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“Getting Mud on the boots (and the Laptop!) ” – The Topoclimate© process and providing credible resource information for farmers.

G.K. Hutchinson

Project Manager,
Topoclimate South Trust
59 Main Road, Mataura,
Southland New Zealand
Ph 0064-3-2033960
or 0064-25354535


This paper describes the integration of complex systems of geospatial resource information as an essential pre-requisite for optimal resource management and sustainable land use decisions for rural communities.

The paper introduces the Topoclimate© concept for sustainable rural development and describes the pre-requisites for project development. It also outlines two successful examples of Topoclimate© project development the Topoclimate South initiative in New Zealand and a Topoclimate© initiative involving six shires in southwest Western Australia.

The Topoclimate© Concept is a community–driven vision for sustainable rural development including diversification, increased productivity and sustainable land use, based on quality information on the land resource and defined community needs.

The paper describes the need for data to be both accurate and at appropriate scales for usability by farmers. It also outlines the benefits of local community participation in the data collection processes and the need for and effective information transfer and interpretation service to be part of the wider rural development process.

In the Topoclimate© process, local communities are encouraged to identify the critical factors influencing land uses in their region and to develop local solutions to their information needs with external agencies and technologies providing a support role to the community-driven process.


Land use decision making, whether it is for improved productivity, investigation of a diversification option or for changing farming practices for sustainability benefit, all require good quality information to minimise risk.

Risk might be regarded as the “uncertainty of consequences”. It should also be considered in an opportunity context as well as something that might be avoided. Farmers do manage risk all the time and probably do it better than we normally give them credit. The risk environment is always changing and some adaptations/ responses will always need to be considered. Tools (information and methods) and analytical procedures are also changing, expanding the potential for managing risk (Powell, 1994).

These tools and analytical procedures are dominantly geospatial in nature and require the implementers of change in each community to develop a rudimentary understanding of some key principles of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) such as multi-layering of data and spatial integrity of data.

The Topoclimate© Concept has been developed to help local communities address their information needs in developing sustainable rural development programmes in a process which is locally driven in a “bottom-up” process as distinct from the more common Government–driven “top-down” land use initiatives.

The concept was initially developed as a community initiative in the Southland Region of New Zealand but now is under consideration for a number of areas throughout New Zealand and Australia and other parts of the World.

Two Topoclimate projects are described in this paper as examples of community responses to the quality of information currently available (and the accessibility of that information) for the processes of land use change.

A number of geospatial issues have arisen and been addressed from the development of these projects and comments on these issues are included in this paper.


The Topoclimate© concept is described as a community– driven vision for sustainable rural development including diversification, increased productivity and sustainable land use, based on quality information on the land resource and defined community needs. (Hutchinson and Hutchinson, 2001).

The concept of “Topoclimate Mapping” has been developed to meet the needs of each community for integrated spatial information and also to take advantage of improvements in technology over the last five years including improved Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and the continuing development of automated temperature dataloggers.

The common threads for all Topoclimate© Projects developed to date are:

  • Community ownership and setting challenges for communities
  • Local community-driven identification of the critical factors affecting land use
  • Community participation in the data collection process
  • Community outcomes and benefits from each project
  • Continuing access to geospatial information for local communities

Figure 1: Location of Southland Region, New Zealand showing Annual Survey Programme 1998-2001

The Topoclimate South Pilot Programme in Southland, New Zealand

The Southland community has long recognised that the critical factors in determining land use potential in Southland are the quality of soils and the amount of accumulated heat available for plant growth and reproduction. The Topoclimate mapping process involved the integrated analysis and interpretation of soil and climate data at an appropriate scale for land users. The output information was expected to assist landowners lessen the risks associated with any changes to their farming systems and has had an unexpected additional impact of generating attitude change amongst land users as their understanding of their land resource improves.

The soils of a number of areas of Southland have been mapped previously, initially by the New Zealand Soil Bureau of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), and latterly by the Landcare Research Institute. This work has been at a range of scales and did not always include sufficient chemical and physical information on different soil types in addition to spatial polygons defining their areal extent. The whole region had been mapped at a scale of 1 inch: 4 miles in 1968 but this gave insufficient detail to allow for any individual property or district planning at an appropriate scale.

The challenge for the Topoclimate South Project then was twofold:

(i) How to fill in the gaps in the soil data in a cost-effective manner.

