NZ Farmer - Disgruntled Mid Canterbury farmers urged to get a farm environment plan 'under their belt.'

Environment Canterbury (Ecan) is urging every Mid Canterbury farmer to get a farm environment plan "under their belt."

New regulations in the Resource Management Act, the National Policy Statement for Fresh Water, and the Canterbury Water Management Strategy would involve everyone farming in the Ashburton, Hinds and Selwyn catchments, said Ecan's Clare McDaniel.

McDaniel was speaking on the Land and Water Management Act to 20 farmers in Methven as part of a farm environment plan workshop run by Beef+Lamb NZ.

The drivers behind the changes were consumer demand for cleaner waterways, more sustainable farming, more local expectations regarding water quality and ecosystems and national and regional regulations, McDaniel said.

"The Ashburton catchment is separated into four nutrient allocation zones, and the new regulations differ for each zone."

Farmers needs to identify the environmental risks on their farms, meet sound management practices and keep good records.

"The red zone, which covers about one-third of the area of the catchment is deemed not to have met its water quality outcomes. The orange zone, another third, is 'at risk.' The green zone, the final third, meets its water quality outcomes. A small percentage of the catchment is purple, and this contains the high country lakes."

McDaniel said the Hinds and Selwyn catchments had separate and slightly different plans.

What every farmer needed to do now was identify the environmental risks on their farm, meet sound management practices and keep good records, she said.

"A farm environment plan (FEP) is a good way to do this. Under regulations, not everyone needs an FEP, but it's good to have one under your belt even if you don't need a resource consent."

In the red zone, if farmers were supplied by an irrigation scheme with a nutrient management consent, they may not need to get their own resource consent, she said.

"If you are an individual and your current nitrogen losses are less than 20 kilograms/hectare/year you will be a permitted activity, and you won't need a resource consent.

"If you are an individual and your current nitrogen losses are greater than 20kg/ha/year you will need a resource consent."

There was also the provision in the plan for a "farming enterprise," a farm with multiple blocks over a wider area - this will also need a resource consent.

In the red zone, farmers couldn't increase their nitrogen losses above a limit set back in 2009-2013. The average of these years was called the "baseline." 

The orange zone was similar, however, if the property was under 50ha and the nitrogen loss was above 20kg /ha/year a resource consent was needed to farm, McDaniel said. 

There is some flexibility - farmers could increase above the baseline by five kilograms.

"In the Ashburton Zone there are no reductions required of farmers at the moment," McDaniel said.

"In Hinds, anyone above 20kg will have to do staged reductions by 2025. This was introduced in the subregional plan. In Selwyn different farming types have to make a certain reduction. Dairy farms have to drop 30 per cent by 2022."

The Ashburton Plan was older, written in 2012. However, Plan Change 5, which was going through the planning process, would introduce reductions for higher emitters.

"The newer plans are trying to be fairer, but ultimately this is about improving water quality, making farming more sustainable and proving to the community that farmers are operating with good practice," McDaniel said.

Plan Change 5 was challenged by seven companies and organisations - Irrigation New Zealand, Barrhill Chertsey Irrigation Limited, Dairy Holdings Limited, DairyNZ, Federated Farmers, Rangitata Diversion Race Management Limited (RDRML) and Ravensdown.

The challenge related to the interpretation of good irrigation management for the amount and timing of water applications under the plan change. 

All farming activities on properties greater than 10ha would be required to register their farming activity on the farm portal, and farmers required to prepare a management plan that described the actions to achieve good management practice. 

Farmers at the meeting said they were feeling the brunt of poorly drafted water regulations. Federated Farmers described Plan Change 5 as unworkable, and in need of a rewrite.

In Canterbury, farmers with the least impact on the environment and who had the lowest stock numbers and nutrient losses were the most penalised in the "grandparenting" system as future efforts to intensify land would be restricted.

They called it "perverse" that farmers were incentivised to maximise their inputs beforehand to achieve a high baseline number. There was variability among farming systems and both Overseer, and ECan's portal system were proof that regulating based on hard numbers and formulas did not work.

Farmers at the meeting said the danger with the portal system was once they provided information and were prescribed a number they were captured to that baseline.

Most farmers supported the need for water quality and quantity limits. The issues at stake were not what ECan was trying to achieve, but the system to get there.