Soil and Water Science – Peter Lester & Dexter McGhie

Joyce Barry: Good evening everyone, great pleasure to see you tonight. It’s hot; summer has come. It’s my great pleasure to introduce Peter Lester, who’s the young boy at the back, and Dexter McGhie, the younger one in the front. Now both men are locals; both have followed their passion into environmental health – in Peter’s case, a huge interest in soil from his twenties on, and Dexter following the importance of healthy water supplies throughout his science career. Now Peter was awarded a scholarship to the USA in 1968; over the next ten years or so he studied under soil scientists in Ohio, Colorado and Texas. He returned to New Zealand and has his own consultancy service. His main practice, in laboratories receiving samples world-wide, is established in Waipawa, from which he has recently retired. Peter holds an honorary doctorate in animal nutrition. He is commonly known simply as ’Doctor Dirt’. Welcome, Doctor Dirt.

Dexter attained a degree in applied science, specialising in chemistry and bio-chemistry. He has lectured and worked as a research technician at Massey; oversaw a comprehensive study of Taranaki’s waterways in 1981; and he also worked with a colleague, John Stark. A world-wide index was developed and established at this point – the John Stark Index. I hope you have a minute to describe that tonight, Dexter. He’s a local landowner, and acutely aware of how things have changed.

So tonight as you know, this year the perfect storm happened; what relationship exists between soils and animals is hopefully to be exposed to all of us by an enquiry, with hopefully, the best scientists available, because that is where the answers are best determined. Water is so important that an expert’s opinion this morning stressed that it had to be taken out of politicians’ hands entirely; time will tell that one. So, ladies and gentlemen, the first half will be a powerpoint demonstration [presentation] with Peter explaining his work with soil science, and Dexter will be here especially to answer questions on water. So thank you very much, gentlemen.

Peter: I had a laboratory in Waipawa; we’ve since sold that to my business partner, and now I’m supposed to be retired, but I seem to be doing more work than I did before. Now as far as soil science is concerned – I did soil science, and I also did animal nutrition under Tim Mason in Texas, and under Bob Scott. Now Bob Scott was out here last year; he cried, ’cause he said, “You’re my favourite student”, and he had to go back to America. I said, “Bob, you can’t stay unless you’ve made application first.” Poor fellow got off the plane at the other end and died, so … dear old fellow. He was my favourite tutor. Now he taught me animal nutrition; he was a vet [veterinarian] by trade in Colorado, and I met him in 1968; and if you go to our webpage you’ll see a testimonial. I think it’s a bit overdone, but this is how good a guy he was.

People use a lot of chemicals to control weeds. Well all you’ve got to do is change the chemistry of the soil – that’s the plant’s remedy – and you’ll change the species. [Demonstrates] That’s ragwort, and that’s how that farm was. And the bank were going to sell the guy up, and he came to me. And I’d salvaged his father’s farm years before; his father did a first OE [overseas experience] to England, stepped off the plane at Heathrow and died. So he left it to David, and David came to me: “Can you help me like you helped my Dad?” So we said to the bank, “Will you just give us three to five years?” And they said, “Yes, we’ll do that.” And five weeks later they decided to pull the mat out from under them. So we then challenged the bank with a QC, [Queen’s Counsel] and said, “Okay – we’ll take you to court and we’ll fight this.” So they rang me about ten o’clock on a Wednesday night and said, “If you can refinance, we’ll knock a million dollars off the mortgage.” I said, “You’ve already had your million dollars – you sold them up on the first one for $4million; you put that in your pocket, and now you’ll finance them again another $5million on another place.”

So we just changed the fertility, just on nitrogen and phosphate; from that [demonstrates] to that it’d only be eleven months, from there to there, and it’s never grown any ragwort since. And his production that year went up 77.8%, and it’s maintained round about 80% ever since, with increases. So they’re friends of mine, obviously now. [Chuckle] No, I don’t take any wages for it or anything else.

But I made this up years ago to show you how much land we’re actually living on. That little portion, 95% of all human beings, live on that little wee piece of land, and now we’re stuffing it up. And this water problem has prompted me to write an article on it; and I said, “It’s crazy – the amount of nitrogen we’re using at present is ludicrous.” We shouldn’t have to buy nitrogen; the atmosphere’s 78% nitrogen. All we’ve got to do is get the nitrogen re-established again and produce it’s own. What we’re doing with nitrogen is like blowing up a balloon – we’ve got the same amount of tissue spread over a larger and larger surface area, and a thinner and thinner membrane. And you can see that; there’s the urine we all hate because they’ve got the toxins in the system, so don’t blame the cow; blame the guy that [who] did it. Now you don’t blame the farmers either, ‘cause the farmers see that as more grass, but it’s not more grass; more slush. And we have to get that back right again, and we seem to be on 17% to [?animals?] for plant growth. And just as Ron [?] was a junior chemist, and he devised the law of minimum back in the 1840s when he said that the growth would be proportionate to the most limiting factor, and so if you’re not NPK … and I actually lectured in America once, and I said to the students, “Do you know what NPK stands for?” And I put a circle up: the ‘N’ for our nitrogen, the ‘P’ for our phosphate, and ‘K’ for our carbohydrates, and whatever we produce from our potassium. And they all said, “Yes, we know what it stands for.” “Well”, I said, “Well, I’ll tell you what it stands for – non-profit killing, that’s what it stands for.” ‘Cause if it’s cobalt deficiency required by the animal by one-tenth of one part per million – if it’s not there the animal dies, it’s that simple. And we’ve got all the other elements all sort of involved as well. And when we do tests in our laboratory – well, it’s not my laboratory any more now, but when they test in the laboratory we test the whole sixteen elements and find out which one is limiting and bring you a prescription to fix that.

