Skip to main content


Log in

The challenge of economic growth for sustainable production landscapes

  • Special Feature: Review Article
  • Pathways towards sustainable landscapes
  • Published:
Sustainability Science Aims and scope Submit manuscript


The New Zealand government narrowly frames farming policy to exert pressure on farmers to increase their contribution to the national economy by producing more agricultural products for export through adopting on-farm ‘best practice’. Simultaneously, farmers are under pressure by the government and the public to protect, if not enhance, the sustainability of their farming landscapes. These expectations are to be met in an environment of changing extreme weather patterns, increasing costs and financial uncertainty. Farmers’ response to their context was studied by analysis of what farmers actually do—their practices and outcomes of those practices—enabled through the collection of data from sheep/beef family farms undertaken over 8 years by the Agriculture Research Group on Sustainability. The outcomes of their practices, while sometimes visible in the landscape, became more apparent through a nuanced analysis of multiple data sources (quantitative and qualitative) which revealed the complexity involved in sustaining families, animals and landscapes. Farmers could be grouped into categories labelled developers or low performers, adaptable risk takers, organic conservers, extensive farmers and stable, continuous improvers, indicating the range of choices farmers make to meet their goals while carefully adapting their management of the natural resource base. Pressure to ‘change’ to fit politically driven agendas that overemphasise economic growth runs the risk of undervaluing what farmers already do and may limit the different ways they are able to balance their management of the sustainability, resilience and productivity of their production landscapes and farming businesses.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Similar content being viewed by others



  2. Three per cent of New Zealand’s total land area changed between 1990 and 2008, most of it from grassland to plantation forestry. In this period, there was a 41 per cent decline in the number of commercial sheep/beef farms and a rise in the average number of stock units per farm as farms have been consolidated. However, productivity gains through the increase in lambing percentages, and the finishing of lambs to a heavier weight has not significantly reduced the sector’s production (Deloitte 2011).

  3. These categories were chosen with the hope that some indices of intensification, capital value, efficiency and financial sustainability would be found, but in the end, this was not possible as there was not a sufficient correlation between the variables associated with each category (see Table 1).

  4. The full analysis can be found in Hunt (2011).

  5. A mixed approach was used to calculate the stock units. There was sufficient information on sheep production levels to estimate individual values for each farm based on the approach defined by Cornforth and Sinclair (1984). The cattle and deer were valued using standard conversion factors as per the Lincoln University Farm Technical Manual (Fleming 2003).

  6. These variables are also used by the Ministry of Primary Industries in its annual farm monitoring reports.

  7. The PCs after the first four dropped off significantly in the proportions of variance covered.

  8. SPSS one-way ANOVA, using least significant difference (LSD) for the posthoc multiple comparison tests.

  9. A farm which was missing a core variable was able to added at this stage, making 24 farms altogether.

  10. When cropping farms were included in this analysis, there was a smaller significant increase.

  11. Pers. comm. Glen Greer who managed the collection and analysis of the ARGOS financial statistics where she saw evidence of these practices. However, no one confesses to this, and there is little written about it though the issue is raised from time to time as in an election year—

  12. On average, these farms were at least twice the size of those in the other groups (see Table 4).


  14. A run-off property is one where animals can be sent in times when feed is short on the home farm, usually in the summer and autumn. In New Zealand, it is usually closer to the mountains where there is a higher rainfall in the summer.

  15. An emphasis on efficiency has resulted in some unexpected environmental benefits (Hunt et al. 2013).


  • Anderson A (2002) A fragile plenty: pre-European Māori and the New Zealand environment. In: Pawson E, Brooking T (eds) Environmental histories of New Zealand. Oxford University Press, Melbourne, pp 19–34

    Google Scholar 

  • Beef+Lamb (2012) Lake Taupo monitor farm programme: revealing the realities of implementing and operating under a nutrient management cap: the Lake Taupo catchment experience. Beef+Lamb, Wellington.

  • Beef+Lamb Economic Service (2013) Mid-season update. Beef+Lamb, Wellington.

  • Bell S, Morse S (2008) Sustainability indicators: measuring the immeasurable?. Earthscan, London

    Google Scholar 

  • Berkes F (2007) Understanding uncertainty and reducing vulnerability: lessons from resilience thinking. Nat Hazards 41:283–295

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Beus C, Dunlap R (1991) Measuring adherence to alternative versus conventional agricultural paradigms: a proposed scale. Rural Sociol 56:432–460

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Burton RJF (2004) Seeing through the ‘good farmer’s’ eyes: towards developing an understanding of the social symbolic value of ‘productivist’ behaviour. Sociol Rural 44(2):195–215

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Burton RJF (2006) The alternative to farmer age as an indicator of life-cycle stage: the case for a farm family age index. J Rural Stud 22:485–492

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Burton RJF, Wilson GA (2006) Injecting social psychology theory into conceptualisations of agricultural agency: towards a post-productivity farmer self-identity? J Rural Stud 22:95–115. doi:10.1016/j.jrurstud.2005.07.004

