As car parking spilled out onto surrounding streets and people queued to get in, meeting room space and seating fell short at the Hotel Ashburton.
Expecting maybe 180, Environment Ministry officials appeared somewhat surprised and even a little nervous of the force of passionate farmers turning out to have their voices heard on the proposed tough, new freshwater regulations.
With the opening of an adjoining third room all 400 were eventually shoe-horned in, albeit not all with seats and not all able to hear through a sound system that failed to cope.
But the farmers and others with livelihoods dependent on the sector did have their say after presentations by ministry water director Martin Workman and officials Amanda Moran and Charlotte Denny.
“The fact so many have turned out really shows this is a topic farmers are passionate about,” Workman said.
“It really shows the importance of the environment.”
As a softener Workman was quick to acknowledge urban waterways are the most polluted in the country.
“And we need to fix them up.”
Workman said the healthy waterways proposals are about where the Government wants to get to.
“How long it takes is the big question. We know nitrates are not going to be achieved overnight and we know in some places there will be greater challenges around the need for innovation and technology but we need to come with solutions for this.”
The audience was keen on getting its messages across and timing was a hot topic.
The exceptionally short consultation timeframe highlighted alarming social consequences for farming communities and regional economies.
In some areas more investment will be needed as well as changes to the way land is farmed.
That is in addition to the thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours farmers have already invested.
More time is needed to ensure it’s done right – for the environment and right for the people, farmers said.
It was pointed out there’s no acknowledgment of the downstream effects on local businesses, industry suppliers and wider communities dependent on farming sector income.
“What happens to a local community when a farmer decides the best option is for their land to no longer be a farm?” Mid Canterbury farmer Chris Allen asked.
Science emerged an equally burning topic.
Farmers want evidence of the accuracy of the science being used.
They want to see the bottom lines for nitrate leaching pointing out the 1% dissolved inorganic nitrogen level is unrealistic.
They want to know how proposed new rules will tie in with the myriad of other regulations already in place and whether economic modelling has been done and what measures have been considered for the impact on human wellbeing and rural economies.
“The importance of science behind proposals has been emphasised – is there a bibliography that we can refer to see the science behind this because some of us don’t want to hear Mike Joy,” Mt Alford farmer Sir Graeme Harrison said.
Eiffelton farmer Ian Mackenzie accused the Government of replacing past science with science more suited to its political agenda.
Unanimously supported by the other farmers, Mackenzie claimed the bottom lines for dissolved nitrogen in waterways are simply unachievable.
“Our issue is 1 milligram of dissolved nitrogen per litre is not something we can aspire to. It puts us out of business.
“What you are proposing is not innovating or tweaking, it is closing down any type of industry in this district,” Mackenzie said.
Waimate farmer John Gregan said farmers need to see some cost-benefit analysis.
“What other western economy has a 1mg level and is it working?” he asked.
The issue of compensation was raised for fencing, planting, loss of productive land and the management of wetlands and waterways.
Compensation was not on the table but genetically-modified ryegrass could be after Dorie farmer Ted Rollinson had his say.
“As dairy farmers all we are looking for is science and technology to manage this and the one tool that would work is gene editing. It has ability to mitigate nitrates 30-40% and greenhouse gases in the order of 30%.
“Surely to goodness now is the time for this debate,” he said.
Farmers were told the ministry does not have a magic army coming along to enforce rules but wants to understand how this plays out for farmers in the long term.
Workman apologised for the timing but said the Government is really keen to move forward.
“Part of the proposal is working out how long it will take and I agree some of the proposed bottom lines could take decades to achieve though regional councils will have to have land and water plans in place with these targets by 2025,” Workman said.
The meeting was assured that all questions and comments had been recorded and will be taken back to Environment Minister David Parker and Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor.