'Marvellous job', Bazley tells farmers

Environment Canterbury chairwoman of commissioners Dame Margaret Bazley and Federated Farmers North Otago High Country spokesman Simon Williamson chat with farmers at a field day and tour of five high country farming operations, near Omarama. Photo by Ruth Grundy
Environment Canterbury chairwoman of commissioners Dame Margaret Bazley and Federated Farmers North Otago High Country spokesman Simon Williamson chat with farmers at a field day and tour of five high country farming operations, near Omarama. Photo by Ruth Grundy
Who would have thought 10 years ago a high country field day would be all about dairying?

That was foremost in most minds when about 140 people took the opportunity to visit five high country farming operations on a Federated Farmers field day and tour that travelled from Twizel through the Ohau basin, across the Ahuriri Saddle via the Ribbonwood Saddle to the Tara Hills and Omarama.

Environment Canterbury (ECan) chairwoman of commissioners Dame Margaret Bazley said the tour had shown off some ''really spectacular'' farms.

The level of business expertise evident matched the highest of any top New Zealand company.

''Stand back and have a look and tell yourselves what a marvellous job you are doing,'' Dame Margaret said.

Looking forward there were ''tremendous'' changes ahead that would affect all landowners.

She strongly urged farmers to engage in processes and actively contribute to the debate because livelihoods would be affected.

ECan did not have control over a lot of the processes but ''will work with you''.

It was important landowners continued to try to ''bridge the gap'' between economic objectives and environmental concerns, and did not ''sit back'' but took the debate to objectors to ''find the middle ground.''

If not, it would be ''forever in the hands of the courts.''

Federated Farmers vice-president Dr William Rolleston said there had been a swing from a combative to a collaborative approach when dealing with land use in the high country.

''High country people live in these places because we value those attributes other New Zealanders value.

''We have to work out how we get there and take the rest of the country with us.''

He was disappointed Forest and Bird did not attend to see ''what is going on the ground'', despite being invited.

''The conversation starts here, on the ground, in this paddock, where we can find some common ground,'' Dr Rolleston said.

Federated Farmers High Country North Otago spokesman Simon Williamson said working in partnership to face challenges was the only ''positive way forward for the high country''.

The farmland over which the tour had travelled had been decimated by rabbits, covered in hieracium and threatened by forests of wilding pines.

''Even the rabbits bought a packed lunch.''

In places, wilding pines had been as ''thick as hairs on a cat's back''.

It had taken landowner investment and an ''enormous amount of work'' to transform barren land into productive pasture.

Fundamental to the transformation was irrigation, which had allowed the land to generate enough income to support 23 families over eight farms, as opposed to just seven families on six farms nine years ago, he said.

Labour Party agriculture spokesman Damien O'Connor said the tour had given him a better understanding of dairy development in the upper Waitaki.

''The high country was a very special place.

''Every Kiwi thinks they have part ownership of it, which is part of your problem.

''It is also hopefully part of your solution,'' he said.

The absence of a viable meat industry and a ''faltering'' fine wool industry had been the economic drivers behind the conversions to dairy ''because that's where the money is.''

Nonetheless, a ''one-trick pony'' economy, dependent on dairying, was dangerous.

Changes were necessary to meat and fine wool to establish a ''broader base'', Mr O'Connor said.