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Campbell H, Burton R, Cooper M, Henry M, Le Heron E, Le Heron R, Lewis N, Pawson E, Perkins H, Roche M, Rosin C, White T (2009) From agricultural science to “biological economies”? N Z J Agric Res 52:91–97. doi:10.1080/002882230909510492

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Campbell H, Fairweather J, Manhire J, Saunders C, Moller H, Reid J, Benge J, Blackwell G, Carey P, Emanuelsson M, Greer G, Hunt L, Lucock D, Rosin C, Norton D, MacLeod C, Knight B (2012a) The agriculture research group on sustainability programme: a longitudinal and transdisciplinary study of agricultural sustainability in New Zealand. ARGOS research report No. 12/01

  • Campbell HR, Rosin CJ, Hunt LM, Fairweather JR (2012b) The social practice of sustainable agriculture under audit discipline: initial insights from the ARGOS project in New Zealand. J Rural Stud 28(1):129–141

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Carey P, Lucock D, Benge J (2009) Soil properties on ARGOS dairy and sheep and beef farms 2007. ARGOS research report 08/04

  • Cornforth IS, Sinclair AG (1984) Fertiliser recommendations for pasture and crops in New Zealand, 2nd edn. Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, Wellington

  • Coyle F, Fairweather J (2005) Challenging a place myth: New Zealand’s clean green image meets the biotechnology revolution. Area 37(2):148–158. doi:10.1111/j.1475-4762.2005.00617.x

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Darnhofer I (2011) Strategies of family farms to strengthen their resilience. Environ Policy Gov 20:212–222

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Darnhofer I, Bellon S, Dedieu B, Milestad R (2010) Adaptiveness to enhance the sustainability of farming systems: a review. Agron Sustain Dev 30:545–555

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Darnhofer I, Fairweather J, Moller H (2011) Assessing a farm’s sustainability: insights from resilience thinking. Int J Agric Sustain 8(3):186–198

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Deloitte (2011) Red meat sector strategy report. Beef+Lamb New Zealand Limited and Meat Industry Association of New Zealand. Retrieved 31 Aug 2012

  • Environment Canterbury (n.d.) Canterbury water: Selwyn Waihora zone implementation programme. Report number R11/106. Environment Canterbury Regional Council, Christchurch.

  • Fairweather JR, Rosin CJ, Hunt LM, Campbell HR (2009a) Are conventional farmers conventional? Analysis of the environmental orientations of conventional New Zealand farmers. Rural Sociol 74(3):430–454

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fairweather J, Hunt L, Benge J, Campbell H, Greer G, Lucock D, Manhire J, Meadows S, Moller H, Rosin C, Saunders C, Fukuda Y (2009b) New Zealand farmer and orchardist attitude and opinion survey 2008: characteristics of conventional, modified conventional(integrated) and organic management, and of the sheep/beef, horticulture and dairy sectors. ARGOS research report 09/02

  • Fellus E (2012) Smart agrimatics—Paris, June 14, 2012. SAI Platform.

  • Fleming PH (2003) Farm technical manual. Farm Management Group, Lincoln University, Christchurch, pp A-182

  • Folke C, Colding J, Berkes F (2003) Building resilience and adaptive capacity in social-ecological systems. In: Berks F, Colding J, Folke C (eds) Navigating social-ecological systems. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 352–473

    Google Scholar 

  • Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) (2004) The ethics of sustainable agricultural intensification. FAO Ethics Series 3. Accessed 24 April 2013

  • Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) (2013) Climate-smart agriculture. Source Book. FAO, Rome.

  • Greer G, Hunt L (2011) Comparison of the productivity and profitability of organic and conventional farms in the New Zealand sheep/beef and kiwifruit sectors 2002/03 to 2007/08. In: Proceedings of the 18th international farm management association congress, Methven, New Zealand, 20–25 March 2011, pp 111–121

  • Hodgson J, Cameron K, Clark D, Condron L, Fraser T, Hedley M, Holmes C, Kemp P, Lucas R, Moot D, Morris S, Nicholas P, Shadbolt N, Sheath G, Valentine I, Waghorn G, Woodfield D (2005) New Zealand’s pastoral industries: efficient use of pastoral resources. In: Reynolds SG, Frame J (eds) Grasslands: developments, opportunities, perspectives. FAO/Science Publishers Inc., Enfield, NH, pp 181–205

    Google Scholar 

  • Hunt LM (2004) The rise and fall of DDT in New Zealand. N Z Sociol 19(2):240–259

    Google Scholar 

  • Hunt L (2011) Complementary pathways to sustainability. ARGOS research report 11/04

  • Hunt LM, Rosin C, McLeod C, Read M, Fairweather JR, Campbell HR (2005) Understanding approaches to kiwifruit production in New Zealand: report on first qualitative interviews with ARGOS kiwifruit participants. ARGOS research report 05/01

