Several years ago, Mark Adams and others were questioning why South Canterbury’s catchment groups were underperforming.
They concluded that the Wellington-driven regulatory approach and Environment Canterbury’s Plan Change 7 process were sucking the life and farmer goodwill out of the room, says Adams, who was president of South Canterbury Federated Farmers at the time.
Adams strongly believes the current regulatory approach is ineffective without a strong, vibrant and well-resourced catchment community to align with. Blanket rules clash with the nuance inherent in every catchment.
Catchment communities need to own the issues they’re trying to address; they need to feel the weight of the decisions they make. If they don’t, they can end up just spinning their wheels, he says.
Adams now leads Living Landscapes, a support vehicle for a number of catchments in the region.
Collectives like Living Landscapes have formed because it’s expensive and time-consuming for each catchment to create their own legal structures and then compete for funding. The collectives also provide encouragement, leadership, access to scale and the ability to share resources and lessons learned.
But the collective can’t override each catchment’s ability to choose its priorities and actions, Adams says.
“With Living Landscapes, we’re deliberately wired to act as a partner and not another top-down organisation.
“We have to keep reminding ourselves that our strength is in our grassroots approach. This is more easily achieved with our catchment chairs learning to drive the decision-making and telling us what they need.”
In late 2022, Living Landscapes gained $500,000 from MPI’s Integrated Farm Planning Accelerator Fund. The heart of the project is contracting the team from Land and Water Science to deliver up-to-date physiographic mapping based on a stocktake of all relevant science.
Adams believes the physiographic nature of a catchment – its topography, climate, soils, rainfall and chemistry – is the largest influencer of water quality. This approach is really good at identifying where inherent risks lie, he says.
When writing a Freshwater Farm Plan, farmers who have a good understanding of the natural capital they’re working with, combined with intergenerational observation, should have confidence in their farming system and the plan they produce, Adams says.
Introducing rules around, say, nitrogen limits without this base scientific knowledge and observed impacts is really just one group forcing its opinion on another, Adams says.
Going forward, farmers’ conversations with regulators and other interested parties will be from a more confident scientific base than previously.
Environment Canterbury’s (ECan) director of science Dr Tim Davie, when asked to compare top-down regulation with a catchment-level approach for improving water quality and ecosystem health, reckons both are needed.
“Solutions are often very much at the local scale, and they need to be supported,” he says.
“But to argue for a completely hands-off approach and say, ‘people will get together and take action because they’re altruistic’ – well, I think that’s probably naive.”
Dr Davie says ECan has a great deal of regard for the worth of catchment groups.
The fact that 217 groups have approached the council seeking support in the last five years, with a good number of those approaches supported, speaks to that.
An element of scale can help, he says.
“Sometimes it’s more effective to look beyond your own property and go, ‘well, if you did that, I could do this’ and, together, one and one makes three.
“One farm might have a perfect place to put in or enhance a wetland that improves the whole catchment. So, if everybody helps with that, everybody gets a benefit.”
Dr Davie says ECan does monitoring right around Canterbury but it’s never enough to capture some of the local initiatives, so there’s definitely a place for catchment groups to do some monitoring.
“But I would say don’t get too wrapped up in monitoring, which can be expensive and time-consuming, when the real thing is actions on the ground.
“It’s also worth talking to your regional council and others about what monitoring is being done locally, so you’re not doubling up and you can use each other’s data.”
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.