Farmers hit back after damning survey

GERALD PIDDOCK
Last updated 05:00 11/03/2014

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Dairy industry groups have hit back at the results of a survey which suggests farmers are not doing enough to improve their environmental footprint.

Seventy per cent of participants in a survey by Horizon Research, funded by Fish & Game and released yesterday, said the expansion of dairy farming had made water quality worse than 20 years ago.

More than a third of respondents believed the country was too reliant on the dairy industry and more than half believed the industry's poor performance was affecting New Zealand's global reputation and brand.

Nearly 90 per cent of respondents supported the view that those who pollute waterways should be made accountable for their restoration.

However, dairy farmers were already paying a considerable amount for their environmental impact, Dairy NZ sustainability strategy and investment team leader Rick Pridmore said.

The sector was paying millions of dollars to upgrade farms to reduce their environmental footprint.

DairyNZ, which is funded through dairy farmer levies, paid $5 million to work with every regional council in the country to help implement the National Policy Statement on Fresh Water as quickly as possible.

"On most cases, we're spending more than the council is."

Mr Pridmore said about 90 per cent of waterways on dairy farms had been completed.

It was costing farmers $100 to $200m nationwide to meet that fencing requirement. Farmers were also paying $50,000 to $250,000 to upgrade their effluent systems.

Farms were also spending $3m on nutrient management plans plus an additional $16.5m on consultants to advise farmers on these plans.

Many had also planted trees and had created wetlands on their farms.

"I don't think the average person realises how much is spent on a farm," he said.

Most farmers Mr Pridmore knew were borrowing money to pay for those improvements. People exaggerated the wealth that dairy farmers earned and Mr Pridmore believed Fish & Game were exploiting that view in the survey.

Dairy companies had also cracked down on non-compliant farmers.

Mr Pridmore had just finished attending a series of nationwide Fonterra meetings, which addressed the issue of sustainability.

The key message from those meetings from farmers was that the tail of the industry needed to be cleaned up.

Waikato Federated Farmers president James Houghton said farmers were getting increasingly frustrated with the minority of farmers who had ignored social and cultural shifts in the industry and refused to change how they farmed.

In his weekly column in today's Waikato Times, he said they were not a true representation of what the industry was and how "disheartening" it was for dairying's reputation to be shredded in the media.

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"As I drive around my farm and look at my oxidation ponds and erosion planting, then come home to process the data collected on my soil to make sure I am meeting my targets, I turn to the newspaper and read about how horrible dairy farming is for New Zealand - sometimes it just makes you wonder ‘Why the hell am I doing all of this?'. It is amazing how misinformation and cherry picking of data can blow holes in your morale."

Waikato Regional Council compliance and education division manager Rob Dragten said the council's approach to polluters was to recover the costs from the polluter wherever possible.

"Our primary focus is to minimise the harm to the environment and if we can recover the costs from the party responsible then we go to reasonable lengths to do that."

There were situations where it was not possible and when that occurred, the council would make a value judgment on whether the pollution was important enough to the community to be fixed.

The ratepayer would then end up paying under those circumstances, he said.

Another group heavily involved in funding environmental cleanup was the Waikato River Authority.

It was established in 2010 after the enactment of Treaty settlement legislation.

The authority is responsible for the vision and strategy for the restoration and protection of the health and wellbeing of the Waikato River.

During the next 26 years the authority will administer $250m to support the achievement of its purpose.

Fish & Game NZ chief executive Bryce Johnson said the research proved Fish & Game and the wider public were united on freshwater issues.

"The sole focus on ramping up primary sector growth - notably intensive dairying - whatever the costs, has put the economy on a collision course with the environment and public opinion," he said.

- Fairfax Media

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