(ii) How to regionally correlate the previous surveys

The identification of annual accumulated heat levels on a spatial basis follows initial work done by Turner and Fitzharris (1986), and Cossens and Johnstone (1987) in the Central Otago Region of New Zealand. These surveys, although being conducted at a local scale using manual methods, had positive outcomes for the communities involved. New stone fruit growing areas were identified and a viable new wine producing area developed near Queenstown. The Topoclimate Project has extended the Central Otago work by applying new technologies and making larger regional surveys possible.

The Southland region of New Zealand at the southern end of the South Island is at a latitude of 45-47° South. The region comprises about 13% of the land area of New Zealand including its largest protected natural area, Fiordland National Park. The region includes large areas of high quality soils and microclimates, capable of growing a wide range of crops, pastures and trees. The region contributes some 18% of New Zealand’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) but is home to only 2.6% of New Zealand’s population. The major socio-economic issue facing the region at the start of the project was a significant population decline.

The 4,500 farms in the region have an average farm size of 160ha and are generally used for intensive monocultural farming systems (usually sheep and beef farming). This type of farm unit has had a ten-year history (prior to this year) of very low profits fuelled by low commodity prices for meat and wool. Over the last fifteen years, the number of farm workers per farm has dropped from 3.5 to 1.2 while the average off-farm income per farm in Southland had reached $NZ24,000 per annum in 1998. As farm partners have moved into town to take on work to supplement farm incomes, they tended to displace the opportunities in the towns for school leavers. The young people from the Southland community then tended to leave the region in search of employment, leaving an aging farmer population (average age 56) and uneven age distribution within the rural population (Anon, 1998).

Provision of good land resource information was identified as a key factor in promoting the development of the Region’s land use potential by “Crops for Southland”, a focus group comprising commercial interests, farmers, growers, scientists and the Regional and Territorial Local Authorities.

The aim of the “Crops for Southland” Incorporated Society is:-

Development of privately owned, market based commercial horticulture cropping of a significant scale for southern New Zealand.

Within this aim the society has three goals:

  • To create a significant number of thriving, horticultural-based industries making their contribution to Southland’s economy.
  • To grow crops which have strong commercially competitive advantages and are marketed and managed in the best way possible.
  • To maximise benefits to local people, their communities and to create employment opportunities.

The Topoclimate South project developed from the group’s enthusiasm and desire to provide top-quality information on the physical resources of their area to potential investors to promote the orderly and sustained development of the wide range of cropping options for the high quality soils and microclimates in the Southland area. The Southland community recognised that there are large areas of good quality soils and microclimates capable of providing a long-term sustainable future for the region provided that these areas are accurately identified. A pro-active local community led by District and Regional Councils, backed by local community financial support, recognised that there is generally a lack of good quality soils and climate information at an appropriate scale on which sustainable land use decisions can be based. They identified that community collection and delivery of this integrated land resource information could be an effective mechanism for the community to assist and encourage individuals to reduce risks in the development of both new farming enterprises and more effective and efficient existing uses of land.

The integrated process involved in Topoclimate mapping gives greater benefits to understanding of land processes than obtainable by undertaking each part separately (either spatially or temporally).

As long as light intensity, light duration and water supply are adequate, crop growth is predominately affected by temperature (Sturman and Tapper, 1996).

Growing Degree-Days (GDDs) are used as the measure of accumulated temperature or heat units above a reference temperature. GDDs are used as an index of the overall effect of temperature over time (Hutchinson, 1997).

This information becomes especially relevant as GDDs decline towards the minimum requirements for crops and grasses. As shown in Figure 2, The GDDs calculated for many of the weather stations in Southland are close to, or below, the minimum required for many crops and are only 25% of the accumulated heat units available in the Northland region of New Zealand. In this situation, the effect of topography in creating beneficial microclimates assumes much more importance.

Figure 2: Average annual growing-degree-day measurements (above a 10°C base temperature) for a range of long term weather stations in New Zealand (Anon, 1974)

The need for local scale topoclimate maps is increasing as the pace of land use change is quickening. Where pastoral agriculture is the dominant land use, topoclimates are possibly less important because mobile livestock integrate any differences in grass production by grazing over the variety of terrain on the farm. However, when cropping is being considered, the topoclimate becomes more critical and can give a large economic advantage to the grower.