Now in animal nutrition we have an artificial room there we put the feed through, and it’s digested like the animal would do; and we found what the animal could or couldn’t get out of that, and give you a recipe to rectify that. And one of the problems in New Zealand is, we’re carbohydrate-short; we’re energy-short in New Zealand. We’re protein-rich, and we’re one of the few countries in the world. And this high protein … and then they go [and] put nitrogen on and they produce a lot more crude protein, and the animal is under stress from that and then we’ve got our eczema coming in and all the other problems that I researched came in with that.

Now eczema – I’ve solved eczema; and eczema is actually a Vitamin A deficiency, and it’s not an eczema at all. It’s a photo-sensitivity, ‘cause Vitamin A is converted – from betacarotene in the plant – to Vitamin A, and because we’ve got too much non-protein nitrogen, that protein hooks onto the end of the molecule and it can’t plant through the intestinal wall, and so the animal starves of Vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency will give you the same symptoms as the so-called eczema.

So we fixed that; and we’ve got bloat, which is another one we fixed just by getting the protein back right again so they don’t explode when they hit the ruminate; so you don’t get bloat. We’ve got footrot solved; we’ve got all these and we’ve solved them. But we did some research at Massey University, at Grasslands, three years ago and we got 88.2% reduction in ammonia in a ruminant; and then they said, “Oh, we’ll have to do a five-year research and document this.” We went to do the research, and the fertiliser industry came in and they said, “That research is not to be done on that farm.” So they just stifled it straight away, so … we’d gradually soil-tested it; we had all the fertiliser ready to go on, and it wasn’t to go on. So the whole system is run by vested interests. Yeah. I’m not a friend of the fertiliser company; that’s understandable. They don’t like me and I don’t like them. But we’ve got a company at Mount Maunganui that mixes our mixes for us … well, not my mixes, but however … so we can get it delivered to their farm unbiasedly. Yeah.

Now as I say, this is the carbon and the nitrogen. We’ve got the carbon cycle on the right-hand side there, and the nitrogen cycle – they’re interlinked. You can’t boost one without destroying the other. That’s the only way the system works, and so they get this massive increase in growth, and this destruction. The nitrogen cycle – if you increase the nitrogen cycle you automatically decrease the carbon cycle. Research has shown that one kilogram of excess nitrogen will stimulate enough bacteria to destroy one hundred kilograms of humus. So it’s a big mining operation, and we wonder why we get pollution in the rivers. And all this burning off of the carbon and all it’s attached to is then ready for leaching. Now people say you can’t put your fertiliser on, it’s going to leach from the rain; well if that’s the case, the worst case would be the most barren part of New Zealand. It never stops raining there, but it’s the most prolific growth we have in New Zealand.

So they created [?in New Zealand?] … so they made a little soil particle – what they call a colloidal particle – that’s negatively charged and attached to the surfaces of positive charge elements – calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, iron, manganese, copper, cobalt and [?] are attached to there and the plant has to bind them. And they do this with a water molecule; and the element of the atom manganese, which is one of the rare elements, it splits all the molecules – the hydrogen, the hydroxyl. Now one of my latest theses was on manganese, and it’s the most critical element in what we call the Krebs cycle. It’s the most critical element; it’s the first in the Krebs cycle; it started the whole process running.

That’s the ordinary NPK philosophy, and we’re saying, well, there’s a [??] there, and if you don’t test those you don’t know what’s going to happen. As I say, cobalt deficiency, one-tenth of one part per million or the animal dies – it’s that simple. Doesn’t matter how much food you put on the table, if the essential ingredients are not in it you’re going to die of starvation. It’s not keeping the food away, it’s keeping the inessential element away.

Some of our soil testing – a bit hard to understand, but we tested all the elements there and we did a design depending on the plant species we were growing, and they found the existential deficiency. And then we said, “Okay, that’s where it should’ve been; that’s 100% of its requirement”. And that’s the percentage of the requirement we actually found. And then we’ll make them up … we’ll [?] up a recipe to fix that again. Well there’s a recipe – that’s gone off to the fertiliser people to do the mix, and we say, “Well that’s a ton and that’s what we want in that ton.”