  • Hunt LM, Rosin C, Read M, Fairweather JR, Campbell HR (2006) Understanding approaches to sheep/beef production in New Zealand: report on first qualitative interviews with ARGOS sheep/beef participants. ARGOS research report 06/01

  • Hunt L, Rosin C, Campbell H, Fairweather J (2013) The impact of neo-liberalism on New Zealand farmers: changing what it means to be a ‘good farmer’. Ext Farming Syst J 9:34–42

    Google Scholar 

  • Lucock D, Hunt L (2011) How do organic, integrated and conventional sheep/beef farms differ in meat production? In: Proceedings of the 18th international farm management association congress, Methven, New Zealand, 20–25 March 2011, pp 144–156

  • MacLeod CJ, Blackwell B, Weller F, Moller H (2012) Designing a bird monitoring scheme for New Zealand’s agricultural sectors. N Z J Ecol 36(3):312–323

    Google Scholar 

  • Marsden T (2013) Sustainable place-making for sustainability science: the contested case of agri-food and urban–rural relations. Sustain Sci 8:213–226

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Marston JM (2011) Archaeological markers of agricultural risk management. J Anthropol Archaeol 30:190–205

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) (2012) Briefing for the incoming ministers 2011. Ministry for Primary Industries, Wellington.

  • Ministry for the Environment (MfE) (2001) Our clean green image: what’s it worth? Summary leaflet. Ministry for the Environment, Wellington.

  • Morgan C (2009) Climate change, uncertainty and prehistoric hunter–gatherer mobility. J Anthropol Archaeol 28:382–396

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Pretty J (2008) Agricultural sustainability: concepts, principles and evidence. Philos Trans R Soc B:447–465

  • Reynolds SG, Frame J (eds) (2005) Grasslands: developments, opportunities, perspectives. FAO/Science Publishers Inc., Enfield

  • Rogers EM (1983) Diffusion of innovations. The Free Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Rosin C, Hunt L, Campbell H, Fairweather J (2007) Becoming the audited: response of New Zealand sheep/beef farmers to the introduction of supermarket initiated audit schemes. ARGOS research report 07/05.

  • Rosin C, Cooper M, Mackenzie A, Maegli T (2008) New Zealand pastoral farmers and the mitigation of greenhouse gases in the agricultural sector. Report submitted to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.

  • Rosin C, Dwiartama A, Hunt L, van den Dungen S (2012) Resilience in retrospective: analysis of response to shocks and stress in the New Zealand kiwifruit and sheep/beef sectors. ARGOS report 12/08

  • Rosin C, Manhire J, Moller H, Saunders C, McCusker K, Saunders J, Reynolds D, Busfield W, Chanut P (2013) Intensification trajectories in the context of climate change: potential pathways for the New Zealand pastoral sector. ARGOS research report 13/04. ARGOS, Christchurch

  • SAFA (2013) Sustainability assessment of food and agriculture systems (SAFA) guidelines (version 3.0). Natural Resources and Environment Department, FAO

  • Selman P (2008) What do we mean by sustainable landscape? Sustain Sci Pract Policy 4(2):23–28

    Google Scholar 

  • Statistics New Zealand (2009) Statistics New Zealand’s framework for measuring sustainable development. Statistics New Zealand, Wellington.

  • van der Ploeg JD (1994) Styles of farming: an introductory note on concepts and methodology. In: van der Ploeg JD, Long A (eds) Born from within: practices and perspectives of endogenous rural development. van Gorcum, Assen, pp 7–30

    Google Scholar 

  • Vanclay F, Howden P, Mesiti L, Glyde S (2006) The social and intellectual construction of farming styles: testing Dutch ideas in Australian agriculture. Sociol Rural 46(1):61–82

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Walker B, Holling CS, Carpenter SR, Kinzig A (2004) Resilience, adaptability and transformability in social-ecological systems. Ecol Soc 9(2):5.

Download references


Thanks to the referees and the editors, Iris Bohnet and Ruth Beilin, of this special issue, for their support and helpful comments which have undoubtedly made this a better article. Thanks also to Chris Rosin (CSAFE, University of Otago) for his insightful comments, Dave Lucock (The Agribusiness Group, Christchurch) for his continuing education of the author in farming matters and his intimate knowledge of the ARGOS farmers gained through his work as Field Research Manager, Jon Manhire (ARGOS Programme Leader, The Agribusiness Group, Christchurch) and to the rest of the ARGOS team for their support and the use of their collected data. This work has been funded by the New Zealand Government, with other financial assistance from an anonymous meat packing company, Merino NZ and the Organic Association of Aotearoa NZ (OANZ).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Lesley Hunt.

Additional information

Handled by Iris C. Bohnet, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 57 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Hunt, L. The challenge of economic growth for sustainable production landscapes. Sustain Sci 10, 219–230 (2015).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: