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Exploring possibilities for extension to protect water quality

Neels Botha, Terry Parminter and Hein Roth1

1 AgResearch Ltd, East Street, Private Bag 3123, Hamilton, New Zealand. Email:


Lake Taupo is oligotrophic, i.e. it has low nutrients and high oxygen levels and is the largest lake in New Zealand. No wonder it has become a national icon, annually attracting thousands of local and overseas visitors. Unfortunately its water quality is deteriorating due to increasing levels of nitrogen which stimulate algal and phytoplankton growth. The result is decreased water clarity and more nutrient dependent weeds and slimes growing in sheltered waters near lakeshore settlements. Chlorophyll levels (free-floating algae) in the Lake’s surface waters are also rising. Farmers in the catchment are said to be responsible for about 37% of nitrogen that enters the Lake through ground water and streams. There are several lakes in the Rotorua catchment but our discussion is about Lake Rotorua. Similar to Lake Taupo, lakes around Rotorua are also important to New Zealand and also suffer from deteriorating water quality. This paper reports on ongoing social research in the Taupo and Rotorua catchments. It describes farmers’ current situation and their decision-making contexts about protecting the lakes from their perspective; it covers extension and its role as a policy instrument to encourage behaviour change and concludes with a discussion on whether extension is an option to protect the Lakes’ water quality. Data gathering was through interviews, underpinned by literature reviews of theories considered important to study the uptake of ‘environment friendly’ farming practices, and policy instruments that address water quality issues. Drawing on both literature and experience, the paper concludes that technologies, practices and systems have to be assessed for their adoptability and if they are adoptable extension is justified.

Three key learnings: (1) Water quality in Lake Taupo and Rotorua is deteriorating; (2) extension may be an appropriate policy instrument to influence farmers’ environmental decision-making processes and behaviours; (3) all the available environmentally friendly technologies, practices and systems have to be assessed for their adoptability.

Key words

Extension, water quality, adoptability


There are 16 lakes in the Rotorua catchment, and the eleven major lakes are Okareka, Okataina, Rerewhakaaitu, Rotoehu, Rotoiti, Rotokakahi, Rotoma, Rotomahana, Rotorua, Tarawera, and Lake Tikitapu. The city of Rotorua is on the shore of the largest, Lake Rotorua. The lakes around Rotorua and Taupo are significant features of New Zealand’s North Island attracting thousands of local and overseas visitors annually. Not only does New Zealand rely heavily on the pristine water quality of the lakes as a strong tourist and recreational attraction, but it also is important from a cultural perspective. Maori specifically, as the kaitiaki (environmental guardians) of the lake waters believe that, as Maori and the traditional inhabitants of Aotearoa (New Zealand), they have a strong responsibility towards the protection of these lakes’ water quality and their resources.

The amounts of nitrogen entering Lake Taupo pose a threat to its water quality and are largely affected by current land use practices (Journeaux, undated). Currently Lake Rotorua and Lake Taupo are experiencing increasing levels of algal blooms, lake foams, various lake weeds, and decreased water clarity and quality (Rutherford, Pridmore and White, 1989). Farming enterprises in the catchment areas of these lakes contribute approximately 37% of nitrogen levels within Lake Taupo and 66% within Lake Rotorua. Nitrogen and other nutrients enter the lakes through ground water and streams (Journeaux, undated). As a consequence the lakes may become unsuitable for recreation and water supply in the longer-term. Maori own more than 80% of all land in these catchments and water quality deterioration in the lakes could therefore have a profound effect on them. In this paper we sometimes separate Maori out because they own most of the farming land in these catchments and in that sense they play an important role. This does not imply that they are the biggest source of emission discharge in the catchments. To ensure high water quality through sustainable land use practices, new policy will require land users in both catchments to change their on-farm practices by adopting new land management technologies and systems and land use options.

Research into the biophysical aspects of nitrogen leaching and studies to better understand the social factors impacting on nitrogen leaching off farms has been ongoing in the Taupo and Rotorua catchments for the last two years. The overall objective of the research was to ensure high quality ground- and lake water while enhancing economic and social well-being of Maori and non-Maori landholders, communities and policy bodies. This project’s objective was to better understand the factors that affect the adoption of new land management practices and technologies by land users in the catchment areas.


We used personal semi-structured interviews with Taupo and Rotorua Maori and non-Maori farmer groups and governing bodies to gather data on the factors that influenced the adoption of new land management technologies and practices. Interviewees (participants) were key informants and identified through contact, persons in the catchments and we used the snowballing technique. We also used a convergent interviewing technique to investigate attitudes towards new technologies, including views on nitrogen leaching and policy. Overall we covered eleven farm blocks in the Taupo catchment. Three of those were dairy enterprises and eight were sheep and beef enterprises. Six blocks in the Rotorua catchment area were covered, of which five were dairy enterprises. Twelve of the total number of interviewees was from multiple owned Maori blocks and one interviewee was a sole owner. Most farm managers had more than 10 years’ farming experience. Interviewees were from both Maori and European groups, the latter being employed by Maori.

Interviews were audio-taped and later transcribed. We used N*VIVO software to analyse the data. The goals of the research, their input into it and their rights were explained to all participants. They were also asked to sign a research consent form. Participants later received their own copy of the interview and had the opportunity to make changes or withdraw information and to sign off on the content. This served as a data verification (triangulation) technique. We also reviewed adoption and extension literature.


The current situation

(a) Views about nitrogen entering the lakes

Research participants said that there was a range of sources that contributed to nitrogen in lake water. For discussion purposes we have put them in three categories, viz. farming, human and natural. Regarding farming as a source of nitrogen, they believed livestock urine and dung were major sources of nitrogen, because they leached easily into groundwater, especially in wet conditions. Livestock that waded into streams or graze on the edge of a lake were regarded as an important source of large quantities of nutrients that could be released directly into the water, and on which algae thrive. In order of importance, participants said that when it came to putting nutrients like nitrogen into the lakes, dairy farming and their effluent ponds were the worst, followed by dry stock farming, and sheep farming. Fertiliser application formed an integral part of any pastoral farming operation. Participants said that most fertiliser was trapped in the soil, and that it therefore did not have a major effect on the water quality of the lakes. But they also indicated that fertiliser could enter the lakes through: storm water runoff; over-application; application directly into waterways, especially by means of aerial sprays; and application on pumice soils which were prone to severe leaching. For example:

“We farm dairy cows on there at 3.5 cows per hectare - so they urinate - that’s definitely nitrogen leaching in those urine spots - we know that… definitely female milking cows they are the biggest urine volume”

Participants saw human activities as a major source of nitrogen in the lakes, and that the older traditional type of septic tank would not remove nitrogen or phosphorus from human effluent, aside from plant uptake and scum and solids that settle in the tank. For example:

“So the human impact has got to be probably the major source of nitrogen and phosphorous…”

“I think the biggest polluter of the lake of all is humans and residential. Clearly the worst areas are the ones around the townships”

Volcanic soils generally absorbed phosphorus, but nitrogen was the main nutrient that leached from septic tanks, they explained. There were various residential properties around the lakes, and participants said that some of these still had the older type of septic tank sited as close as five meters from the edge of the lake. They expressed their concern about the continued development of residential subdivisions, especially around Lake Taupo. For example:

“That’s been pumping sewer into this lake for years, for like 100 and something years. And all the houses around the lake, their little septic tanks have been pumping nitrogen; you know they’re right there; they’re 5 metres from the lake”

“I find it a bit difficult to understand why they are letting so much development go on around Lake Taupo, subdivisions etc, etc - to the extent they have. When people are running septic tanks and all those sorts of systems, that’s got to be part of the problem too”

“I don’t think there should be any more subdivisions going on in Lake Taupo”

Regarding nitrogen leaching from natural causes, they believed that erosion on farms took many forms, e.g. slips, stream bank erosion, and runoff from tilled land. They pointed out that phosphorus attached to soil particles was the main nutrient that got into water because of erosion. Nutrients from geothermal activity particularly in the Rotorua lakes catchment were said to be a significant source of nutrients to the lakes.

(b) Views of research in the catchments

“I think we are all suspicious of research, because what I don’t want to be told is I can’t do something today and in 10 years’ or five years’ time they turn around and say well, we made a mistake. That wasn’t what the problem was at all – you could have carried on doing that”.

