Waikato rivers plan divides farmers

Massive costs could put drystock farmers out of business, says James Bailey.

Massive costs could put drystock farmers out of business, says James Bailey.

Tensions are growing between Waikato dairy and drystock farmers as the sectors bang heads over the likely dollar consequences of the Healthy Rivers proposed regional plan change.

For many red meat farmers, the results of a test drive of the Farm Environment Plan required by the regional council plan have been a financial bombshell. Frustrated and upset at what they see as a lack of understanding of the challenges of their sector and environments, they are calling for different treatment and policy flexibility.

For the region's dairy farmers, who say they've been anticipating the regulatory crunch and spending to meet it for more than a decade, the drystock response is out of order. They say there has to be one rule for all and that the plan change proposal is a hard-won compromise which could be replaced by regulators with something far worse if rural consensus isn't reached. 

Waikato Federated Farmers vice-president Andrew McGiven has confirmed there is growing friction. He's calling for a "Team Ag" approach to the likely effects on farmers of the proposed new measures to restore and protect the health of the Waikato and Waipa Rivers. The plan change process has been under way for two years. Submissions close in March, with council hearings and decisions due later next year. 

Waikato Federated Farmers, which initiated a study testing the implications of the plan change on 13 mainly drystock farms, say the results are of significant concern to members. Fonterra ran a parallel study on the effects on 11 dairy farms. The resulting report by AgFirst showed a big variation in costs to comply with the Farm Environment Plan part of the plan change, from zero dollars to more than $500,000, mainly for hill country fencing and water reticulation. The study did not cover the costs and restrictions around the plan's proposed nitrogen limit point and association reductions, or land conversion restrictions.

Beef breeder James Bailey, who with Graeme Gleeson represented Waikato and Waipa drystock farmers on the collaborative stakeholder group (CSG) which developed the plan, said the sector supported the vision to clean up the rivers, but the "potentially massive" costs that could be imposed on hill country farmers could put them out of business. The two, who represented 50 per cent of farmers in the catchments, did not sign the CSG-developed plan.

Bailey rejected dairy sector criticism that drystock farmers could have started investing in preparation years ago. "We may not have a water accord like dairying but a hell of a lot of work has been done on developing hill country sustainable farming systems. Yes, a lot of work needs to be done but there's no comparison with a flat dairy farm."

Reticulation and fencing on hill country took a lot of capital, Bailey said. "There's a real lack of understanding about drystock farming, especially hill country. The challenges are very different and the systems we run are very different. It's really sad, it's becoming a sector versus sector situation and it's starting to effect rural communities."

Bailey said contrary to claims, drystock farmers had been very engaged in the plan change process. "But they've got to be profitable. There's got to be give and take and flexibility for farmers to adapt." There was a "huge upswelling" of reaction to the potential impacts. "They've said they will take it as far as they need to."

Waikato Federated Farmers president Chris Lewis said the branch will be calling for substantial revision of parts of the policy.

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Cambridge dairy farmer Garry Reymer, whose farm was in the test study, is unhappy with the tone taken by the federation.

"We can't have one rule for one sector and one for another.  Whether we like it or not we need a licence to operate. We can't continue to farm without buying into NZ Inc. If you haven't taken steps to go down this path in the past 10 years, don't blame me. Some dairy farmers were doing it (preparing) before the accord, some needed a bit more pressure. But you can't try to discount the money I've spent already."

Reymer said meat farmers have seen the need for effluent and nitrogen restrictions "as a dairy problem". "They're a little shellshocked." But the public expected farmers to meet standards. "If I have to choose between sticking with my fellow farmers or siding with 4.5 New Zealanders, I'll go with the 4.5 million."


 - Stuff

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