Actually, we did that one at Massey University – we did an NPK farm, and right next to it was one of our farms, and we showed the difference. And it was an astronomical difference in the soils. And there we are; this farm sample of one of our [?heritage?] tests, but that’s pretty involved when we go through and we do [?] – protein digestible, protein metabolisable, protein right through the whole thing into the vitamins and minerals. We found by balancing that back up again … this is a chart of the milk … the original nitrogen level; that’s where it should’ve been and that’s what we got, and we were actually quite optimum there, there was no excess bleeding off out of that again.

And the next one – all of a sudden it goes inefficient. And that’s just across through the fence, actually – straight through the fence, and the [?] level dropped away down here; still had the [?] level, [??] nitrogen shot through the roof and the animal had to urinate, had to defecate to get rid of that or die. So it’s just that simple. And of course they don’t look at that; they say, “Oh well, I mean the animal’s urinating, defecating – get rid of the animal.” All you’ve got to do is feed them right in the first place, you haven’t got the problem.

[Shows more slides]

That actually is just across here … not far from here. He’s got to knock down the level in that one, and he’s doing some research in … oh, I can’t remember now what he’s researching, but he has the highest [?] plants in the world on his property. If you come out towards Hastings, you come to the first roundabout, turn left – he’s just on the left in there, just past the school.

Now there’s some research that was done at Massey. This was done by Doctor Stefan [?] – he was German. And it shows the amount of conversion we had here, of the amount of convertible carbohydrates – on this one it shot through the roof. And he said, “Well, we have to do the research [?] to prove why this is happening, because this is fantastic; we’re not getting any [?] from this animal but we’re getting a massive amount of defecation from that one.” So we set it up for trials and we had it already to run and the guy from Massey University that’s [who’s] in charge of Labour’s [?] said, “No, it’s not going to happen.” Yeah. That was a recipe.

This is two farms side by side; they’ve become a client of ours. Now this one here got an increase of production by 24%, and this one actually got a decrease of 9.1%, so just changing the feed and changing the soils.

And that’s just the nitrogen utilisation efficiency. That’s just the same old chart again; so I think there’s another one there. The client’s last pick-up of last year – the very end of the pick-up he had a 77.8% increase over the previous year. And everyone was screaming ‘drought’, or most of the time; and he said, “It doesn’t happen to me, I don’t have the problem there.”

So I set the company up forty-odd years ago; we sell nothing. It’s completely … entirely independent of everyone. That’s why they hate my guts. [Chuckles] If they could mow me down tomorrow they would. I think they clapped like mad when I had my bad heart attack; I’ve had four, you know. I had one in Tasmania a few years ago, and ended up in the La Trobe hospital, and they wouldn’t let me fly out for four months; so I had to sit over there for four months. So this is the fourth one I’ve had.

But anyhow, [I’ll] let Dexter have something to say now, please, Dexter.

Dexter McGhie: Well, at least I can stand on my feet today, which is good. Well, my background is that I’ve had quite a lot to do with farming; my family’s been involved in farming pretty much since the time they arrived in New Zealand. And my great grandmother was the first European woman in Wellington, so that’s going back awhile to 1840.

It has concerned me, our lack of concern about our environment around here. We’ve been doing a lot of damage in the way that we’ve been re-routing waterways; we have little concern for what we do. Our farming and horticultural practices show little regard [coughing] for the fact that what we spray onto trees go [goes] into soils; generally works its way in through the food or through the animals, of which we eat either the animals or the food directly. And the half-life for a lot of these materials is quite … you know, a long time. I was even concerned a while ago; I looked at these soil analyses, and they were picking up radiation. I thought, ‘well, what are we looking at radiation for?’ And of course for many years we had all these bombs released in Australia and up north of New Zealand; and a lot of this stuff worked its way down here, often via the fertiliser that we bought, in the way of Christmas Island. And of course I think a lot of these fertiliser companies realised in fact they spread this radioactive material over just about every farm in New Zealand. Of course that enters our waterways and what-have-you too.

But my more immediate concern has been after this outbreak of campylobacter … probably other things too, but that’s at least one thing that was verified. I’m not a microbiologist although I have done some microbiology as part of my studies in the past. My concern is the pesticide residues and campylobacter, or cryptosporidium, giardia … a whole range of organisms that can get into our water supplies. What I’ve noticed on my farm – I used to have a lovely, beautiful stream, and over the years the Regional Council, and the Catchment Board prior to that, had the idea that they should deepen all these channels in order to get deep rooting for the trees that were about to be planted there. Problem is, the stream that I used to have no longer flows for a few months of the year at all. There used to be thirty-one springs along the base of the stream, and they’re all very surface drainage type [?] streams, like exist all around the Bay here, or did exist all round the Bay here. And they’ve dug deep down, and often they’ve tapped out those springs into the main deep channels. And after this event most recently, we had only 54% of the normal winter rainfall, and we got this big flow of rain thereafter. And of course all these spring orifices now work in reverse, so the water just comes along and goes straight down into our drinking water. And the point is, at the moment we’ve only identified these micro-organisms, but I think long term the pesticide … herbicide … residues are the things we’re really going to have to worry about.

