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Water plans bring tight deadlines

Farmers and industry leaders have been scrambling to try and get submissions in on the government’s water quality package, and this will prove to be not the only tight timeline underscoring the proposals.

Made public in mid-September, the time to submit on the package was exceptionally short, with those submissions closing on October 31. That has only come after considerable opposition was raised to the original October 17 date.

Expectations are there will be over 3000 submissions received, making it one of the most heavily submitted pieces of policy seen over this government’s term.

While appreciating the proposals put the environment first, many have criticised the timing that comes as many farmers affected the most have been deep in their busiest time of year, dealing with calving and lambing.

The equally short time lines within which its standards would come into play also echoes the submission period’s short time period.

The freshwater package’s proposals largely require standards and limitations to be in place by 2025, making the time to evaluate farm nutrient losses, manage them and in some cases reduce them a big ask on farmers.

Bayleys Canterbury rural agent Ben Turner says the full implications of the water package are only now starting to be fully understood, and are likely to have some significant impacts upon both lowland and hill country farm businesses.

Hill country sheep and beef properties will be required to have some extensive fencing systems put in place.

“Yet in a lot of cases we have seen biodiversity on these operations is already healthy, thanks in part to the type of farm system they are running – they are already very conscious of the environment they are farming within.”

Meantime on low land properties more intensive farming operations are already working to the region’s Land and Water plan.

“We have already seen a lot of farms reduce their nitrogen levels and are well on track to meet their 2022 targets where required.”

He has been struck by how much farmers have already invested in water protection through riparian planting and fencing, while also investing in smarter irrigation technology to reduce run off and nutrient losses.

“It is important that any new proposals take greater account of the fact farmers are working within a biological system. Like any biological system things cannot be turned around quickly. They certainly have improved things already, and will continue to do so over time, it’s an evolution of improvement, not an overnight fix that farmers can deliver.”

Concern has been raised over the required “set back” for riparian plantings under the proposals. The 5m proposed comes after many farms, including almost all Fonterra dairy farms, have fenced off waterways, often to a 2m setback.

This may require considerable re-fencing and reworking of protection already put in place in good faith by farmers with riparian areas.

Meantime farmers on steeper country that is reasonably heavily stocked also face the prospect, and cost of fencing areas from waterways.

A survey conducted by Federated Farmers in Waikato to determine the impact of that region’s Healthy Rivers plan estimated that the average hill country farm could be faced with a bill of $245,000 to fence off waterways to comply with the plan over the coming five years.

Ministry for the Environment officials have urged farmers concerned about the set-back requirement to express their concerns by submitting on those concerns.

“Like any plan, we can only hope to see some practical and workable solutions to some of these issues come through,” says Ben.

DairyNZ and Beef + Lamb NZ have invested significant resources to help make it easier for farmers to compile a submission and ensure their voice is heard in the process.

There is also concern about a less understood area of the package, one requiring waterways to contain less than 1ppm of dissolved inorganic nitrogen.

This level has sparked concern in some catchments about the ability to achieve it and what that may mean for their ability to continue farming in those catchments.

For some catchments where drystock farming is more common sediment, not nitrogen, may be a focus for the community.

As the proposals stand at present, it is dairy farmers in catchments around Canterbury who are most likely to be affected by the proposals, particularly with respect to the nitrogen levels in waterways.

The package is also requiring farmers to complete a farm environment plan, laying out the property’s risk areas, and mitigation steps to manage the required nutrient losses.

Farm advisors have identified that the greatest challenge in the near future will be finding staff skilled enough with farm systems to help farmers complete them.

Bayleys National Director of Rural, Duncan Ross, said while the standards aim to set New Zealand farm systems up to be regarded as the most sustainable, environmentally sensitive food producers in the world, he hopes the standards will be workable, realistic and economically viable.

“But of course we also need to have standards that don’t leave farmers trying to hit targets without any support behind them – the entire country benefits, and has benefitted, from farming’s success. We owe it to farmers to support this major transition that benefits us all.”


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