Participants’ view was that significant research gaps existed and boards and management committees consequently didn’t get a comprehensive view and understanding of the issue. Participants from the Rotorua catchment questioned research results and in general they were viewed as inconclusive. For example they said:

“A lot more research is needed. We need more robust information. People don’t mind facing the music if they’re confident in the information.”

“They don’t know how old the phosphate is that’s coming out – whether it’s new phosphate or old phosphate out of the rock, or whether its nitrogen – they don’t really know. A lot of it is guess work”. “There are holes in the research all over the place”.

Participants viewed the part that farming contributed to nitrogen leaching into Lake Taupo as small in comparison to what urbanisation and nature were responsible for. They believed that findings from research investigations were being used to target farmers, and that a blind eye was being turned to urban nitrogen sources. Investigations were said to be based on theory and not on on-the-ground farming practices that best suited the different geographical locations around the lakes (Roth et al, 2005). For example:

“…they have blocked their mind to the amount of run-off coming from the septic tanks all around”

“I think farming is taking the blame for the big proportion of it. But I don’t think we should be taking the blame for a big proportion, maybe we are to blame for some of it. But when we’re only 30% of it, there’s a big proportion that we’re not part of when you’ve got leaking septic tanks all around the lake and all that sort of thing. Well they’ve got to tidy up all those things as well, not just try and tidy the farms up. There are more than just the farmers contributing to it”

Participants believed that nitrogen enterd the lake mainly via leaching through ground water, and that research results indicated that some of the nitrogen rich waters were between 50 and 100 years old. Lake Taupo participants added that farming had been practiced in the catchment for less than 50 years, and that leaching from their properties had therefore not reached the Lake yet. For example it was said:

One of the biggest issues we’ve got is that we’re told that the ground water is taking 50 to 60 years to reach the lake and so the effects of nitrogen leaching that we are seeing right now was created back in the post war days of development out of bush into clover producing hill country using super phosphate”

“This lake quite clearly has been getting its problems from elsewhere… it hasn’t been getting it from the farms because the water hasn’t got to the lake yet. This land in 1950 wasn’t fertilised. There’s only been… 25, 30 years of intensive farming. But to blame the blooms on farming that is 50 years old when the water’s 80 to 100 years old - the logic doesn’t quite come together, does it?”

“That’s a commonly held perception or view that it is such a long time until the water gets to the lake then what we are doing right now is not impacting on water quality for a long time”.

(c) Views of changes to policy and farming practices

Because of policy changes, the farming environment in the Taupo and Rotorua catchments areas have been clearly changing and we recorded a variety of responses to those changes. Participants clearly viewed the lakes as a “tourism Mecca” as “a piece of heaven”. For example, for Maori who are the kaitiaki of the land and the lake waters their priority was to ensure that the land was looked after so that it would continue to provide benefits to future generations. They said that there was no common view among Maori about how to respond to policy changes, because they seemed to be getting conflicting information about how to best address the issues they faced. Regional councils are the local government bodies amongst others, manage environmental issues and resource management.Currently Maori say that they have not received clear guidelines from regional councils, but they realised that new regulations would at some time be put in place. Because they didnt know how to respond appropriately there was a widespread sense of uncertainty. For example:

“That’s what I’m waiting for: some clear direction as to what we are supposed to be doing. And I think that’s what probably a lot of people are doing. At the moment a lot of people are just farming and some of them are increasing their stock units because they are frightened that they are going to be told to cut back, so they are increasing them as high as they can so if they are told to cut back, they can cut back and they’re still profitable”.

Most of the participants said that they did not want to do anything new about nitrogen leaching at that time. For example, some said:

“They are also waiting in the wings and saying what are these new technologies and what’s the cost and what’s the benefit”.

Some believed they run a risk of being required to improve even further when new regulations come into place. For example:

“The guy that’s been farming conservatively fencing off blocks of bush is well, frozen in the status quo. The guy that’s been hard core polluting, well he may be allowed to stay at that same level”.

There were two main responses, i.e. simply carry on farming as in the past, and wait and see; push production up as quickly as possible, before “capping” rules came into play. Participants said that they would co-operate with Regional Councils if they viewed the coming restrictions as fair and based on good science. Most participants were confident that the discussions and negotiations between regional councils and Maori as the Tangata Whenua of large areas of the catchment areas would provide both parties with greater clarity and time to make adjustments.