Innovative technologies used in the topoclimate process

Identifying Microclimates

There have been a number of innovations in technique since the initial microclimate surveys were done in the 1980’s using maximum/minimum thermometers (Cossens and Johnstone, 1989). Most important has been the development of electronic dataloggers with associated temperature sensors, which are now capable of recording and storing temperatures for extended periods of time. These dataloggers are small, portable and with a lithium battery power source, are capable of operating for long periods without the need for downloading or servicing. The previous main use for dataloggers had been in refrigerated shipments of produce where they provide an accurate record of storage facility temperature fluctuations as part of improved quality control processes.

Topoclimate mapping using dataloggers offers the opportunity for better risk management by land users. It is a valuable management tool for identifying and assessing the potential of existing and alternative crops, pastures and trees within climate regions. Although climate stations operated by the National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) record information that is useful for broad regional selection of cropping sites, the network is too coarse to identify local scale climatic variations that are induced by topography. Most horticultural crops are established on areas of 10ha or less, often taking advantage of local climates in sheltered valleys or on slopes where the risk of frost is diminished.

Land users often report large variations of local climate over a few kilometers, so much so that the economic success of new crops or new sites may depend on the ability to choose the correct terrain feature within the landscape. The development of datalogger technologies has now made it possible to contemplate the measurement of microclimates on a regional basis as is being undertaken by the Topoclimate South Project and others (e.g. Barringer, 1997).

Use of Geographic Positioning systems, GIS and aiming for paperless mapping

The project is employing innovative methods of mapping to speed up the mapping process and take advantage of improvements in technology that have occurred in the last few years. Field survey teams now have the capability to map directly onto laptop computers running the Project’s own software incorporating a MapInfo GIS package providing background maps of the survey area, and Trimble Pathfinder GPS cards (incorporating Trimble’s Aspen © software) for accurate positioning of each data point using satellite technology. This is a vast improvement in mapping techniques over manual processes formerly employed in terms of speed of both data gathering and collation processes. The project aim has been to create a virtually paperless mapping environment for field staff as well as to accelerate the pace of the mapping process through use of technologies. The system aims to prevent any compromise of final output quality partly by avoiding repetitive transcription processes that were previously the source of a number of errors. Management systems have also been introduced in the project for independent quality control of the quicker and more automated mapping process.

Incorporating Sustainability issues into mainstream farmer decision making.

In considering sustainability issues, off-site effects as well as on-site effects must be taken into account. Thus a land use which has no obvious land or soil effects, but which contaminates groundwater, cannot be regarded as sustainable. The project has tested a Soil Vulnerability Index based on objective soil parameters measured during the mapping process and found it to be a successful methodology for illustrating relative soil structural vulnerability to farmers. The project is also classifying soils for leaching and stream/groundwater contamination risk. By combining considerations of on-site and off-site risk, best management practices for soils or groups of soils have been established. High-class soils (McIntosh, 1989) have also been identified.

While degradation of soils under pastoral use (McIntosh, 1992a) and under cropping (McIntosh, 1992b) tend to be emphasised, there are also positive aspects of intensive land use to be considered, such as the amelioration of soil pH, and an increase in fertility, in subsoils as well as topsoils (McIntosh and Savage, 1993). During topoclimate mapping baseline sites are also being established to measure such positive effects.

Achieving the transfer of the technological benefits to the land user

As has been the case historically with most land mapping processes world-wide, much attention in the past in New Zealand has been given to producing an accurate scientific document as a result of the mapping process. The map and explanatory text, usually written in correct scientific terminology, has then graced the shelves of local authorities, the local library and Government advisory service without ever being used or interpreted to maximum benefit by the actual land users to whom it has most relevance.

The local communities of Southland decided at the commencement of the project that there was little point in producing quality geospatial information unless a mechanism was also developed to effectively transfer that information to the local community. The Topoclimate South project aimed to provide accurate and relevant information specifically designed for land users. To initiate this process, every farmer who agreed to give access to their property has received a free soil map and free GDD map of their area at the conclusion of the survey work. A Project Web site was established at an early stage and may be viewed at

The Trust have also established Topoclimate Services (as an information transfer service) in co-operation with local District Councils so that land users will be able to obtain inexpensive access to both data and technical advice for interpretation of the maps.