I’ve spent many years doing water analysis; I worked in the New Plymouth power station for three years looking at all the water coming into the power station. And we had to have that of a very, very high standard; we were measuring things in parts per billion. For instance, silica in the water – you wouldn’t even think of deposits on turbine blades, and if it deposits unevenly it will simply blow the turbines apart, from the balance. So I looked at all the water chemistry of the waters and fuels and oils and various things in there. I’ve also worked for the fertiliser industry, and I worked for the Taranaki Catchment Commission surveying all their rivers there for their water quality. That was prior to the gasoline plants and the petro-chemical industry starting up. And that goes back a long time; I did my first water analysis forty-two years ago, so that goes back quite some time, and I’ve worked chemistry methods right through to modern technology of today. I worked at Massey University in Engineering and Technology, working on water research projects and what-have-you there. So I’ve had quite a wide range of work, both from a practical and theoretical point of view, so I understand most sides of the argument. I’m not going to say I understand all sides of the argument.

I was just thinking of Peter’s situation, talking about nitrogen. During World War II when they went to land aircraft up there in the jungles, they couldn’t land them, so they injected anhydrous ammonia into the soil to burn up all the carbon, and that compacted the soil so that they could land the aircraft. And of course if you’re putting stuff into the soils and what-have-you, and all the carbon’s burnt out of it, it’s as hard as rock. And the Americans went back to the States and did the same thing over there, and the anhydrous ammonia meant that the soils they treated had brilliant growth for a short period of time before the nitrogen supply, but thereafter they couldn’t put a path through, it became that hard. And of course that indicates that you can’t get penetration into the soil to process anything on it. So most of the toxic things that go into the ground can be processed in the soil if there’s something there to process with it to a certain extent, but of course the residual gets down into our aquifers eventually. And there’s no such thing as a confined aquifer because we’re dealing with so much seismic movement around here, and drilling of oil wells, test bores and old bores.

One way or the other you’ve got entry to those aquifers.

I’ve recently written a report for David Parker for Parliament relating to this, and I won’t disclose all the stuff that I’ve put in that; but it’s in the back of my mind, and I still want what I’ve written in regard to our recent bacterial outbreak … I’d rather take some questions if we could.

Joyce: Thanks, guys, you got through in good time. We want questions tonight …

Question: What is the anhydrous ammonia?

Dexter: It’s a form of ammonia that’s without water in it, if you like; I mean ammonium hydroxide.

Peter: Highly concentrated – it’s about 90% nitrogen.

Question: Various nasty things can get in the water, but is there any way they can get out once they’re in?

Dexter: Well, basically, is it possible to decontaminate water once it is contaminated? Well, it can be, but it’s usually very expensive. For instance you can use cation or anion exchange columns to take up heavy metals and things like that; and filters of various kinds. Activated charcoal will take out most organic substances, and you can have your own little supply of ion to do this, but ultimately it comes to a situation where it’s uneconomic. We’ve got a situation now where we’ve largely got not too bad water; but what’s the point of destroying our water supply at the other end, and saying it’s uneconomic to do things in such a way as not to contaminate the environment, and yet later on come back and have to address the issue in a more uneconomic fashion.

Question: I meant, would nature do anything of it’s own accord?

Dexter: Sure it does; I mean, I think streptomycin … everyone knows that antibiotic … well that was first got from a soil farm in 1947. So the soil, when it’s treated lightly and without excessive contaminants put on it, it has the capacity to process most things. But around Hawke’s Bay for instance, over the years we have put copper oxychloride on trees, and the end result of that is now if you put lambs on orchards here for too long, they die of copper poisoning. These are issues that are real. The trouble with chemistry is often you can’t see what’s there. We walk around every day and we make observations about what we can visually observe, but I’ve had chemical training; I trained as an [?] chemist, then I went into clinical biochemistry; I’ve got quite a range of knowledge in various areas in this sort of thing. But unless you’ve had some training in these areas, you’re kind of oblivious – it’s like walking around with your eyes closed, even before the sight of it, if you see what I mean. We have to have some background in some of these areas in order to be able to have some appreciation for the consequence of actions, which just by casual observation you would think that there was no issue at all.

Question: This question for Peter – would dicalcic phosphate get a tick from you?

