Farmers doing their bit for environment

BRUCE WILLS
Last updated 12:33 09/12/2013
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Is Federated Farmers president Bruce Wills right to claim that farmers are doing their bit for the environment?

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OPINION: Federated Farmers surprised some by welcoming Dr Jan Wright's water report but before she released it, Dr Wright gave us a briefing.

That tells me we are not only trustworthy but are seen by her to be positive influencers, something noticed by the editor of the Otago Daily Times: "Farmers are making attempts to address the negative impacts of their operations and know their future livelihoods rely on looking after the land. But many mitigation efforts, such as riparian planting, are not effective at controlling nitrogen run-off, particularly in some catchment areas and soil types, and a rethink is needed - and our scientists and researchers play a vital part in that, alongside policymakers and farming industry heavy weights.

"There is an increasing goodwill and acknowledgement that all parties need to work together to address issues. Federated Farmers is welcoming the report, with environment spokesman Ian Mackenzie saying the effects on water are "not a future we'd like to be a part of", significant research is being put into finding solutions and progress is being made..."

In our many discussions about water, we must not forget that New Zealand has some of the best quality water on earth. It may not seem like it from the way water quality decline is casually but repeatedly drip-fed into our consciousness, but we fundamentally have great water. This is why farmers and the wider industry are determined to play our part proved by Otago's Shag River; just named the most improved river in New Zealand.

Given a small portion from much of what we produce goes towards industry-good research and work, it adds up to over $80 million each year from various levies.

The biggest issue we face is that the things making a difference are either technical or difficult to report. You will understand better if I list some: riparian plantings, stock exclusion, sediment traps, on-farm effluent systems, precision agriculture for fertiliser application, ground sensors, GPS- based irrigators, better pasture and animal genomics, as well as stand-off pads, not to mention herd homes/wintering barns.

That's not comprehensive but it all aids water quality. It is why the Ministry for the Environment reported in July that river quality over the past 10 years is stable to improving. To be fair, nitrogen remains our bogey nutrient, as Dr Wright is right to point out. Our nitrogen surplus is basically the same as Germany's but half that of Holland's.

It is also worthwhile pointing out that it wasn't Fonterra that constructed more than 20,000 kilometres of fences around waterways, but its farmer supplier-shareholders.

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It isn't the meat company I supply who planted poplars and willows on my hill-country farm, but the hard work of my brother and me.

There is an army of determined farmers out there who go to work each day to improve their farm environment.

AgResearch is also involved in research projects investigating nitrogen and phosphorus losses to water from pastoral farming. Dr Wright also said policies, like the new National Objectives Framework for freshwater management, were positive. With consultation under way we agree. It will give communities the power to set their own aspirations for water. Proposed national bottom lines, after all, had the input of New Zealand's 60 foremost freshwater scientists.

All it takes to alter the model is a change in regional policy or a breakthrough with pasture, animals or fertiliser or better returns for meat and fibre or even tighter lending criteria.

Closer to home, the Manawatu River proves the overall improvement point made by the MfE back in July. Horizons' Dr Jon Roygard reported the Manawatu was showing some improvement but tellingly, wastewater system upgrades in six towns "will make a significant difference to water quality in those catchments".

In Taranaki, the Regional Council has reported some of the best monitoring results, ever, for ecological health trends and the physical and chemical state of your region's waterways.

I am certain 500,000-plus native plants under the council's Green Ribbon Award-winning Riparian Management Programme played a positive role in this.

You see, when it comes to the environment and the economy it is not "either/or," it's both.

* Bruce Wills is the president of Federated Farmers.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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