After travelling the country in search of sustainable and environmentally-friendly farms, a photographer is bringing her work to Auckland to show what it means to be stewards of the land

Queen Street has been a bit of a Mecca for farmers lately.

This month’s Groundswell protest saw a troupe of tractors and utes trundle through the central city in protest of government regulations targeting the agriculture sector.

The rural-urban divide had never felt as palpable as when the fleet of farm equipment joined Auckland traffic on a Friday morning.

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Signs decrying government meddling were seen up and down Queen St, while Twitter was bedecked with urbanites’ laments for the environment – battle lines seemingly drawn between the gumbooted and the dress-shoed.

But on August 10 and 11, photographer Camilla Rutherford is bringing her work to downtown Auckland with the hope of bridging the divide and highlighting stories of farmers who have learned new ways to coexist with the natural environment.

She has been travelling the country visiting farms with inspiring approaches to looking after the land – from beef farms in Waikato, intercrops in Canterbury, down to her own home on a central Otago merino sheep station.

Rutherford’s father-in-law musters the sheep on their merino sheep station in Central Otago hill country. The sheep “hammer” the grass if left for too long on one section, so frequent stock rotation leads to healthier soil and more carbon sequestered from the atmosphere. Photo: Camilla Rutherford

Originally from Scotland, Rutherford came to New Zealand to ski and take photos – and never left.

She was first drawn to stories of sustainable farming living with her husband on his family’s fourth-generation sheep station near Tarras.

“Five years ago input costs for the farm were so high, it was a kind of constant tug-of-war,” she said. “We felt like something needed to change.”

That was when she stumbled across practices like those espoused by Zimbabwean ecologist Allan Savory, who advocates livestock rotation and planting in ways that mimic nature.

She and her husband changed how they farmed. They began to move the sheep more often, allowing the tussock grass to recover, sequestering more carbon and improving the health of the soil.

They planted salad bars of sunflowers, barley, buckwheat and a whole range of other plants, and let them take over their own patch of soil.

She said it’s cyclical – allowing nature to run its own course provides benefits that lead to other benefits.

“Healthy plants don’t need protection from insects,” she said. “For every pest insect, there are 1,000 that are beneficial.”

She started wondering why they hadn’t been farming this way before.

And as a lifelong photographer, she felt an itch in her shutter finger.

“I figured it was my job to document the story.”

And once she put some feelers out online, she quickly realised that farms across the country are running in ways that not only reduce their environmental burden, but are actively beneficial for the environment.

“I realised there are so many farmers in New Zealand doing amazing things,” she said. “It was so much bigger than just us.”

A grant from Canon allowed her to go out and talk to some of these farmers.

Now seven of their stories are immortalised in her work, which is appearing at the Icebreaker store at Commercial Bay in downtown Auckland next week in an exhibition called ‘Heal the Earth’.

A bee atop the flowers of a buckwheat plant, on Simon Osbourne’s intercropping farm in Canterbury – Rutherford said the fields feel alive with the buzzing of insects. Photo: Camilla Rutherford

The farms Rutherford covered represent a cross-section of the agricultural industry – dairy farms, sheep stations, market gardeners and even a heritage seed collector.

Interviews with the farmers accompany photos from the farms and portraits showing the undimmed passion of their caretakers.

Through both the words and naturally lit images, Rutherford’s work gives the farmers the chance to tell their side of the story.

In her interview, heritage seed collector Kay Baxter spoke of the modern day being a crossroads for the human relationship with the planet.

“The planet is on a total knife edge right now and we have everything we need to turn it round,” she said. “It’s really about reconnecting. Reconnecting with our people, with our animals, with the earth, with our food, and it’s just about joining it all back up again.”

Dairy farmer Mark Anderson was also featured, and believed these sustainable practices could be a way to heal not just the Earth – but also the urban-rural divide.

“As far as the ‘dirty dairy’ tag goes, I think that regenerative agriculture is going to be an awesome pathway to shift that paradigm and connect back with townships and city folk,” he said. “Once we prove that we are having this positive effect on our ecosystem, it’s going to be huge.”

Tracey Bayliss, founder of Grandad’s Beef, which sources regeneratively farmed nutrient-dense beef and sells direct to consumers locally and online.
“Mum and Dad have been farming regeneratively for nearly 40 years, but it wasn’t called regenerative farming back then. Dad would just call it ‘a common sense approach to farming’ as you don’t want to be saturating food with chemicals,” she told Rutherford. Photo: Camilla Rutherford

Rutherford also wants the stories to provide some reconnection between the country and the city.

“By taking it to somewhere like Auckland, I wanted to bring these positive stories into the city where people may, through no fault of their own, not have any awareness of this sort of thing,” she said. She hopes it’s a message of hope – maybe “offsetting some of the doom and gloom of Covid and climate change”.

In doing so, she is mindful of not alienating farmers who don’t currently follow these sorts of methods.

“The last thing I want to do is make farmers feel threatened or nervous by this,” she said. “I want to open the door to them.”

Rutherford will be showing her work at the private exhibition at the Icebreaker store in Commercial Bay over next August 10 and 11 – however her work and more information about her Heal the Earth project can be found on her website.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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