Peter: Yes, definitely if it’s superphosphate, but it’s probably an expensive way of buying phosphate and lime. But it still doesn’t cover all the … I mean, you’re looking at sixteen or seventeen essential elements, and if there’s a copper deficiency and you put dicalcic phosphate on it’s not going to fix the copper deficiency. So it is better than super, but it’s probably a little expensive for what you’re buying. No, well that was very good of old Joe [?] to come up with that, but there’s more to the soil fertility. And there’s these [?] coming on the nitrogen, and nitrate poisoning in New Zealand is becoming a major, major problem. And I spoke at Te Puke a few months ago and there was a guy from the Waikato there and he was from the Department of Agriculture. And I said, “What about the nitrate levels there?” He was talking about a little swamp, and I said, “Well, hold on a second; most of the farmers are from the hinterland, not from the swamp. You can’t ever use nitrogen on there because they’re all from pumice country.” I said, “What about all the nitrate problems you’ve got in the rivers in the Waikato?” He said, “Oh, no, we’re not too bad; they’re just slightly above the World Health Organisation, and there’s only one child died last year with it.” And I said, “Was it your child?” He said, “No.” I said, “Well if one died, there was another ten thousand behind it with subclinical nitrate poisoning.” So I said to him, “We don’t realise what we’re doing.”

Dexter: For those who’re really not aware of it, nitrate (NO3 minus the anion), it attaches itself to the haemoglobin in the plant, and that stops oxygen uptake, and you end up with methaemoglobinemia, which is a form of blue baby syndrome; and so it can cause permanent brain damage in children particularly. I was working as an animal chemist in Auckland, and this firm – I won’t mention who they were – but they were actually being asked by the dairy industry to use some anion exchange column to extract the nitrates out of the milk powder so that, you know, children’s milk powder wasn’t contaminated to a level that would be dangerous for them.

Question: There was an interesting report in the paper yesterday about a researcher in Auckland looking at lead in backyard chickens, and they found ten times the allowable limit in the chickens, and four times the allowable limit in their eggs. Do you think that’s a more widespread problem?

Dexter: Well it could well be; I actually did some research work which is the Massey library on lead shot in farm dams. I was concerned about a farm dam that I used to have. There’d been a lot of shooting done on it, and I had thought the lead shot might poison the water. I checked out probably about twenty-six other dam sites in other places, but I calculated out that it would take a hundred and thirty-six years to kill an animal from drinking that water. But there were other factors that could come into play on that; superphosphate is called ’Flourapatite’ which means that it’s got flouride in it ironically – probably got sheep with very good teeth here. [Chuckles] But anyway, lead flouride is very soluble, so I figured in my mind that that drainage of that flouride into farmlands may in fact enhance it … that level of lead that is in the water. So in some cases it is [a] potential possibility that in fact that water could get to a toxic level. And my calculations were based on a 2% uptake in the [??] of the animal drinking the water, which might not be correct, so a hundred and thirty-six years might be brought down to four or five or something. So I don’t know.

Peter: The thing with a lot of [?] nitrates is, nitrates is [are] odourless, tasteless and colourless. You don’t know it’s there ’til it hits you on the back of the head, then all hell breaks loose. So there’s a problem.

And I was in the mid-west – I studied in the mid-west in America – I went back there about eight or nine years ago and brought a Cadillac car back; [chuckle] but the area which I was in was Iowa, and that’s their corn-growing area. And back in 1975 the organic matter levels had dropped from 32[%] down to 5%, and I went back there five years ago when I bought the Cadillac, and it’s down to 0.5%. And I said to Bill Blanter, the guy that [who] showed me around, I said, “Either you fix this; keep doing what you’re doing and then go and bleat to the Arabs and buy camels, ‘cause you going to have one bloody big desert here shortly.” And they’re putting weedmat between the rows to stop the erosion. I said, “Surely you’ll wake up – you’re doing something wrong.” And that’s the food bowl of the world – seventy-two million acres of corn.

Joyce: I’ve got a question about campylobacter; what’s known about the shallow aquifers and the deeper ones, and contamination between the two of them?

Dexter: Well I think a lot of what’s been said about the aquifers … I don’t think we’ve got enough knowledge of what’s down here to give accurate indications, particularly the fact that we have constantly got seismic movement around here, and what we do one year is not necessarily what’s going to be the same next year. And formal scientific reports – they often take several years to pump through, so even when the last work was done, you can’t rely on that as being fact. And what I thought, the water that was collected and the campylobacter identified. Water has a fingerprint; every water source, you can identify it as being from a source based on its cations, anions, and other parameters like effluent, electrical conductivity for those of you who’ve got… are scientifically connected … that the reciprocal of the [???]; so that’s a common measure to determine the hyper-electrical conductivity of water. It’s a reasonable fact, the more dissolved salts in it, the better. And it’s even used in milking machines to pick up mastitis and stuff like that, these days. But yeah, it would seem to me that if they could have got those samples that they got the bacterial analysis was done on and analysed them chemically and biochemically, it should be possible to identify the actual source … reasonable source … of that water, done in a proper manner. But to my knowledge that hasn’t been done.

Peter: We did some of the waters in Lochinver Station, and they were actually coming from Lake Taupo, which is eight hundred feet below. And it’s pumped right up into there; and they just thought it may be all right, so don’t [?] it , and measured it, and it’d come out anyway.

Dexter: You can use dyes like radium 2 you know, [??] radium W [??] are quite common ones, and fluroscein and other things … mildly radioactive isotopes that we can trace around, like iodine and what-have-you.

