Growers and Horticulture NZ have been among those to present submissions to a panel considering Horizons (Manawatu-Whanganui) Regional Council’s proposed Plan Change 2.
Although growers and Hort NZ support the plan change’s goal of improving water quality in the region, they say treating commercial vegetable growing in the same way as pastoral farming fails to recognise the differences between the two and threatens an industry crucial to NZ’s fresh green vegetable supply.
Instead of being judged alongside pastoral farming, they favour an approach where those growers would have to comply with industry-based best practice standards and those growers not already meeting those would be provided with a timeframe and pathway to get up to speed.
Horticulture NZ natural resources and environment manager Michelle Sands told the hearing that when the council’s One Plan was created it was based on the idea that all farming in the region was pastoral, not taking into account the differences between that type of farming and commercial vegetable growing.
She says a tailored approach that provides a graduated pathway is needed for commercial vegetable growers, particularly in the Horowhenua district, which will improve water quality while also ensuring those growers are not forced out of business.
Horowhenua growers, who produce a significant amount of NZ’s green vegetables, are most at risk from the plan change.
Levin’s Woodhaven Gardens director Jay Clarke is concerned that the proposed Plan Change 2 does not create equitable consenting pathways across sectors.
He says vegetable growers will be subject to high costs to prepare and lodge an application for resource consent with a heavy burden of proof of environmental effects and the effectiveness of best practical option mitigations with no certainty of outcome.
Horizons consulted with dairy and sheep and beef farmers to create an equitable pathway for their business, but Clarke says the council has not consulted with vegetable growers to establish a similar controlled activity pathway based on realistic and industry appropriate nitrogen loss reduction targets.
“No commercial growers were consulted with in the formation of the revisions included in proposed Plan Change 2 and no feedback from commercial vegetable growers was included . . . after it was first shared prior to public notification,” he said.
Clarke says the proposed plan change fails to recognise the differences between activities that are grouped together as “intensive farming land uses.”
For example, no specific policy has been included that provides for commercial vegetable growers’ approach to nutrient management and the necessity for regular crop rotation.
“Woodhaven requests that a new policy for commercial vegetable growing inside a water management sub zone be added to the plan to set the scene for a separate rule regime for commercial vegetable growing,” he said.
He says Environment Canterbury introduced a policy to its Land and Water Plan that recognised the particular constraints that apply to commercial vegetable growing operations, including the need to rotate crops to avoid soilborne diseases and for growing locations close to processing facilities.
That policy requires growers to operate at good management practice and show how relevant nutrient loss reduction will be achieved.
Clarke says commercial vegetable growers are already environmentally efficient in terms of nitrogen loss per hectare if the amount of food produced is taken into account, which is not recognised by the proposed plan change.
He says if that is taken into account those growers far outstrip the amount that both dairy and sheep and beef farmers produce on the same amount of land.
The one size fits all approach does not work across farming sectors.
“We’ve got to have related regulations that match the farming systems,” Clarke says.
He supports the aim of the proposed plan change, to improve water quality, but objects to the approach it takes to achieve that.
“Woodhaven considers that the proposed mechanism puts mass vegetable production at risk through imposing consent processes that cannot guarantee security of operation far enough into the future,” he said.
He says this lack of security undermines the confidence of commercial vegetable growers in their ability to operate sustainably.
Changes made to reduce footprint
Woodhaven Gardens has already spent plenty of time and money reducing its environmental footprint, in particular nitrogen and sediment loss.
Director Jay Clarke says they first began experimenting with different growing methods about seven or eight years ago and rolled them on the ground in 2018.
The suite of practices includes more gradual fertiliser delivery, utilising GPS, growing maize as a nitrogen catch crop and retiring about 18% of low-yielding growing land.
Clarke says they are continuing to learn as they go and there are still parts of the system that need work.
The changes, which have included significant investment in precision agriculture, have cost about $4.5 million in capital expenditure so far, and another $2m a year to run.
They are not changes that growers can make overnight, which is why he says a consenting pathway is needed.
Some of the changes made at Woodhaven, the 2020 Regional Supreme Winner at the Horizons Ballance Farm Environment Awards have only been possible because it’s a large-scale operation, so may be unrealistic for smaller growers.