will only get hot and drier.
That’s why the big new horticultural development is so controversial. The council has granted rights for extracting massive quantities of water from the ancient aquifer for new, extensive, irrigated avocado orchards. Some scientists and locals fought hard to block the consents arguing the depletion of the aquifer will drastically harm local ecosystems, particularly with the climate changing.
Recent vandalism of some of the new plantings is a sign of the continuing conflict.
Since the local soil is so sandy, the irrigation required for the orchards is another example of a grave mismatch of crop and soils. This is exactly the same as the rapid expansion of dairying farming on light soils with heavy irrigation in Canterbury, to the great detriment of local ecosystems.
Obviously, our regulatory systems still can’t ensure the right farming happens in the ecologically right place. Consequently, the risk of a boom / bust in avocado growing in the far north is high.
In past decades other parts of the primary sector have also endured such chaotic and financially damaging expansion. It takes much mayhem before growers figure out how to develop enduring businesses.
The best example of this is kiwifruit. Only in the past 15 years or so has its growing and marketing system under the Zespri brand reached that essential goal. It took another big step two weeks ago by announcing a significant improvement in its sustainability programme.
Tourism is another area of fast growth for the far north, with plenty of signs of investment in new accommodation and attractions along my cycling route. The largest is the Manea – The Footprints of Kupe cultural heritage centre being built at Opononi on the Hokianga. It will tell the story of the Polynesian navigator who brought the first people to this land.

This will be a good example of bringing a much stronger cultural dimension to our tourism, which will help distinguish it in a crowded global market.
While the new centre is being financially supported by local and regional council, and some philanthropic sources, the Provincial Growth Fund is also prominent among its backers.

They are trying to attract the votes of conservative farmers who believe National is not fighting hard enough for their exploitative farming and business models.

But for all the signs of investment and a stronger local economy, the supply of good jobs is still running far behind demand. As one young woman told me in a local store, she was just about to head down to the police college in Wellington. Coming home to Kaitaia as a constable was one of the few rewarding and reasonably paid jobs available to her locally.

The north’s economy will certainly be a the subject of a big and possibly pivotal debate in this year’s election. With NZ First weakening in the polls, it could well need Shane Jones to win the Northland electorate to bring NZ First list MPs into Parliament. Then the party would have a role to play in forming the next coalition government.

The Provincial Growth Fund, which Jones runs as Minister of Economic Development, has long been attacked by National and ACT as a slush fund to curry voter favour. Campaign scrutiny of it will be even more intense, particularly if it looks like it is winning voters for NZ First in Northland.

But a much bigger worry about Jones and NZ First is their attitude to rural voters. They are trying to attract the votes of conservative farmers who believe National is not fighting hard enough for their exploitative farming and business models. Like them, Jones and NZ First are prime advocates of this “rip, shit and bust” mentality.

Thus NZ First, with Jones as its heir apparent to Winston Peters, is a serious drag on the efforts by Labour and Greens to support those farmers evolving their systems into ones more compatible with the environment, more appealing to consumers, and more sustainable economically, socially and environmentally.

If NZ First really wants to look to the future, rather than the past, it should be trying to attract progressive farmers who are disillusioned by National’s feet dragging on climate, the environment and sustainable primary sector production. And there are a good few of those enlightened producers in Northland. 

You can also follow Rod’s daily progress on his blog.

Rod Oram is a weekly columnist who covers climate, economics and politics.

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