Joyce: So how much confidence would you have when they bring in the big boys to do this enquiry then? [Laughter]

Dexter: Probably not a great deal to be perfectly honest, ’cause I’ve had interaction with the Regional Council in the past, and they ignore you. To acknowledge what you’re saying is to give it some validity, and this is the issue.

Comment: That’s changed.

Dexter: Well, I do hope so.

Question: You mentioned that you would be able to … by checking the water … that you might be able to find out where it comes from; but surely you have to know the composition of all the places where it possibly could come from, wouldn’t you?

Dexter: Yes, exactly; but there are so many different parameters there together, we should be able to identify it. It’s a bit like a lottery ticket – you get one number right, you’re not going to win the lotto, but you know, you know if you’ve got about eight out of ten, then you’re getting close, and eventually if you get the other two, then you’re there. It’s a bit like that, really – the chances of you getting the right answer; the more parameters that fall in line … And if you get enough samples from enough different points, you can even do some maths as to what the division rates were, knowing if one is a flow you’ve got to do various points then … stuff like that.

Question: You know how the riverbeds change after floods – could that be happening underground?

Dexter: Oh, absolutely; along with seismic movement, I’m sure it’s happening all the time. The problem I see … I know over at Napier Boys’ High School where they’ve been digging these big trenches … I know a while ago they were trying to put some foundations in for a classroom; they dug a hole, and just water then … plonk! And they were draining away an area over there, so the hydraulic effect of the removal of all that water could result in all these buildings crumbling in due course. But of course these things happen after people’ve had a serious think about what might … you know. We don’t really go into things in any depth; like we’re building this dam – it’s just a … “Right, we’ll build a dam”; but they’re not really going into the deep potential problems that may come about, you know. Sure, we need some water here, but when the costs of reticulation and the chances of contamination along the lines of those water sources could be really problematic.

Comment: We’ve been told the flushing flows are going to keep everything hunky-dory, but if you have a large dry spell and you flush the water down and you’ve got cracked ground, you’re going to flush all the [?] in front of it and that’ll all go down the cracks, and then the clean water’ll follow after it; and when they test it two days later they’ll say it’s great.

Dexter: Well, we’ve got these aquifers, and of recent … we’ve been taking out huge quantities. I go down to the Tennant road part of the Tukituki River virtually every night with my dogs; and during the end of summer after a massive withdrawal the seawater was apparently coming up as far as Tennant Road. Seawater will go underneath fresh water because it’s more dense; similarly, in these aquifers … supposedly confined aquifers, but all aquifers … they all have a stratification of the water. They say that the water deep down there is about forty-nine years old. So you know, whatever’s in that water probably relates back to whatever practices were in back then. But water is at its most dense at 4° centigrade, so it goes to the very bottom. I’m not sure if you know about autumn turnover, where there’s a breakdown of water bodies that are able to be heated. Next summer [???] you get thermal stratification breakdown. And Wellington Harbour each year you get this black sulphide coming to the surface … might be every year or second year … when the thermal stratification breaks down the hole then starts to mix with … but before that stratification breaks down, everything is [?] separate, you know, until the [?] comes up to a level where it starts to mix.

So my theory as to what’s possibly happening in our aquifers here – we’ve had this massive recharge of the aquifer after the flooding, and this body on the top of the aquifer’s been siphoned off for drinking water, and I think that’s where our contamination has come from. It’s just slid across from one part of the aquifer to the other, just on the surface as a separate entity, rather than emitting it from on the bottom because of the different temperatures, ‘cause it’d be quite warm, that water coming out on top [??] from what’s already in there.

Question: Can you briefly explain again the difference between the rain … like, a big company recommends to a farmer and what you recommend? Are you actually thinking [of] the animal rather than the soil?

Peter: [Difficult to hear] Well yeah – the soil is a plant’s [?], and that’s the digestive system. The soil is a [?]. So when the animal eats the grass it’s feeding bacteria [??], so we’re feeding bacteria all the way through. So yeah, my philosophy is eons apart from the fertiliser industry. The trouble is with nitrogen, they may have a 400% copper [?] because it’s got from the atmosphere. They heat it [??] from Kapuni; and they use that and squeeze it together and make pills of nitrogen and flog ‘em back to you. But we don’t have to buy nitrogen; nitrogen’s not something you buy. But they make a lot of money out of it, so they sell it. And just coming through here this evening there was a truck and trailer-load going … Central Hawke’s Bay somewhere; there were just big ton bags of nitrogen on it – there must’ve been forty bags on it, you know. It’s sacrilege really, because someone’s going to have to pay for that, whether it’s you or your grandkids or your great grandkids – someone’s going to have to pay. You can’t use nitrogen like that; it’s not something you buy out of a bag. You get [the] natural nitrogen cycle re-established again is to create established [?] years ago and working perfectly; never had the pollution problems. And they blame the animals, but in the mid-west of America where I did my agronomy the bison there were in herds … herds of bison. They knocked them out to try to knock the income out for the Indians, but however … And the same in Africa; I spent a bit of time in Kenya and all of the animals in Kenya, and all through that African continent they’ve actually decreased now by about 80% to what they used to be. They didn’t have a pollution problem. The whole thing will roll over itself, as long as it’s given the chance to do so. It’s when man comes in with his hungry hand and he says, “I can make money out of this”, that’s when the thing turns to custard – every time.

