The best crops in the right places

15 May 2017

Jonno Rau

Masters student Jonno Rau is working with the Wairoa District Council to match soil types with most suitable crops.

A University of Waikato masters student is using sophisticated technology to find out which plants will grow best for commercial production in Northern Hawke’s Bay.

Jonno Rau (Tainui) is using soil science, climate science and GIS mapping to determine what crops will grow best in different areas. The research is supported by Landcare Research and the Wairoa District Council, and NASA is contributing too – the space agency has satellite data, to which it allows free public access, and which Jonno will use for climate analysis.

Before turning to science, Jonno spent the best part of a decade travelling the world as a rafting and canyon guide, and also worked in the “greens department” on film sets doing short-term contracts, including The Hobbit. “But I got to the stage where I wanted to do something else. I’d always enjoyed science at Huntly College and I looked around at what the different universities offered. I liked what I saw at Waikato and it helped I had family nearby.”

Jonno enrolled in a Bachelor of Science majoring in Earth Sciences and Environmental Sciences, and it was a summer school internship at Landcare Research, along with support from Wairoa District Council, that influenced the subject of his Masters degree.

“I wanted a project that had real-world application so I took my time to choose, then when I heard about this earth science project, everything clicked,” Jonno says.

He’s investigating growing conditions for a range of crops – orchard fruits, such as peaches, apples and pears, different varieties of nuts, and native plants, such as manuka and kawakawa for honey. “So I’ll be analysing the soil composition and matching that with the soil and irrigation needs of different crops, and then I’ll develop suitability maps for the district, showing what areas have high or reasonable capability for different crops.

Part of his research involves using data loggers to monitor temperatures, and to ascertain frost occurrences in different parts of the district; Nuhaka, Wairoa township, Frasertown, Tiniroto areas, the Waiau and Mohaka river valleys and the coastal flats. The data from the data-loggers will be used to “ground truth” the satellite data to ensure a reliable data-set.

“It’s all about making a contribution to land use in the region,” Jonno says. “So the information can be used by farmers and landowners, particularly Maori, and ultimately production is increased in the area and it boosts the local economy.

“I’d like to return in the future, see an orchard that I helped to create.”

Dr Megan Balks at the University of Waikato is Jonno’s academic supervisor. She’s confident Jonno’s project can make a valuable contribution to land use and development in the Wairoa district.  “The Wairoa District Council is keen to build links with the University of Waikato,” she says. “It’s great to see a small isolated district council being so proactive about improving the opportunities for people in their district.”