Perspective on dairy polluters

HARVEY LEACH
Last updated 09:11 18/06/2012

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OPINION: In the old days when you wanted to ask someone a few questions you would post a letter. Email has sped things up so it was interesting Rachel Stewart chose her newspaper column to post an open letter to Federated Farmers president Bruce Wills (Good Start But Bolder 'Green' Leadership Needed, June 11).

If you don't know Bruce he is a doer and you'll be able to size him up for yourself when Country Calendar features him on July 21. His family is not only committed to farming environmentally, but I know from personal experience that he is accessible and easily reached on the telephone. I don't want to get into a tit for tat with Ms Stewart over her writing style, but it was hardly the best way to start a conversation.

The guts of Ms Stewart's piece seems to be that farmers are inherently in the wrong but those who criticise us are inherently right. If you seriously believe that to be the case, little I can say here will convince you otherwise. For those who are a little more open-minded, I just hope you will give a dairy farmer like me a fair hearing.

You see, the Dominion Post supposedly nailed dairying's environmental impact after calling up all regional councils. In a four-year period nationally, it found 151 dairy prosecutions under the RMA with 300 charges against 198 companies or individuals. Now there is not a single farm leader I know in Federated Farmers who would defend a wilful polluter.

The vast majority of dairy farmers agree with the need to prosecute, including even those who have felt the law themselves.

Bruce made this clear in talking to the Dominion Post but what seems to have got Ms Stewart steamed is Bruce using the word "but".

I think it is because he knew someone would pen columns based on what they read in the paper or online.

After the story broke, the Taranaki Regional Council stepped up to defend the 1798 out of 1800 dairy farms in our region who do not wilfully pollute.

Our Wellington office has contacted some other regional councils and has picked up frustration over the way council statistics were used in print.

It is true there have been 300 charges levelled against 198 companies or individuals over four years, but it needs a context.

This starts with providing a scale because over four years New Zealand's 11,750 dairy herds would have clocked up some 1176 milking days for a collective total of 13.8 million milking days. That's a lot. These herds directly employ 35,000 individuals, with a further 10,000 estimated to be self-employed. With around 45,000 people in our industry and as a dairy farmer myself, I resent the notion I am only as good as those 198 companies or individuals prosecuted over four years.

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Another way to report things is that over four years, 44,802 out of 45,000 individuals were not prosecuted.

Federated Farmers makes no apologies for standing up for farmers because that is why farmers join us and why they call 0800 FARMING for support. I've been told there are broad- brush comments on our website like "Fed Farmers should pay for all the pollution" and "198 charges against companies or individuals is 198 too many".

Like everyone else in the federation I would dearly love dairy prosecutions to be zero. I would also love to see a zero road toll and zero crime too, but I guess humans are not all perfect and farmers are no exception.

This doesn't stop us from trying to farm better and the public deserves to know what we are actually doing and achieving.

Even more than any other industry we have the media looking critically over our shoulder.

The Taranaki Daily News' Sue O'Dowd reports what she sees but from what I have been reading, there seems to be more positives than negatives.

Here in Taranaki 1798 out of 1800 dairy farms are not wilfully polluting.

All farmers in our region are lucky to have a really good regional council which partners with town and country.

It is why the next time Ms Stewart tees off, I hope she starts by picking up the telephone first.

* Harvey Leach is the provincial president of Federated Farmers Taranaki and is a dairy farmer.

- Taranaki Daily News

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