Question: I just have a concern; I grew up here with my mother and my family, and you’re telling me and Laurie … generally for me we lived on the most fertile land in New Zealand – probably in the world. What concerns me is the amount of land on the Heretaunga Plains that has been taken up with housing, and concrete, and building and whatever; and I mean, once the buildings are on it can we ever get it back again? Those soils?

Peter: It’s hard. We can get it back; in fact we’re doing some research … we’re doing some work with the Forestry now, and re-establish those forestry farms up on the Central Plateau. And it’s hard to, but you can get it back, but it’s going to take a while. But when you’ve got concrete – it’s a bit harder to digest in pine trees – that’s the major problem. And I’ve written a little book called ‘Down to Earth’; getting a reprint done now – put your name and address down; the good lady here will take it, then I can send you a copy of it. But I said at the very beginning of it, it’s not a driven dogma; it’s not science any more, it’s ‘How much money can I make out of you?’ [Inaudible] And that’s where the whole problem is, and I think it’s just the dollar; if you could take the dollar out of the system we’d be right; but everyone’s hungry for more dollars.

Question: Can you tell me, in this alleged contamination is it campylobacter, or is it E. coli?

Dexter: E. coli is used as a [an] indicator species if you like, for other pathogens like campylobacter. Normally E. coli only lasts about forty-eight hours out of the human gut or animal gut, so if you’re getting high levels of it it indicates a fairly recent contamination. So yeah, it’s just an indicator species, but E. coli on it’s own … there’s a whole lot of different types of E. coli. Some can actually even exchange genetics between one another; they can send out a thing and shoot a bit of DNA over to another one and transfer some genes to that. So some of the varieties of E. coli are extremely toxic.

Question: Could you tell me then … could you guarantee that most of us here who’ve got a rubbish tin under our sink, that it won’t have any contamination?

Dexter: Well I’m just wondering about the context of that rubbish bin … what are you saying is in that rubbish bin?

Answer: The normal household rubbish that’s been standing there, in a bin that’s been standing out on the street for a while.

Dexter: Well unless it’s had some faecal contamination on it there shouldn’t be too much E. coli round; I mean E. coli floats around in the atmosphere and will drop on things, you know; but that’s why, I think in your house there’s a building regulation where must be two doors between your toilet and your kitchen and stuff like that.

Question: Why should the whole area, and New Zealand in particular as a nation, be being held up around the world as the worst case of E. coli … whatever it might be … in existence? And we can’t even tell whether it is or what it’s [?]? And how long it’s likely to stay? You say yourself it stays for forty-eight hours; it’s gone.

Peter: Sounds like politics to me.

Dexter: Well [chuckle] … it’s like radiation – there’s a background level there all the time, and you can’t run away from it, you know. I think it’s probably there to sell a few newspapers.

Question: Exactly; and why should we put up with that?

Peter: We were doing the waters at Tiko [Tikokino] – we do the waters through our laboratory, and we found very high bacteria in the waters at Tikokino. We traced it back, and about four farms back they had five offal pits. And that went down in the waterway, and that was just drifting straight through the …

Comment: And I’ve no doubt they were dragging their house water from it …

Peter: They were.

Comment: … and didn’t have a problem.

Peter: Yeah – well they had problems, all right – they had dysentery and all the rest of the problems. You have to check back there and find where it’s coming from, really?

Question: Well how does everybody else that doesn’t depend on our artesian supplies, with the cattle and the sheep walking over their stream inlets – I haven’t heard them complaining about E. coli or campylobacter or whatever it might be, if it’s one of the other.

Dexter: Well I think also, a lot of the rural people have been exposed to some high levels of … it’s an immunity factor there as well, coming into it I think; yeah. In America there’s people with allergies left, right and centre, but people who’ve come off farms – they seldom get allergies. Allergies come about in later life as a result of not being exposed to high levels of environmental bacteria and lice and whatever, earlier on.

Comment: Precisely – you go to Nepal or somewhere, and you’d all get yellow belly or something. [You] listen to [?] how we’ve got the worst polluted rivers in the world …

Dexter: It may be proportionate to population, that might be right, but …

Comment: I think we need to get a bit of reality in this thing.

Peter: I think our pollution problem has been over-emphasised, and we’re not really getting back to the nitty-gritty of what caused it in the first place. And if you’re putting urea on, you’re causing massive problems, and massive problems down the line when they come back and hit you over the back of the head – you won’t know where they’ve come from.

Dexter: There is a major problem, but it’s just acknowledging that there is a problem, and what the cause of the problem was.

Question: Where are the problems?

