OPINION: Those who have supported dairy farmers against virulent attacks by the Greens and their cohorts must be feeling let down at the moment.
I know I am.
For years, dairy farmers have been pilloried as uncaring polluters of streams, lakes and rivers.
The unrelenting abuse has leached into the national consciousness so that now the words "pollution" and "dairy farmer" are firmly lodged alongside each other.
A few weeks ago, I defended the dairy farmers, once again.
I reeled off a list of on-farm actions they are taking to keep waterways clean. I quoted figures from the most recent report of the Clean Streams Accord, among them that cattle are fenced off from waterways on 84 per cent of farms. Now, we find this figure is wrong.
Naively, perhaps, I did not realise that the accord relies on farmers' honesty to report their own progress towards the agreement's targets.
When the Agriculture Ministry finally, after eight years, got around to checking for itself, its audit found a discrepancy. Only 42 per cent of farms had fenced their waterways.
I felt sorrow, tinged with annoyance.
Then, in the manner of disappointed people everywhere, I looked for an explanation that could give me some comfort.
I considered Federated Farmers' take on it, that a wet autumn had created new watercourses, but thought that unlikely across so many farms.
Then I thought, could there be some misunderstanding of what is meant by "fenced off"?
When a herd moves into a paddock next to a stream, the farmer strings an electric single-wire fence up to keep them away.
In the eyes of the farmer, that would be keeping the cows out of the water.
But in the eyes of the government auditors, that is not enough.
According to the survey report, they consider an electric fence "on a reel" is not permanent.
Fonterra agrees. A spokesman replied to my query that a temporary wire is not a fence, although a permanent single wire is.
So, maybe, looking at it with the best possible seasonal goodwill, the farmers thought their temporary wire came under the accord's definition of fencing - after all, it does keep the cows out of the water. The accord is no help. It only says "the type of fencing will depend on factors such as terrain, stock type and costs".
I know what dairying's critics would think - permanent fencing is required, nothing less. To that, they would add riparian planting.
We're talking two aims here. One is to keep the cows out of the water - research shows they are more likely to defecate in water. The other is to keep nitrogen from their urine leaching through the soil to the water. Planting in a five-to-10-metre- wide band beside the water will help with that. It will also help stabilise erodable banks.
I agree such riparian strips are the ideal and I have seen them on many dairy farms.
However, it is expensive and labour intensive to put them in, even with regional council subsidies. The cost Horizons regional council has given me is $20,000 for 300 metres for a fence and native plantings.
According to the ministry audit, an average of 780 metres remains to be fenced on each farm, which I extrapolate to 8200 kilometres across all Fonterra suppliers. These are very rough figures.
But they provide an idea of the size of the problem facing Fonterra and its farmers.
Fonterra recently bravely announced it would make it a condition of supply for farmers to have their waterways fenced.
I wonder if its managers realised the true story when they set this target of 100 per cent fencing by the end of 2013. Or were they relying on the 84 per cent self-reported figure and thought, "this is doable".
If that's the case, they must be feeling a bit peeved. A big effort is now required by them and their farmers.
I think a riparian strip should also be left - even if it is only of long grass.
The clean streams figures were released in a big week for Fonterra.
It endeavoured to please its shareholders with a rise in the payout forecast and to please the wider public with a trial of free milk in schools.
So it probably thought the clean streams results were a minor issue.
Helped by the shareholders council and Federated Farmers, it tried to put a positive spin on the figures, saying progress was being made.
But the ministry only audited the farmers' fencing claims.
The other self-reporting part of the accord, regarding bridges and culverts, said to be almost 100 per cent, should also be checked.
I am a big fan of the dairy industry. I applaud its co-operative culture, the way it has created a pathway to ownership and the encouragement and extra education it provides for its participants. Without it, New Zealand would be a poorer place, economically and culturally.
But the industry has a bad - though largely undeserved - reputation as an environmental custodian. It can't afford to give its critics any more ammunition than they already have.
Or to let down its supporters.
- The Dominion Post
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