Freshwater rules a stressor: report

Researcher Rachael Inch gives the Essential Freshwater social impact report to Mid Canterbury...
Researcher Rachael Inch gives the Essential Freshwater social impact report to Mid Canterbury Rural Support Trust chairman Josh Dondertman. PHOTO: TONI WILLIAMS
Anxiety, stress and uncertainty.

They were among the key findings in a social impact report commissioned by the Mid Canterbury Rural Support Trust (RST) around new freshwater rules and regulations.

The National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management and associated legislation came into force in August 2020. It was government’s attempt to address water quality issues in New Zealand by providing a national objectives framework for freshwater management.

The RST commissioned researcher Rachael Inch to explore the social impact of the new rules on the Ashburton district.

The findings, gathered from qualitative research from a range of people and groups between April and May 2021, suggested there had been an increasingly adverse impact on farmers and their families.

Mrs Inch’s work, peer reviewed by Dr Heather Collins, was presented recently to invited members of the community including Ashburton District mayor Neil Brown and councillors, representatives from Federated Farmers, Rural Women New Zealand, Ashburton District Council and Ashburton College, as well as Environment Canterbury councillor Megan Hands and North Canterbury RST chairwoman Gayle Litchfield.

‘‘The research suggests that there has been an increasingly adverse impact on farmers and their families. Farmers were already struggling to cope with the pressures they were experiencing,’’ Mrs Inch said.

The policy came on the back of other rural issues such as Mycoplasma bovis, banking reforms, Covid-19 and drought, which were already stress factors for farmers.

‘‘The new rules and regulations then compounded the existing pressures, adding even more anxiety and tension.’’

Concerns included flow-on impacts with loss of farms, or reduced spending in the district impacting on the viability of rural supply businesses and increased unemployment.

There was also the impact on schools if families relocated away from the district, searching for work, and increased requirements for social services as the impact of the freshwater rules hit land values, and increased compliance costs and capital investment.

According to the research, the initial engagement process — specifically the consultation seminar held in Ashburton — created anxiety, stress, and uncertainty for the agri-sector with no clear pathway, little clarity on the changes or any reassurance about the knowledge of different farming systems.

There was also lack of acknowledgement for the positive work done by farmers through the Canterbury Water Management Strategy.

‘‘One of the critical impacts for agri-professionals was the increasing stress and tension when interacting with farmers.

‘‘The uncertainty hindered their ability to plan, provide practical advice, and progress forward with projects,’’ Mrs Inch said.

Conservative stances taken by banks and lending organisations saw advice to farmers often referred to Environment Canterbury, which was also in the dark around required targets and limits.

‘‘The decreased confidence in farming was a theme for young farmers as they described how the new freshwater rules impacted them,’’ Mrs Inch said.

It centred around public perception, and negative public views expressed on social media.

‘‘Many young farmers felt that public view was so negative that it had begun to impact how they felt about themselves and what they do.

‘‘Many reporting that they no longer saw a future in farming. Fewer young farmers willing to enter the sector could impact traditional family farm ownership in New Zealand, potentially shifting ownership towards corporatisation.’’

The report was due to be uploaded to the RST website for the general public to access.

After the presentation, Mr Brown said the district would not be planted in pine trees or be pushed to farming cows in barns.

‘‘We will draw the line in the sand, we’re not going to let that happen,’’ he said.

He believed the regulations were not all doom and gloom as there was plenty of time — and with that time, advances in technology — to make the changes needed.

‘‘I don’t think it’s all doom and gloom so don’t get hung up on [the nitrate numbers].

‘‘There is light on the horizon. The technology is not here yet but we do have time,’’ he said.

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