By utilising the power of the GIS systems, Topoclimate Services can provide very powerful analysis tools for land users to assist in a variety of risk management decisions. The information also has become incremental in that because each datapoint is being accurately located using GPS, the information can be retrieved and used at a later date for more detailed surveys. This is a major advance on previous mapping processes, where data storage and later retrieval issues limited the onward usefulness of any mapping data gathered once scale was altered or temporal issues were considered.

The Topoclimate Trust also has secured access rights to a comprehensive crops, pastures and trees database (Plantgro) which outlines the optimum growing conditions and ranges of most economic and potentially economic species of plants. A Windows© version of Plantgro is currently being developed by the Trust by arrangement with the original software designer, Dr. C. Hackett, CSIRO, Australia. The Trust is also developing a new software package (Topoclim) for the spatial analysis and interactive interpretation of soil, climate and plant data at a local scale.

A Topoclimate© Project in the southwest corner of western Australia

A feasibility Study and Business Plan (Hutchinson and Hutchinson, 2001) were completed for this Project in March 2001 by Topoclimate Surveys Pty Ltd working for the Boyup Brook Rural Plan Committee in consultation with the Blackwood Basin group, a non-Government organisation (NGO) representing sustainability interests of a wider regional group. (see map Fig.3 for location)

Six rurally based Shires in the southwest corner of Western Australia, totaling 2,016,300 ha in area and home to a population of 20,412 people, have come together for the development of this plan. Included are the Shires of Boyup Brook, Manjimup, West Arthur, Kojonup, Nannup and Bridgetown-Greenbushes. Together these shires produce a gross annual agricultural production of over $250,000,000 per year.

The aim and vision of the project is to create a vibrant community working together, build community wealth, create employment opportunities and increase growth and diversity in land use and production.

The Region has identified the key issues in its agricultural areas:

  • Profitability of agriculture within the region
  • The degree of market focus of the regional community
  • The information needs for diversity decision-making
  • The degree of uptake of sustainability and environmental protection concepts
  • Availability and scale of land resource information
  • Land user frustration with government agency activities and focus
  • Local access to risk management research and information

Objectives of the Topoclimate© Plan to address the regional needs identified by these issues are to:

  • Increase profitability of agriculture and horticulture in the region
  • Encourage diversity in farming systems through community driven facilitation
  • Develop a market focus orientation for the regional community
  • Integrate sustainability activities into mainstream farmer decision making
  • Fill community information gaps through a survey programme on critical factors influencing land use decisions
  • Ensure that community driven research is relevant and focused
  • Develop user-friendly, local access information delivery systems

The Plan includes detailed strategies to achieve these objectives including establishment of local structures, seeking community buy-in, identifying and motivating local champions, and encouraging product interest groups.

The Project Management Committee (PMC) running the project intends to assess opportunities, identify any knowledge gaps and sponsor research to determine local competitive advantage and market for agricultural products. The group will facilitate change through encouragement of product groups and implementation of effective information delivery systems using Telecentres as the initial point of contact.

Strong working partnerships will be developed between the PMC and agencies such as Agriculture Western Australia, the Rivers and Waters Commission, and the Blackwood Basin Group. An organisational structure to combine community support and imputs with the employment of 31 staff by the PMC is proposed in the Plan.

A four year survey Programme at a farm and paddock scale covering 880,000ha of the region is proposed for the five identified critical information needs: Soils, Climate information including microclimates and rainfall, water availability, community led marketing and Land Use management options.

Proposals are included in the Plan for ensuring strong buy-in by land users through a variety of methods emphasizing personal contact.

Figure 3: Topoclimate© Project Area in the southwest corner of western Australia

The cost of the programme over a 5-year period involving three operational phases is estimated at $12.852M. After contributions from various external agencies are considered, the project needs to directly fund $9.968M over 5 years for the programme to proceed.

The project has significant productivity and employment benefits at both a regional, state and national level. A 10% increase in agricultural productivity in the region represents $25M per year in increased agricultural production, and the Project has the potential to create 2,200 additional jobs in the region over a ten year period according to an initial cost-benefit analysis.

It is proposed that this cost is funded with a significant buy-in by the local communities and that funding is also provided by both State and Federal Government over five years. Contribution shares are based on recognition of the pilot nature of the project, the downstream benefits to state and national interests of the local community setting and achieving measurable employment and production goals. The project is expected to also break down parochial boundaries and develop a regional approach to rural sustainability.


