By Simon Edwards
Zeb Horrell’s vision for a less restrictive district planning approach to houses on farms brings dividends around extra farm capital, diversification, workforce help and self-sustainability.
It’s also another bite out of our daunting housing shortage problem and a way that more Kiwi families can experience the joys and advantages of rural life.
Zeb pulls over the tractor on his farm The Montana Flat at Riversdale, Southland, for a phone interview with FedsNews. He sounds busy. The morning lambing run has gone well but there’s a lot of branches to clear up after a recent storm. Zeb and his family are into self-sufficiency and exploring a variety of land use options. He says having more people living on the property would make practices like home gardening and a permaculture orchard far more feasible and economic. A simple arrangement might be selling or leasing a small patch of land for a couple of extra homes.
The idea developed further could look something like an ‘agri-hood’ – a small community oriented around sustainable food production.
Southland’s planning rules for his area allows up to four dwellings for staff accommodation on the farm. Landowners are allowed to produce for the primary sector but any foray into entertainment, education or accommodation is not a permitted activity.
“There are all these barriers to explore other options. It’s basically a $30,000 resource consent planning bill just to start the conversation, let alone having the development plan,” Zeb says.
Rural activity zones or whatever other name they’re given in District Plans around the nation are about reserving our best soils for production, preserving the ‘rural character’ of the hinterland, reducing urban sprawl (and thus infrastructure costs), and guarding against ‘reverse sensitivity’ (people moving into rural areas and then complaining about cows mooing in the early morning, noise at harvesting time and dust from farm laneways).
Zeb understands all that and agrees the carving up of good farmland for lifestyle blocks is a waste. “That’s not what I’m talking about. I think there’s room for more flexibility in (District Plan) rules to allow for houses on existing farms, whether to rent or own, for families who want to take part in farm life and a rural lifestyle, or for Air BnBs and agri-tourism.
“It would be very easy to write into those rules that food production capacity has to be inset, or restoration of the natural environment. If you’re going to lose a third of an acre to a house, there needs to be a plan to offset that loss of productive capacity with an increase in some other production, such as home gardens, orchard trees or whatever.”
It’s timely to have the discussion, with the current review of the Resource Management Act. Zeb is worried that the current debate seems to be all about centralising things even more.
Karen Williams, Federated Farmers spokesperson on the resource management review, agrees that any future regime must provide for innovative land use options provided effects are mitigated, and the appropriateness of the activity must be decided by community input into local plan preparation, not from super-sized regional planning committees.
“Provided any adverse effects are adequately mitigated and reverse sensitivity issues addressed, then we need to ensure there is a consenting framework that gives farmers and growers flexibility to run profitable sustainable businesses. I also like the idea of ‘extra’ labour being in the district that can be utilised during peak times, with the opportunity for a greater understanding of what running a farm business is like,” Karen said.
Zeb has done a lot of research on agri-hoods and similar paradigm-shifting solutions and says around the world there’s a “groundswell” of interest from people who want to escape city apartments for a more outdoors, self-sufficient way of life. The growing trend to working from home, on-line, is a game-changer, he says.
“COVID has spurred that up big time. You know, five years ago talk of being a digital nomad was still a really out-there idea. Now there are bankers and lawyers and all sorts of others who have that capacity,” he said.
“My sister lives in Frankton but her work is based in Tauranga.”
City roads and services are under huge pressure. Zeb sees great scope for more families being able to experience a farm lifestyle, with some of these digital nomads making their living from on-line work, but perhaps also helping solve workforce shortage issues on the farm, especially during busy lambing/calving and harvest seasons.
“What would be particularly useful is help with ecological restoration. We have a small nursery with probably 200 trees. But I simply don’t have the time to go out there and plant them and manage them. Like many farms, we’re operating in debt so it’s hard justifying paying for an extra labour unit for activities that don’t net a return.
“As I said, I’m working towards becoming self-sufficient and that’s a huge amount of work to take on. If you have more people, you’re able to further diversify what happens on-farm, growing food, producing plants and trees and restoring eco-systems.
“It’s a win for the landowner, a win for the potential resident and a win for the environment.”
Right now though, the initial legislative hurdle is set way too high to jump, Zeb says.
“With the housing crisis in cities deepening, and the de-population of rural areas hurting small provincial communities and schools, let’s get on with the conversation.”