“They’re all running scared about the fact that their economics are going to change through legislation and that’s what’s occupying their minds”.

If these negotiations were not satisfactory the Environment Court could be asked to help resolve the issue. All the participants anticipated that restrictions would be enforced on their farming practices. Participants from the Lake Taupo catchment particularly expressed serious concerns about restrictions, because it meant significant costs to their farming enterprises in the form of lost opportunity.

(d) Current on-farm practices

All the participants have implemented some environmentally friendly on-farm practices and technologies over the years (see Table 2). For example:

“…the other thing we do is nutrient budgeting. Making sure we’re not wasting”.

Many of those were implemented for other reasons than protecting the environment, but have had positive environmental effects non-the-less.

“Things like direct drilling: we do that because it’s cheaper. There’s economic reason behind it, not just for leaching”.

Apart from the practices in Table 1, all the participating farm managers and consultants said that they were considering or already using a number of strategies for when they received more concrete guidelines from the regional councils. These strategies included: developing feed pads outside the catchment areas for wintering of livestock; retiring more areas, in some cases significant areas for horticultural use like blueberries; putting in detention dams; trialling Eco-N fertilisers; downsizing dairy cow herds and replacing them with high performing sheep.

Table 1. Current on-farm environmentally friendly farming practices and technologies.



Riparian strips

  • All main waterways on properties within the Lake Taupo catchment, which include main creeks and wetlands, were fenced off in the early 1980s with the support of the Waikato Valley Authority, which is now Environment Waikato. Participants in the Lake Rotorua catchment also reported that their stock didn’t have access to any natural waterways.

Decrease fertiliser use

  • The majority of participants reported a decrease in the amount of fertiliser they apply on their properties. One interviewee in the Rotorua catchment indicated that they have switched the aerial application of urea via aeroplane to helicopter, because it was more accurate and lessened the risk of urea entering waterways.

Erosion prevention

  • A number of participants were currently re-grassing by means of direct drilling. It was cheaper than conventional methods and also stopped phosphate carrying topsoil from being washed away and getting into waterways and the lakes.

Nutrient budgeting

  • A small number of farm managers and their consultants were using Overseer (a computer program) for nutrient budgeting to save money. This also helped to ensure that more urea than required was not applied to the land. On some farm blocks urea was not applied during winter months.


  • Some farm managers have decreased their breeding cow numbers and increased their ewe numbers, while others tended to trade their heavier cattle before wintering, ensuring that only younger cattle would be on the farm over the winter period. Grazing more cows off the farm block during winter was becoming a common practise for the majority of farm managers. However, in a small number of instances participants said that wintering pads could pose a significant risk to animal health.


  • Some farm managers reported to have introduced shelterbelt plantings on significant parts of their farm blocks.

(e) Farming objectives

The farming objectives of farmers/landholders highlighted what they wanted to achieve in future. None of the interviewees had objectives that directly addressed water quality in the lakes, but most interviewees talked about the importance of long-term profitability and sustainability. Financial viability seemed high on the agenda, for example it was said:

“”You can’t be green if you’re in the red. If you are fighting for survival you can’t be green – that’s the way.”

“Its (reducing nitrogen) important but farmers still got to survive”.

“Our accountant says you don’t spend money on anything that either isn’t going to make life easier or make more money”.

Most interviewees had well-developed long-term visions and strategies in place for realising their objectives. Achieving these objectives required significant capital expenditure, and we found that participants varied significantly in terms of their ability to fund activities that would help them achieve their objectives.

Extension as a policy intervention?

From a policy point of view several tools have been available to influence farmers’ environmental decision-making processes and behaviours (Botha and Blackett 2005). Probably the first tool that comes to mind is extension, but other options have been available too and are well described by David Pannell (2005) for salinity in Australia. In New Zealand there has been no public agricultural extension service and farmers generally got advice from farm consultants and commercial agricultural company representatives. In the dairy sector there has been about 29 consulting officers who work for Dexcel, an industry levy paid research and extension organisation. In the following sections we discuss the question: “is extension a suitable intervention option for changing on-farm environmental behaviours in the Taupo and Rotorua catchment areas?”

