Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Webinars shed light on farm plan requirements

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Concerns remain about the cost, usefulness, and how they join up with with rules and requirements.
Former arable farmer of the year and Feds arable chair Colin Hurst says the awards are the sector’s time to shine.
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Last month Federated Farmers has hosted two webinars for farmers to help them better understand Freshwater Farm Plans.  

But concerns remain about the cost, usefulness, and how they join up with with rules and requirements yet to come from Essential Freshwater-mandated regional plans.

Federated Farmers freshwater spokesperson Colin Hurst says the workstream is “arse-about” and farmers are feeling really uncertain about what’s required of them. The organisation’s policy team is being completely overloaded and overwhelmed as they try their best to advocate for farmers interests under the ‘relentless’ impacts of David Parker’s reforms.

Speaking to Bryan Gibson in a recent episode of the Farmers Weekly In Focus podcast series, Hurst said the government is requiring 16 councils to have their new regional plans notified by the end of 2024.

“The sheer volume of work involved for everyone is hugely frustrating. We want to give proper input on how these plans are developed but there are just more and more coming at us.”

And there’s the cost too. Hurst said in his region, Canterbury, about $60 million had been spent over the past decade or so debating and developing a set of land and water regulations and rules.

“Re-doing these things is going to cost millions and millions again as a community. It’s staggering.”

The government has repealed and replaced the RMA but there has been a lot of criticism of the two new Acts. National/ACT pledged to repeal the new legislation if elected.

“It’s all the wrong way around,” Hurst said on the podcast. “We need to get the central government laws in place and then it flows down to the regions. They’re just making life difficult for everyone.”

The Feds national board member said farmers have made significant improvements in the environment space and are on the journey of continual improvement, “changes that the rest of the community haven’t necessarily caught up with”.

It saps morale when those improvements aren’t acknowledged, and the atmosphere from some quarters is still one of finger-pointing.

And now Freshwater Farm Plans (FW-FPs) are being rolled out, starting with Waikato and Southland, and eventually requiring all arable and pastoral farming operations over 20ha (and horticultural over 5ha) to have one.

Hurst said FW-FPs are a good idea, as an alternative to the need for a resource consent. But Federated Farmers thinks they should be voluntary not compulsory and should be targeted on some of the more environmentally risky activities on farms rather than covering everything.

At least on one front – confidentiality of farm data – he had been given assurances.

Officials had likened plans to a sort of a farm freshwater protection Warrant of Fitness. All the ministry will know is whether a farm has a certified FW-FP, and whether it has passed an audit.

That was confirmed in the Federated Farmers webinars focused on first-off-the-rank regions, Waikato and Southland. 

Ministry for the Environment senior analyst Pippa Auld told the Waikato webinar that information about individual Freshwater Farm Plans needed by regional councils will be logged on the Integrated National Farm Data Platform (for example, the intended actions to protect freshwater, details of the certifier, audit status, spatial location of the farm and if the FW-FP is being used as an alternative to meet other regulatory requirements, such as intensive winter grazing).

The ministry will receive some data through the platform, “but it will only be for the purpose of system-wide monitoring and evaluation, for us to see if the system is working as intended, or where it might need improvement”. 

“So, the data we received will be aggregated and anonymised.

“We won’t be able to see to which farm or farm operator the data we receive relates; we won’t have line of sight on that at all,” Auld said.

Tracy Nelson, manager primary sector engagement and support at Waikato Regional Council, said if someone asked for information about freshwater risks and intended protection actions under the Official Information Act, the council would have to provide it.

“But we will not be sharing your name, we will not be sharing the location of your property.”

Colin Hurst said another concern was the plethora of plans and paperwork being required of farmers, and the frustration of duplication.

Many farmers already have supply agreements with the likes of Fonterra, Synlait, Silver Fern Farms, etc and assurance activities are covered off in these and Farm Environment Plans. He welcomed work being done on integrated farm planning.

Speakers on the webinar also acknowledged this issue. Auld said a farm operation’s existing industry or farm environment plan will already have content that can be used for the Freshwater Farm Plan.

“So, we absolutely wouldn’t advise you to throw that away and start again. You might just have to think about where the gaps are.”

It’s open to farmers to choose to prepare a FW-FP themselves. They don’t have to use an advisor or consultant, so long as the plan is certified by someone qualified.

Auld said MFE has been working with industry providers who are updating plan templates to be in line with FW-FP requirements.

“I would recommend you contact your existing provider to see what they are doing in that space and whether they can provide a template or resource that can help you.”

Michael Edmondson, MfE principal analyst, said listed actions to deal with inherent water quality vulnerabilities – such as rolling hill slopes or soils that are susceptible to shallow or sheet erosion – could be as simple as minimising the time paddocks are in bare land, developing larger buffer areas around riparian strips and critical source areas to capture sediment run-off.

“So, it doesn’t have to be pages and pages of detail for each action.  Actions could be a simple as two or three sentences, but they’ve got to be measurable, time-specific, and realistic.”

Federated Farmers members can listen to one of the FW-FP webinars, and hear the answers to questions asked by farmers, by clicking on the Events page on the Federated Farmers website.

Federated Farmers, New Zealand’s leading independent rural advocacy organisation, has established a news and insights partnership with AgriHQ, the country’s leading rural publisher, to give the farmers of New Zealand a more informed, united and stronger voice. Feds news and commentary appears each week in its own section of the Farmers Weekly print edition and online.

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