Sunday, August 14, 2022

Dairy farmers make peace with NGOs

New Forest and Bird chief executive Nicola Toki says her organisation can bring to the discussion how people can be “nature positive” whatever they do.

The dairy sector, Fish and Game and Forest and Bird say they have put aside their differences after years of animosity. The commitment to co-operate comes down to mutual respect, Fish and Game chair Ray Grubb told a DairyNZ webinar held as part of its Farmers Forum series. Attitudes around environmental protection have changed over the past decade and this was noticeable in the farming sector.

“Our style these days is non-confrontational and we believe in community partnerships,” Grubb said.

Those partnerships involve people visiting farms as fishers or game bird shooters and having a good relationship with the landowner.

“We couldn’t have had this conversation three years ago. We had ‘dirty dairying’ when I became chairman that got dropped very quickly. I felt it was disrespectful of the people both in F&G and in the farming community,” he said.

He said the campaign did not achieve a practical purpose and he believed the same thing could be achieved by co-operation and working together.

“A year later I was sitting next to [DairyNZ general manager of sustainable dairy] David Burger at the Environmental Defence Society conference talking about the changes the dairy industry was making. We couldn’t have done that many years ago,” he said.

There will and should be disagreements, but the dairy sector and NGOs also have different priorities, but the overarching priority would always be to improve freshwater. Farming had also changed, with more introducing science on their farms by measuring pasture covers, cow performance, water levels and other inputs.

“What we are asking you to do is assess those impacts off the farm, the impacts of nutrients and sediment on waterways and the surrounding environment,” Burger said.

F&G can help farmers mitigate those impacts, he said. It was not their job to interfere on farms or compel farmers to meet government standards. Instead, it was to advocate for those standards to be applied in a proper way through rules and regional plans.

“When we do that, we’ll do it with respect and hopefully cooperatively and certainly that’s happening now,” he said.

Burger also doubts this conversation could have happened in the past and it was an important conversation to have.

Historic tension between the groups erupted when the dairy industry expanded in the late 1990s and 2000s. 

Looking back, Burger said while a lot of that criticism was fair, so of it was not. The ‘dirty dairying’ campaign caused a lot of hurt in rural communities and farmers felt they were being unfairly targeted. On many levels, the two groups shared similar environmental aspirations and Burger says in recent years the dairy sector has also taken a lot more ownership of their environmental impact.

“We know all of that action is going to lead to environmental improvement but at the same time, we know we have a big challenge in front of us,” he said.

The leadership of groups like F&G, F&B and the Environmental Defence Society had been pivotal in enabling constructive conversations, he said. “That discussion hasn’t been easy at times, but I think the shift in leadership that we are seeing has been really important and does allow us to get into detail and focus on solutions together.”

New F&B chief executive Nicola Toki said their organisation can bring to the discussion how people can be “nature positive” whatever they do.

“We are up for the conversation to help,” she said. But any conversations have to be honest and courageous. “That means it’s uncomfortable but if it’s not uncomfortable, we’re not going to make a change. We need to resolve these wicked problems, and to do that means brave hearts and that means honest conversations, testing evidence and being real and upfront.”

F&B said the conversation must be upfront about the issues the two parties agree and disagree with.

“But that bit in the middle, that’s the magic spot and we risk cutting off our noses to spite our faces if we don’t take the opportunity to grab the bit in the middle,” it said.

F&G deputy chair and dairy farmer Richard McIntyre says sitting around the F&G table allowed a farmer’s perspective to be brought to the conversation. “There’s a saying that if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu and I think farmers have suffered from that in the past,” he said. He believes the organisation was also sincere about its desire to reset that relationship.

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