(f) Extension and the adoptability of innovations

Guerin and Guerin (1994) have highlighted the importance of innovation characteristics in their major review of innovation adoption in Australian agriculture. Pannell (2005) has indicated that innovations need to be ‘adoptable’, otherwise farmers will ignore them. The notion of using innovation characteristics to assess the adoptability of innovations comes from the theory of perceived attributes and is a useful point of departure (Nutley et al 2002; Clarke 1996; Rogers & Scott, 1997). Other authors like Cary, Webb and Barr (2001) and Vanclay (1992) have also described key considerations that farmers take into account when making adoption decisions. First, the innovation must have some relative advantage over an existing innovation or the status quo, i.e. it must better than what it supersedes. Second, it is important the innovation be compatible (congruence - Vanclay 1992) with existing needs, values, past experiences and practices. Third, the innovation should not be complex (intellectual outlay - Vanclay 1992). Fourth, the innovation must have trialability (divisibility – Vanclay, 1992), i.e. able to be experimented with on a limited basis. Fifth, the innovation must offer observable/visible results (Rogers, 1995). Vanclay (1992) also discusses other factors that influence adoption, i.e. economics and implementation costs, risk and uncertainty, conflicting information, loss of flexibility, and physical and social infrastructure.

It is those innovations that are perceived by individuals as having greater relative advantage, compatibility, trialability and observability, and less complexity that will be adopted more rapidly than other innovations (Rogers and Scott, 1997). Cary et al (2001) categorised natural resource management (NRM) practices in terms of attributes that had been found to be important in determining whether management practices were readily adopted or not. From their list of sustainable practices only one comprised all the attributes they believed to be important for adoption, i.e. being widely applicable, having high relative advantage to the landholder, low complexity, high compatibility, high trialability and observability. We have shown that six practices in the Taupo/Rotorua area are being used (Table 1). These have not been categorised in terms of their attributes to compare how they fit the Cary et al (2001) criteria. It is important to note that four of the practices were being used by some or a small number of participants and that there were several other technologies and practices available, which have not been reported as being used. Relating this back to the adoptability of these technologies and practices is work for the future. Pannell (2005) says that: “If they (innovations) are not (adoptable), then communication and education activities will simply confirm a farmer’s decision not to adopt as well as degrade the social standing of the field agents of the organisation. Extension providers should invest time and resources in attempting to ascertain whether an innovation is adoptable before proceeding with extension to promote its uptake”. Better understanding the adoptability of sustainable farming practices would help determine if and what role extension has to play in these catchments.

Extension (communication and education) are widely relied upon in environmental programs. However, much of this extension is said to be of limited effect and in New Zealand most extension is focussed on raising awareness, rather than encouraging behaviour change (Ford, personal communication 2005). Raising awareness and providing technical information influence farmers’ knowledge and skills base and attitudes. But changing farmers’ goals and values is a different story. According to Pannell, Marshall, Barr, Curtis, Vanclay and Wilkinson (2005) it is much more difficult (and sometimes ethically problematic) to change the goals of people. It seems that the Landcare movement in Australia has increased the emphasis given to conservation goals by landholders, but the extent of increase has been modest for most landholders and the movement has perhaps reached the limits of its influence (Pannell et al, 2005). Yet, even with the most expert and persuasive extension, landholders are not likely to change their management unless they can be convinced that the proposed changes are consistent with their goals (Pannell et al., 2005).

(g) Extension and the lakes’ water quality

Farmers’ current situation gives indications of whether extension would be a useful intervention. Table 2 summarises the current situation and shows our views of whether extension is justifiable.

Table 2. Extension and how it may apply to farmers’ current situation.

Aspect of current situation

Extent to which extension is applicable

Is extension justifiable

General understanding of how nutrient leaching and pathways; partly deny responsibility.

A reaction common to resistance to change. Extension can help change this perception.


They believe research results don’t really apply to their particular area and situation.

An excuse commonly used when change is resisted. Extension may be useful but some will never accept the research findings.


Awareness of ways in which they can help solve the problem; already use some of the most commonly known practices.

This may strengthen resistance to change because they may believe they already do enough. Current use of practices is not driven by the desire to protect the lakes or the environment.


