By Emma Crutchley, Federated Farmers Otago arable chair
Discussions about how we should manage land and water are not new for farmers and growers.
It’s complex. As farmers we run businesses that are dynamic and interconnected with the land and environment.
A national and regional regulatory framework will rightfully create boundaries within which we operate but a new regime will always create unease.
The sector is facing a phase of fast-paced change, with new regional planning frameworks rolling out in response to extensive new government policy direction.
This follows on from a pandemic and on farm a range of headwinds creating a perfect storm for our sector. Unease is elevated.
These headwinds include increased interest rates, increased input costs, lower returns, global uncertainty, and supply chain challenges.
This all combines to put huge pressure on farmer confidence.
People don’t want to be changed, they want to be part of this change and they will support what they are part of creating and take ownership over the solutions.
They often move ahead and above any regulatory framework driven by consumer trends and demands.
The world is changing; farmers are not resistant to this. But when policy lands and is not fit for the intended outcome, it fuels mistrust in authorities.
Earlier this month, the Otago Regional Council released the first draft of the proposed Land and Water Plan for community consultation.
For a range of reasons in Otago, we are first out of the blocks to implement the most recent iteration of the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management.
All eyes are on Otago. The proposed Land and Water Plan represents a huge change in direction for the management of natural resources: some is outside of the council’s control, and some is within their control.
The pendulum is swinging from the “effects based” approach to a stricter “input control” regime.
Plans must evolve, but a strict input control regime does not fit with the dynamic and interconnected environmental systems we operate within.
It limits the potential for innovative community organisational structures to function and evolve. Responsibility falls to the regulator and fewer people see a need to engage because there is no point, leading to a loss of social capital and engagement as we tick a compliance box.
This approach is very problematic, especially now, because of the rate of innovation required by our sector to evolve in response to climate change and international/domestic market demands. Communities need to be cohesive and flexible.
One area of real concern for Central Otago is the impact of a blunt and one-dimensional water allocation framework. The impact of inappropriate policy here will be a direct impact on food production and the potential to reduce on farm emissions.
In Otago we are lucky (as I’m sure other regions are) to have some amazing people stepping into leadership.
The Otago Federated Farmers and North Otago Federated Farmers executives, with the support of a great policy team here in Otago, have worked hard to engage with this process at every opportunity and we were as shocked as anyone to see that little of our efforts reflected in the draft. It was a bitter pill for us.
The draft rules as they stand place a huge burden on some of Otago’s best farmers and growers. Those same farmers and growers who try and engage with our regional council open themselves up to criticism. We are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.
But this is a time to step into the helicopter and look at the bigger picture. The speed at which the Otago Regional Council has had to progress a land and water plan has been a hospital pass from central government.
It has placed huge pressure on council staff. This has forced and puts emphasis on meeting a deadline rather than taking on the time necessary to work through the big issues and bring the community along.
Otago is a highly diverse and complex region, even at a catchment level. Many of the council staff had a limited understanding of our environment, communities, and farm systems that they are trying to manage. They simply don’t know what they don’t know.
While I have empathy for council and its people, my primary concern is burden placed on our rural communities and our rural leadership.
Over the past weeks I have watched a team of volunteer community leaders from across Otago come to grips with the impact that the draft Otago Land and Water Plan could have on the wellbeing of farmers and growers they represent.
That was a tough watch, but also humbling because it wasn’t about them. Everyone knows the massive pressure our communities are under and there is awareness of how much more this will create.
So far, this process has missed a big opportunity. That opportunity is recognising the critical role that our communities and rural leadership play.
The easy option here would be to turn our backs on the process and focus on our own patch of land. It has been a long six years of giving, often the same feedback, to various policies, then feeling like our opinions are not heard or important.
So far, I am both inspired and humbled by our Otago farmers who have stepped up to make the trip to the first consultation sessions these past two weeks to meet with Otago Regional Councillors and staff. They turned up, questioned, shared concerns, communicating to debunk the misunderstandings, and offered solutions to what we hold hope will be an open-minded Otago Regional Council.
It’s time to double down and propose some workable solutions where we can.
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.