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Proud to be a dairy farmer

Proud to be a dairy farmer

Final speech of Willy Leferink, Federated Farmers Dairy chairperson, to Federated Farmers 2014 Dairy Industry Annual General Meeting, Palmerston North

You could say I started back in the day when no one would likely tweet what you said or even know what a tweet was.

I will probably end my Feds career on the national stage with someone tweeting something right now.

So please Tweet this.

I am so very proud of New Zealand’s dairy farmers.

To use farming vernacular you are good buggers.

I am not talking our immense economic contribution because everyone gets that.

I am talking about the fantastic contribution being made by us environmentally.

Contrary to a widely held view, the nitrogen in the wee of our cows does not go straight into rivers and creeks. We moved on from that many years ago.

And aside from pasture lapping it up, we’ve got on-farm mitigation starting to happen widely like precision irrigation, stand-off pads and the like.

We are not even sure whether all the nitrates entering the waterways are from dairying and if it does how much harm it causes.

Contrary to assumption, the total Nitrogen load to land from farmed animals increased from 1.45 million tonnes per year in 1990 to 1.56 million tonnes per year in 2011.

Yes that is a seven percent increase over the past 22 years. Somehow I think many reading this will think its much, much more given the press we get. It isn’t and that figure comes from scientists.

This seven percent increase in Nitrogen came in a period in which dairy cattle numbers have doubled while our exports from dairy have increased seven-fold

You could say New Zealand traded in millions upon millions of sheep for a few more million dairy cattle. While cattle do produce more nitrogen than sheep, the fact is the nutrient wagon wheel according to DairyNZ’s brilliant Dr Rick Pridmore, has expanded only slightly.

There’s even more good news.

Dr Pridmore recently told Parliament’s Local Government & Environment Committee that NIWA’s National Rivers Water Quality Network shows the majority of sites are stable in terms of water quality trends.

Shall I repeat that?

On the negative side of the ledger, yes, 30 percent of all sites showed deteriorating trends for nitrate and 12 percent showed deteriorating trends for phosphorus.

But balancing that out was 30 percent of sites showing improvement in water clarity. Above all, most sites in New Zealand are stable.

Moreover, NIWA’s National Rivers Water Quality Network has only used consistent methods since 1989, so our time horizon is very short.

Perception has wrongly led to a skewed reality, punctured by salmon being found in the streams of some Canterbury dairy farms and in record numbers. Punctured by the jaw dropping improvement in Lake Rotorua and decades earlier than the experts had forecasted.

We are willing to admit that dairy has an effect and that we are working hard to come up with solutions

This all comes down to you guys and I am truly proud of you.

The dairy farmers of New Zealand aren’t downhearted but are getting on with the job economically and environmentally.

You guys are awesome champions of the will and means to do things better.

Clean dairy is our reality but it is not yet media perception.

That may be explained by who is overseeing the Overseer?

With regional plans increasingly looking to place limits on nutrients like nitrogen, I agree with Headland’s Alison Dewes, Overseer could be a good tool but it is nowhere near to that now.

So who is overseeing the overseer?

Regulators are absolutely wrong to treat Overseer as gospel. It is seen by those outside the industry as being hard and fast fact. Our council regulators and politicians have that view by writing it into regional land and water plans.

Yet Overseer is only validated for a fraction of soil types.

It is improperly validated for dairy and not very well validated for other land uses. Some not at all. This means farmers are suffering from Overseer fatigue as numbers dash hither and thither with the latest version.

Do not get me wrong, I do not want to get rid of Overseer

My advice to this Dairy Council and to whoever takes the Treasury benches after the election, is to invest your energy into properly validating Overseer. New Zealand cannot afford a glacial approach when so much hinges on this tool being right.

All parts of the primary industries, from apiculture to viticulture, need to work together on this. Only when Overseer is fully validated will trust come back into the equation.

More so when big decisions are being reached on an imperfect tool.

Another factor now becoming apparent will be advances in water technology

Technologies to purify wastewater after milking illustrate how science and innovation will vastly reduce agriculture’s environmental footprint.

Twenty years ago only the military used GPS and now it’s in almost all phones.

When you marry GPS to ground sensors and precision irrigation, hey presto, you’ve got water and nutrient efficiency.

At Fieldays, I was privileged to be a judge on innovation and one of the technologies that took my eye was the PUER system, currently being validated by the University of Waikato. There is also Scott Biotechnologies, which has lodged patents for its system and others will follow.

I am loosely talking effluent treatment plants for waste farm water, where liquids can be reused and the leftover solids transformed into high quality fertiliser.

Imagine much smaller storage ponds. Imagine no prosecutions due to irrigators suffering mechanical breakdown or when heavy weather overwhelms you. Imagine John Campbell on your doorstep to report good dairy news for once.

This is fast becoming the fork in New Zealand’s road to prosperity

We are seriously risking the development of these technologies if we race headlong into unrealistically hard nutrient limits based on, yes, Overseer data.

Set nutrients too hard and farmers won’t have the means or motivation to invest in technologies to fix them. This lack of investment means innovators won’t put the leg-work in, so it just becomes one big vicious cycle.

We also run the risk of strangling hundreds of little communities who rely on the dairy dollar

Instead, if you’ve got nutrient indicators married to a realistic time horizon then you’re talking about setting a virtuous cycle. You see, every kilogram of nitrogen leaching to groundwater is not only just bad for the environment, but it is like farmers chucking $2 coins into a rubbish bin.

