Friday, December 8, 2023

No free pass for market gardens

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Horowhenua market gardener and Manawatu-Whanganui regional councillor Emma Clarke is adamant any removal of the district from Government nitrogen rules is far from a get-out-of-jail card for growers.  
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Government officials have recommended Horowhenua and Pukekohe be treated separately from the latest national freshwater rules when limits on nitrogen toxicity are set. 

The Government has delayed setting firm national nitrogen loss limits, citing a need for more scientific analysis over the coming year.

The recommendation to take account of the two areas’ importance as vegetable growing centres has drawn the ire of local iwi, claiming Environment Minister David Parker failed to consult on the separation.

Clarke, of Woodhaven Gardens near Levin, said she finds herself between a rock and a hard place as a market gardener and a councillor.

“My understanding is the council is not happy that our region is to be made exempt. This puts the council at odds with the Government, even though everyone in this region has submitted very clearly we wanted a pathway for continued vegetable production in Horowhenua.” 

The Clarke family is one of the country’s largest producers, with more than 700ha in produce production and 220 staff.

Vegetable production has become fraught under the regional council’s One Plan with almost 60 growers having to operate without consents and unable to meet the nitrogen limits being imposed. 

Applying rules as they were is estimated to result in vegetable production being cut by 64% in a region responsible for growing about a third of the country’s greens.

Clarke said the plan was too dairy focused when it was established and vegetable growers have since been at odds with council over the limits set.

“So, the council has failed to grasp where their policy would land.”

With vegetable growing now limited to defined areas and the plan preventing any further development elsewhere in the region it is impossible to spread the nitrogen load from vegetable growing across the wider region.

Clarke’s concerns are shared by Pukekohe grower Bharat Bhana, vice-chairman of Potatoes New Zealand. He operates part of his business under Waikato Regional Council’s Plan Change One (PC1). 

As in Manawatu-Whanganui it is not possible to shift land use to intensive vegetable growing.

“What the Government has said is lip service really. 

“There are still very tight rules around nitrogen losses. Some might say it is a gift to be exempted, it is far from that. PC1 is tough and the Auckland region will be next.”

Both growers maintain that regardless of any Government-sanctioned separation from national rules the regional councils’ rules could risk accelerating land loss from market gardening to urban development.

“If it gets too difficult to grow vegetables the next best land use is not sheep and beef. It is to turn it into houses,” Clarke said.

Levin is experiencing massive growth and the completion of the Otaki to Levin expressway will only open greater development opportunities.

“As producers we are feeling pretty browbeaten and the cost of producing is already becoming prohibitive.”

Bhana said he too has considered developing land near Tuakau as production becomes more regulated and limited.

Clarke said it is a shame regional councils have not worked more closely with Horticulture NZ when setting rules, to deliver a more workable solution specifically for growers.

“We are happy to meet rules around protecting the environment. 

“However, I feel there needs to be a more practical approach to this.”

Bhana said the impracticalities of PC1 are only just starting to bubble up for growers.

“Suppose you set a farm environment plan with a nitrogen input level then the crop is damaged by hail part way through and you have to add more nitrogen to help it recover then I am over my limit.”

Hort NZ chief executive Mike Chapman said while the removal of the two districts is what HortNZ sought there is still work to do improving regulations for growers under regional plans.

“Vegetable production differs significantly from pastoral production and the Government has recognised that with this.”

He agrees with Clarke that if regional councils had taken greater account of vegetable production’s different nitrogen loss profile there might be greater consistency now across the country.

“But to get that national consistency you need a national policy statement. We are looking at a national environmental standard to try to achieve that consistency.”

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