Issues, which have become important in the development of Topoclimate© projects, are:

Credibility of data for both scientists/technocrats and local communities

The process of gathering intensive temperature data to identify microclimates is relatively expensive and a number of climate scientists have suggested that it may be possible to model this data at considerably lower cost. The Topoclimate South Trust, in conjunction with the International Global Change Institute of Waikato University (IGCI) has been developing a number of tools that have started to address this issue, using adapted algorithms from the CLIMPACTS regional scale mapping tools developed by IGCI for a consortium of New Zealand Crown Research Institutes with interests in climate–land relationships.

However, these tools are still reliant on the input of real data at a scale relevant to the required output information. While it is clear that there is a strong statistical relationship between air temperature and slope, aspect, altitude, land cover, cloud cover, wind strength and direction, solar fluction, shelter etc, as individual parameters, these factors do not always act together in simple relationships that can easily be encapsulated in suitable algorithms.

The Topoclimate studies have shown that there is a real need to incorporate local experience of farmers and other land users in the final output maps to maintain their credibility and therefore use by local communities.

The need for interpretation of the science of geospatial data

Farmers tend to be general practitioners rather than experts in most skill areas and particularly in their use of geospatial information to assist their risk management decision-making in their businesses. Most resource data are produced at a science or technical level and usually need some interpretation to optimise their utility. In both New Zealand and Australia, there is a clear role for both government agencies and the consultancy industry to provide this service. Any agencies who share in the data collection process (such as Government, local communities and the private sector) also have a responsibility to ensure that any data produced are made available to end users in a user-friendly format as a major opportunity for influencing sustainable land use in regional communities.

Historically, success with technology transfer processes has been rather mixed in both countries. Programmes such as the Catchment Board soil conservation programme in New Zealand and the Landcare programme in Australia, while including geospatial information components, have tended to focus more on paying landusers grants or subsidies as the mechanism for influencing attitude change. Funding for this mechanism has not been sustainable with most programmes in both countries.

There has also been an alarming trend in both countries as funding mechanisms have become constrained for agencies to either covertly or overtly start to change their modus operandi and start to deal with farmers only in groups rather than as individuals. The technology transfer processes of many agencies appear to be driven solely by fiscal imperatives rather than by targeted and proven methodologies.

A key aspect of the Topoclimate© process is that it is driven by local communities with the support of government agencies and recognises the value of dealing with farmers as individuals to ensure strong community buy-in.

The other important imperative for local communities is to not let the “wow” factor of many of the new technologies overwhelm local needs in land resource projects. There have been a number of projects that have commenced just because the concept of a new technology has been sold to a local group, rather than because the information produced has value and priority for the local community. Communities should clearly define their own aims, objectives and priorities before seeking out appropriate technologies to assist in the process.

Accuracy and the issue of scale

When dealing with geospatial information, a good understanding of the issue of scale is an essential pre-requisite. Mapping scales need to appropriate to provide the detail required by the end-user of the information. The descriptive hierarchy of mapping scales is:

National ą Regional or State ą Community ą Farm ą Paddock

Geospatial data can only be scaled in one direction (Paddock ą National) from the scale at which it is produced without significant loss of accuracy and credibility of the outputs. Much Government-produced geospatial data in both Australia and New Zealand is focused at the regional scale for regional and national planning uses and is of limited value to land users because of scale constraints. To their credit though, most States (and New Zealand) have well-established hierarchies of scales and standards for most of their physical resource data.

There seems to be a reverse logarithmic relationship between map scale and costs of production of maps. This is a dilemma that most local communities face with producing credible geospatial information in an economically justifiable process.

For Topoclimate projects, the scale of mapping is required to be at least at farm scale and preferably at paddock scale. This ranges between 1:50,000 and 1:5,000 scale maps depending on end use requirements for the information.


I wish to thank the Topoclimate South Charitable Trust for their continuing support and guidance in preparation of this paper. Also thanks to Kevin Moir of the Southwest Western Australia Group for his consent to use details of their project in this paper. I also wish to acknowledge the contributions of my staff to the various concepts and ideas in this paper.

Thanks also to the Conference Organisers for the opportunity to attend this event and for their invitation to deliver this keynote address at this conference.


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