Dexter: Once upon a time we used to be able to drink our water from the streams quite …

Comment: We still are!

Dexter: I’m just going to bring up one issue about tourism, and the fact that we’ve got people defecating in our river bodies … foreigners … and I’ll give you an instance. I’m not sure if anyone has ever heard of cysticerus bovis – it’s a beef measles. You can get sheep measles as well – that’s cysticerus ovis. But they had a German tourist staying at some house down Dannevirke area, and we got I think the first case of cysticerus bovis in a heart I think, in a freezing works. And I thought, ‘Well, where’s this come from?’ It’s part of a tapeworm life cycle involving the human rather than the dog, like hydatids. But anyway, they were able to trace this contamination back to this German tourist staying at this place, and it’d gone through the septic tank system and out, and through the animal. So you know, this tourism thing is great for some, you know, needing cash in the hand, but the ongoing consequences could be difficult. It’s like when New Zealand was first settled – they used to leave ships out at sea for three weeks sometimes before they were even brought to shore, thinking that they could contaminate the population here. But we’ve got people coming and going every five seconds through the airports.

Question: You spoke about Iowa, and how they were having [?] problems with the dust; why haven’t they cottoned on to the problem?

Peter: Well, years ago I was mentioned in a court case in Dunedin, and I had nothing to do with it, and the judge slated me and all the rest of it. It was published in every paper in New Zealand; but I wasn’t asked as a witness. But the person who was slating me was a representative of a fertiliser company. We took it to the High Court; they nullified the whole thing, and said that [??] had been mistreated; any conversation now would be too little, too late, and after all he paid he said, “I’m sorry, there’s no law to cover compensation, so off you go.” But that’s where the problem is, is the vested interests; that’s where the problem is. And there’s this massive lobby in Massey and in Lincoln, of these guys, and you can never solve a problem while they’re there. You’ve got to get it out of their hands before you can solve a problem. You know, it’s done; but we are … where I actually sit is, we’re our own worst enemy. That’s the problem. I mean, it’s the vested interests that’s the problem, and sadly, we haven’t been able to pull away from that.

Comment: We lifted our water consents for the orchard. The interesting thing – the experts were saying that many orchardists were over-watering their orchards, because they were all desperate to have unlimited water all the time in those days. And when people realise that less might be a better thing, then they’ll stop being taken in. Because they believe that what they’re doing is right, but they have to have a clear scientific experiment showing that less is better. There has to be the proof there.

Peter: I had a client in Whakatane, and he was farming [?] trees, and he was watering them every day, twice a day. And all of a sudden [he] started ring-barking them. I said, “Ah, you need to turn the tap off.” He said, “Why’s that?” I said, “Because every time that the [?] cycle starts to come right, you put more water in.” [Inaudible] So I said, “Those sugars are accumulating in that bark; that’s why [the] black beetle’s coming in.” He turned it off to once a week – no black beetle. So you can overwater, yeah. Too much water’s not good for whisky. [Laughter]

Question: In an ideal situation … like ideally, how would you deal … like in sustainable farming, like if you had your way, and …

Peter: Oh, well I’d do a test first – find out what was wrong with it first. Another thing is because we evolved with no animals, we’ve compacted our soils back. And you’ve sometimes got to break it open, because your phosphate is taken up as H2po5; [chemical compounds quoted]. So that oxygen just is critical, but you can’t … there’s no real shortcut. And when I came back from America – my ex fell in love with someone else while I was over there; however [laughter] … she said, “What’s a balanced fertiliser?” I said, “I wouldn’t have a clue.” “You spent seventeen years and you can’t tell me what a balanced fertiliser is?” You show me a balanced soil and I’ll tell you – nothing. So it really depends what’s wrong with your soil, but there’s no way … I mean I wouldn’t have half a million dollars invested in lab equipment if I thought there was a way of guessing it. I’m sorry, I’d love to be able to. I would help you; Dexter can help us. Yeah. [Chuckles]

Joyce: Thank you, guys. I can’t thank you enough for coming – I know the subject is so big, this could go on for weeks and months.


I’ve been to Peter’s laboratories in Waipawa, and Peter just said, “Really, it’s very easy – all they have to do is send us their sample of soil.” And I thought what a wonderful, simple but how complex [a] business it all is. But if you want a bit of land, get your soil tested first. Thank you.


Original digital file


Non-commercial use

Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 New Zealand (CC BY-NC 3.0 NZ)

This work is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 New Zealand (CC BY-NC 3.0 NZ).


Commercial Use

Please contact us for information about using this material commercially.

Can you help?

The Hawke's Bay Knowledge Bank relies on donations to make this material available. Please consider making a donation towards preserving our local history.

Visit our donations page for more information.

Format of the original

Audio recording

Additional information

Landmarks Talk 11 October 2016


  • Peter Lester
  • Dexter McGhie

Accession number


Do you know something about this record?

Please note we cannot verify the accuracy of any information posted by the community.

Supporters and sponsors

We sincerely thank the following businesses and organisations for their support.