Farmers willing to work in new environment

Dairy farmer Gerald Spain, from Southland says good communication between farmers and regional councils is crucial.
Dairy farmer Gerald Spain, from Southland says good communication between farmers and regional councils is crucial.
Third-generation Southland dairy farmer Gerald Spain acknowledges farmers in the region are highly regulated ''whether rightly or wrongly''.

But, at the moment, he said farmers could work within the regulations imposed on them by Environment Southland.

''We are adjusting. Farmers are very resourceful people,'' he said.

They were building good relationships with the regional council, despite what he described initially as a ''massive knee-jerk reaction'' from Environment Southland.

The situation was not as bad as had been made out and it was not until staff got on the ground and saw first-hand what was happening that the situation changed immensely, he said.

Dairy farmer and David Wilson, who farms on the Taieri, from Southland says good communication between farmers and regional councils is crucial.
Dairy farmer and David Wilson, who farms on the Taieri, from Southland says good communication between farmers and regional councils is crucial.
Mr Spain has been heavily involved with the Waituna Catchment Action Plan, which was produced by dairy farmers in the Waituna catchment, with the support of DairyNZ, and released in December, 2011.

Environment Southland had previously told farmers that the lagoon - part of the internationally-recognised Awarua wetlands southeast of Invercargill - was facing serious problems that included a build-up of sediment and loss of the ruppia (seagrass) which helped to maintain its ecological balance.

There was a serious chance it could ''flip'' to a permanently degraded state. When that was revealed to farmers, Mr Spain acknowledged it came as a ''bolt of lightning''.

''We were fully compliant farmers, doing what we do,'' he said.

When they were called to a meeting, it was ''like a foreign language. What's flipping? What's eutrophic?'' he recalled.

Mr Spain said some misrepresentation in the media had been unhelpful, particularly statements that the lagoon was going to be returned to a ''clear'' and ''pristine'' state.

The lagoon was sitting in the middle of thousands of hectares of peat and it was ''always going to be a dark brown cup of tea''.

There was a perception among people living in Invercargill that dairy farmers were putting effluent straight into it.

Since that first meeting, a ''tremendous amount'' had been achieved and education and awareness had been the key.

Farmers had opened up their farms to independent assessment, identified and developed a broad range of practical initiatives and incorporated them in action plans for each farm.

There needed to be a well-balanced approach to environmental issues, rather than just fingers pointed at farmers, and a big-picture approach needed to be taken.

''We're all in this thing together. We all need to make an effort,'' he said.

The issue did not happen overnight and it would not be repaired overnight, he said.

Mr Spain, who said he wanted to leave a good farm for his now 6-year-old son, said farmers were trying new things.

In his patch, a strength was the community, which included third and fourth-generation farmers, supporting each other.

Another bonus was that Environment Southland was willing to put three farmer representatives ''around the table'' every month so the council had a direct line to what was happening on site. That relationship was reciprocated.

''We have got good communication lines there,'' he said.

But, he said, common sense had to prevail for New Zealand as a whole.

''Everyone has to realise its going to take time. We need time up our sleeves,'' he said.

The Otago Regional Council took a slightly different view to other councils, basically deciding to set levels and then letting farmers decide how to achieve those levels, Taieri dairy farmer David Wilson said.

While it was hard to disagree with that logic, ultimately the council faced the same problem as others - where those levels were set.

And if they were set at levels that were too low and ''basically unachievable'', then Mr Wilson believed farmers were being set up to fail. In such an instance, the only way to get the levels down was to reduce stock numbers or cease farming.

Mr Wilson believed debate ''really needs to be had as to where we are heading with this process'' as he did not think that debate had been properly held.

If the levels were achievable, then it was a positive for both the environment and the farming. But if farmers could not meet them, then there were much wider implications.

It was not just dairy farming - which contributed millions of dollars to Otago's economy. Sheep and beef, deer and horticulture were also affected.

Farmers had to continue to have a good relationship with the council and continue to communicate - that was a key issue - and that was what Federated Farmers had been doing. It was not all negative, he said.

The council was trying to achieve good environmental outcomes and, if farmers could assist in those outcomes, then it was a ''win-win'' for everybody.

A lot of people, politicians especially, were thinking globally and a lot of things they were doing was acting locally.

When acting locally, the impact it would have from a global perspective needed to be considered.

New Zealand was one of the lowest producers of carbon. If production was affected here, then food was going to be produced somewhere with a bigger carbon footprint, he said.