Scoop - Enable farmers to farm sustainably says PM

Enable farmers to farm sustainably, don’t punish them, says Prime Minister Bill English.

More than 400 farmers and other rural business owners turned out in Ashburton to hear National’s policies on the primary sector and the environment and discuss concerns on a raft of new proposed taxes by Greens and Labour, including Labour’s proposed water tax.

The event at Ashburton Events Centre was organised by nonprofit membership body Irrigation New Zealand. The day also included a visit to an irrigated arable and dairy farm so the Prime Minister could see firsthand the kind of environmental improvements farmers are undertaking that are already making a difference to New Zealand’s rivers.

Prime Minister Bill English told the packed meeting: ‘The strength of the regions has underpinned the success of New Zealand. We need to enable farmers to farm sustainably, not punish them.

‘It is not a choice between the economy and the environment – we can have both.’

The Prime Minister agreed with IrrigationNZ’s concerns on Labour’s proposed water tax.

IrrigationNZ says the proposed water tax is not the best way to clean up rivers; that it will result in unintended consequences; and it penalises the people who already cleaning up our rivers.

The Prime Minister told the audience that Labour had no idea what farmers are already doing to clean up rivers. He said the water tax was on the wrong target and the way that it would be used was wasteful.
He said that for success, solutions should be decided at a catchment level rather than decisions being made by people in Wellington.

At the current proposed rate of 2 cents per litre, Ashburton is facing an estimated $20m loss to its local community. The entire rates bill for Ashburton is currently c$32m.

IrrigationNZ Chair Nicky Hyslop, a Timaru farmer, said concerned farmers told the Prime Minister they felt they had been singled out and many New Zealanders were unaware of what they were already doing to tackle water quality.

Nicky added: ‘You can’t be green if you’re in the red.’

The only farmers who would face Labour’s proposed water tax are those with irrigation on their land, which is just 6 per cent of farming families nationally.

Mid Canterbury farmer and IrrigationNZ member David Clark, who has a 463 hectare arable and lamb farm, was among those who attended. He was concerned not only about the proposed water tax and the plan to include agriculture in the emissions trading scheme, but also the nitrogen tax proposed by the Green party.

A new water tax could cost him around $47,000 extra every year (at 2 cents per 1,000 litres), a nitrogen tax would cost him an additional $62,000 and including agriculture in the emissions trading scheme another $75,000.

David Clark said: ‘The impact of these three taxes would wipe out our farm profits and and have a negative impact on businesses in Ashburton. It would also reduce investment in technology to use water more efficiently and on other environmental improvements.’

He said the agricultural sector was already making good progress with riparian fencing and planting and upgrading older irrigators to provide precision application of water. He had managed to reduce calculated nitrogen loss by 25% on his farm in the last six years.

Already doing it

IrrigationNZ said farmers had already fenced off 26,000 kms of waterways on their properties – 11 times the length of New Zealand.

As part of the trip Prime Minister Bill English visited the Ashburton arable and dairy farm of IrrigationNZ members Ian and Diana MacKenzie.

The MacKenzies have been caring for their waterways for decades through fencing and riparian planting, and have spent 20 years building and maintaining a wetland on their property, home to one of the largest population of rare mud fish in Canterbury. The area is also home to eels and many native aquatic birds. As Canterbury has experienced low rainfall over the past few years Mr MacKenzie has used irrigation water to keep the wetland and fish alive when natural flow has dried up. Replanting native species, pest control and riparian management of the creek and wetland area is an ongoing project.

Ian MacKenzie estimates the tax at a proposed 2 cents a litre would cost him $50,000 a year, and any taxes on nitrogen, land and including farming in an emissions trading scheme would add to this figure. He said the taxes could threaten the viability of their farm and their conservation efforts, and would force them to look at moving to more intensive farming options to pay the water tax.

He said: ‘If you are to cater for higher returning markets as we are trying to do, those markets insist on consistency in quality and reliability of supply. Irrigation is essential to achieve this for those of us in drier regions like Canterbury. The whole region benefits from this higher value approach. Dry land farming in this area forces you back down the feed chain to commodities, which is not a sensible approach by Labour.’

The leaders of NZ First, National and Labour have all been invited by Irrigation New Zealand to meet farmers