The one-size-fits-all approach of the government’s new freshwater regulations could run counter to the aims of the policy, a new study has found.
University of Otago researchers interviewed nine Otago farmers about the National Policy Statement for Freshwater, introduced in 2020, on how they saw their role and the shifting societal expectations of farming’s environmental goals.
Lead author Professor Sara Walton, of the university’s Department of Management, said they wanted to explore the conflict between being a good farmer and complying with the policy, and the potential unintended consequences of the policy for rural communities.
“Farmers mentioned factors such as understanding their farm environment, conservative management of resources and giving back to the communities in their definition of good farmers,” she said.
“They also noted tensions between the impacts of the new freshwater regulations on farm practices and their identity as a good farmer.”
The regulations include mandatory fencing and destocking of freshwater bodies, restrictions on the location and duration of winter forage crops, and caps on nitrogen fertiliser use.
The report, Agriculture and Human Values, highlights a dislike of blanket rules applying to all farms, for failing to take account of the cooler weather in the south and the steeper topography of sheep and beef farms.
Farmers prefer a more targeted approach.
“The one-size-fits-all nature of the policy has the potential to create counterproductive outcomes to the founding concept of Te Mana o Te Wai, which recognises the importance of freshwater health,” Walton said.
Co-author, Associate Professor Janice Lord of the university’s Department of Botany, said there is a disconnect between the regulations and a perceived lack of appreciation by policy makers of the challenges of farming in parts of the country.
“The new rules have a real chance of producing some negative results by effectively regulating farmers into a corner and not taking localised factors into account,” she said.
Those negative results could include the conversion of previously grazed grassland-wetland systems to forestry, wetlands being drained before they are classed as significant, weeds infesting newly fenced-off waterways, intensification of winter cropping and transportation of animals due to land not meeting unrealistic and impractical constraints, and mental health issues as farmers struggle to meet impractical regulations.
The notion of being a good farmer is important to farmers’ identity, she said, and it has shifted from being purely economic to convey a set of shared social norms and understandings.
“Complying with the changing regulations was found to be a tension in their desire to remain being seen as a good farmer.”