While any innovation must be farm proven, what I saw and what I know is in development are exciting markers to a better future. The level of inquiry the people behind them have had, testifies to how keen farmers are to do better.

While these technologies relate to just one aspect of our environmental footprint, it illustrates how others will eventually spread out from the milking platform and onto how pastures are managed.

Like GPS, tomorrow’s world is fast becoming today’s.

Time for a cup of tea and some reflection

The fact nutrient leaching today isn’t much greater than two decades ago, shows how long it has taken to get into this position.

Yet we are encouragingly finding solutions in a short period of time, like that outlined above and in the way our farms are managed.

We are seeing this from Otago’s Shag River to Lake Rotorua’s remarkable transformation.

These are proof actions speak louder than words and those actions deserve to be known far and wide. That’s a hint to the media and politicians reading this.

As this is my goodbye, I wish to thank my team who have navigated these currents with me.

Federated Farmers has vastly helped improving Trading Among Farmers and we have started to reinvigorate sharemilking. While we have a ways to go to better promote this great farming pathway, the update of sharemilking agreements and the youth and vigour of that section are extremely uplifting.

We even navigated our version of Edward Snowdon when ‘someone’ forwarded internal emails to the media. I didn’t coin it, but “WillyLeaks” sort of stuck.

Throughout it all we have strengthened industry relationships with DairyNZ, Fonterra, Westland, Tatua, Synlait, Miraka, Open Country and the new entrants.

Speaking of Fonterra, I wish also to discuss Fonterra’s growing farm portfolio overseas. New Zealand’s future lies in taking our knowhow, our experience and our systems into the big wide world. Fonterra is to be congratulated for being in the picture.

Yet I somehow feel uncomfortable that these operations have the same Fonterra masterbrand on them as our farmers do.

Simply put, I am fearful that my reputation or that of Kiwi farmers, maybe held hostage to what a farm worker overseas may or may not be doing.

We need to have this discussion.

As I wrap up I must thank our rock Ann Thompson who services our industry group so well with her mix of scientific knowledge and a grammatical accuracy. Ann is such a cool lady and has corralled our significant policy resources when needed. I will miss you Ann.

Then there are my Vice-Chairs, my good mate Robin Barkla who came off the Executive last year and the globetrotting Kevin Robinson who replaced him. Then of course there is my right hand for the past three years, Andrew Hoggard.

If you do elect Andrew he will be a formidable leader and with his sister over at DairyNZ, will make a great dairying team.

I would also like to thank once more my predecessor Lachlan Mackenzie for leaving me the space in which to operate. Also to former national president Don Nicholson for some wise advice when I started.

As both have ambitions to be in parliament I wish them well in the coming election.

To my Federated Farmers Board colleagues what can I say? What a team. From that Amazonian coaster Katie Milne to ‘The Doctor,’ William Rolleston. I will miss the free IT advice of Anders Crofoot but will get to see my good friend and fellow Mid-Cantabrian Jeanette Maxwell regularly.

I won’t be able to escape the “NZ grain is much better than PKE” lectures from that dairy farming grains farmer Ian Mackenzie. A man staying on the board for another year.

Then there is the boss Bruce Wills who richly deserved that Landcorp Communicator of the Year Award. I also wish to say thank you to Conor English who helped us in Select Committees and the political dark arts of Wellington.

Lastly, I like to thank my wife Jeanet who manned the fort back home in my absence and packed my bags on many occasions. Without her I would not have been able to this job.

Now this isn’t a Willy speech without some Willyisms.

First, the Dutch will win the World Cup. If not in Brazil the one after that! Secondly, an activist, somewhere, will blame the end of western civilisation on dairying.

That Cain did not kill Abel out of jealous rage. No, it was because Abel proposed to convert from sheep into dairying. That the Black Death actually came into Europe on imported cattle feed.

Others, no doubt, believe there was a cow on the grassy knoll in Dallas on that fateful day when JFK drove by. Oh and the moon landings were faked by the International Dairy Federation because the moon is made out of cheese.

The discovery of which would crash GlobalDairyTrade!

I am staggered by how we are sometimes portrayed. If you only read social media or went off how we are sometimes portrayed in the mainstream media, you’d think the public and Susan Wood hate farmers. Guess what? They don’t.

While Readers Digest’s annual “Most Trusted” may have its share of critics, it has also been going for years.

It has consistently placed ‘farmer’ within its top-20 “most trusted” professions and this year we’re 14th equal with dentists.

The next time any farmer feels like having a lash against supposedly unsympathetic public, stop. Are you reacting to what the public genuinely thinks or is it a blogger or journalist?

If you look at the bottom ten professions they are made up of bosses, politicians and the people who sell stuff. It includes the media too.

My message to the media is that for every bad news farming story that gets reported, there must be five great stories going unreported.

If the media wish to break that trend I can recommend Mark and Devon Slee, who won the supreme 2014 Balance Farm Environment Award, the Gordon Stephenson Trophy.

The Slees are farming first among equals as the best of the rest isn’t far behind.

Getting that out will turn our farming reality into public perception and on that note I leave you in very good heart.

Thank you for having allowed me to be your servant.


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