Maori have preferred ways of linking with research organisations.

May be a way forward if research organisations have the means and aspiration to do extension.


They value the land and natural environment and want to protect it.

A strong value which can be built upon by extension, but in itself it does not justify intervention.


Long term business plans in place; desire to balance economic, social and environmental outcomes.

The economic imperative is still strong and ways still have to be found to help farmers balance these outcomes in a practical manner.


They trust their farm consultants but they can’t advise on best practice regarding the environment.

Consultants could be trained in this area and may provide a strong driver for change. Consultancy is a form of extension.


Some Maori groups are cash strapped.

Expensive solutions will be rejected.


They use a range of information sources.

An additional information source like extension may be unnecessary if current sources could be used to provide the right information. Information alone rarely brings about behaviour change.


Botha and Blackett (2005) have shown that dairy farmers face several key issues in managing their own-farm environment, e.g. the complexity of many of the environmental topics, skills required to manage environmental problems, newness of and unfamiliarity with some of the topics, access to the right information in the right format at the right time, competition for water use, lack of easy-to-use cost effective monitoring tools, balancing production levels with environmental and social outcomes, managing public goods for no compensation, and compliance costs. Complexity is an important characteristic of innovations, and to some extent this suggests that the jury is still out on whether there are adoptable environmentally friendly technologies, practices and systems available. Deklein (personal communication 2005) has said that there is range of technologies and best management practices available to intercept or remove contaminants before entering waterways as well as to manage contaminants at source. She has said that the first set generally require a change in infrastructure design and construction and the second set require a change in a specific management practice on-farm to achieve a desired environmental outcome. According to Deklein (personal communication 2005) and Burggraaf, Lambert, Power and Botha (2005) the first set consists of effluent ponds, grass buffer strips and wetlands, denitrification walls and absorbent materials to capture nutrients from mole-pipe drains. The second set consists of a set of farm dairy effluent management practices; nutrient management e.g. nutrient budgeting to match nutrient supply with demand, applying optimum N fertiliser rates, nitrification inhibitors, and using optimum Olsen P values; grazing or stock management i.e. excluding stock from streams and stand-off pads or wintering pads; feed management i.e. low-N feed supplements, high sugar grasses, condensed tannins, and feed additives; soil management i.e. shorter rotations when soil is at risk of treading damage, grazing wet soils in summer, feed supplement along the fence line, and stand-off pads/wintering pads of herd homes. A similar process to that of Cary et al (2001) to determine which of these environmentally friendly technologies, practices and systems in the Rotorua and Taupo catchments are indeed ‘adoptable’ should be done. If this analysis shows few adoptable technologies, practices or systems extension will not be appropriate.


Participants’ current situation is: they generally understand the problem (nitrogen leaching into and phosphorus reaching the lakes) but don’t take full responsibility for it; they believe research results don’t really apply to their particular area and situation; they know some of the ways in which they can help solve the problem; they value the land and natural environment and want to protect it; they already use some of the most commonly known environmentally friendly farming practices; most have long term business plans which include balancing economic, social and environmental outcomes but don’t necessarily know how to balance them; they trust their farm consultants and work closely with them but it has been indicated that these consultants generally don’t have the know-how to advise on best practice regarding the environment; some participants are cash strapped. Assuming that a major part of extension is about the adoption of innovations, it is but one of several policy tools to influence farmers’ environmental decision-making processes and behaviours. Extension in the Taupo and Rotorua areas has been mainly in the form of dairy industry employed (Dexcel) consulting officers, farm consultants and the media. Innovation characteristics are important when considering the adoptability of any innovation. If innovations are not adoptable, then communication and education activities will simply confirm a farmer’s decision not to adopt as well as degrade the social standing of the field agents of the organisation. Using this prerequisite and based upon participants’ current situation, we conclude that all the available environmentally friendly technologies, practices and systems have to be assessed for their adoptability. If a critical mass of them prove to be adoptable extension would be justifiable. Key learnings are that water quality in Lake Taupo and Rotorua is deteriorating; extension may be an appropriate policy instrument to influence farmers’ environmental decision-making processes and behaviours; all the available environmentally friendly technologies, practices and systems have to be assessed for their adoptability.


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