Dictatorial approach over water quality fails with farmers


Writing for NZ Farmer, Doug Edmeades reflects on the current preoccupation with the environmental effects of agriculture, and proposes a more farmer-inclusive approach to tackling the water quality issue.

OPINION: Today I am in a sombre mood reflecting on a conference I attended this past week. It was the 31st Annual Workshop of the Fertiliser and Lime Research Centre at Massey University. The theme this year was "Farm Environment Planning – Science, Policy and Practice."

Over three days 90-odd papers were presented by regional council staff, farm consultants and scientists, covering the full breadth of the theme. All the papers were directed towards environmental issues. There was no new science related to what I would call production-driven research.

Within this context I can now be described as a dinosaur. I was trained and practiced at a time when the purpose of agricultural science was reflected in the adage: to grow two blades of grass where one grew before. 

These days the focus of R&D is almost entirely on the environmental effects of agriculture. Fair enough – it is the big issue of our time. But I am sure that sometime in the future we will need to grow two blades of grass at minimal environmental cost and it is possible that old production-driven dinosaurs will swing back into fashion.

To fully convey the flavour of the conference I am going to butcher a Churchillian expression: "From the Cape in the north to Bluff in the south shall descend an iron certain: farming as we know it will become a controlled activity."

You will have heard this drumbeat before, expressed in PC language - "farmers will need a social licence to farm".

The first session of the conference comprised contributions from the various regional councils (RCs), outlining their respective policy approaches to managing water quality. What intrigued me were the differences.

At one extreme the Greater Wellington RC's approach appeared to be inclusive and farming-community driven. They have divided their geographical region into the various definable water sub-catchments and let the communities within each sub-catchment elect a management committee. That committee will be charged to work with their community and the RC staff to achieve the desired water quality goals.

By contrast, some RC's appear more dictatorial and authoritarian. "Thou shalt or we will" seems to be the philosophy embedded in their planning and plans. You do not need to be a psychologist to work out that this is exactly how not to approach or manage farmers if the intention is to gain their confidence, cooperation and energy.  

Two regional councils have made this mistake. Horizon's One Plan and Canterbury's Land and Water Regional Plan are in a mess. The planning has been top down with the RCs trying to impose upon farmers what they wish, want and will have. This approach is compounded, certainly in the case of the One Plan, by the application of faulty science.

These RCs can claim that they have consulted with farmers. There is no doubt that they have, but from what I understand, this farmer interaction was after the event. Plans were developed and these were then presented to farmer groups for comment.

Consider for a moment who is likely to prevail in such a contested environment where knowledge is power? The RCs have the planners, the scientists, the time and the vocabulary. The farmers are not equally yoked to the task ahead. Not surprisingly farmers gets bulldozed into submission. They become disenfranchised from and disillusioned by the process. Frustration and anger is often the product. This is exactly the wrong outcome.

In the Waikato we are part way through this process. A plan (Plan Change One or PC1) to "clean up" the Waikato River over an 80-year period has been notified and is out for discussion. No one knows at this stage what the final outcome will be so I am going to add my little bit of wisdom based on what we have learnt to date.

There are 74 sub-catchments that contribute to the Waikato River and water quality goals have been set for each. I would take a leaf out of the Wellington Plan and appoint community-based sub-catchment committees. They would be tasked to develop plans for their sub-catchment consistent with the framework already set out in PC 1.

Their first task would be to undertake a forensic analysis of the sub-catchment to prioritise which of the four contaminants (nitrogen, phosphorous, pathogens and sediment) is important in order to reach the prescribed water quality standards. I cannot overestimate the importance of this step.

For example, I've done some work with farmers in one of the 74 sub-catchments. We found that sediments and pathogens were the water quality-limiting contaminants. No need therefore in this case to chase after N and P and therefore have to worry about the vexing "nitrogen reference point".

Once the priorities are established the sub-committee can then turn to the issue: what changes are required in this sub-catchment to meet the prescribed water quality goals. I can envisage that there will be some sub-catchments where only N and P are limiting water quality, in which case a large, community-funded and owned wetland at the base of the catchments may be all that is required, eliminating the need for costly fencing.

This approach empowers the landowner and if I know anything about farming communities, they are very good at collaborating when confronted with a common cause.