‘I think I just saw a trout rise,” says Bryce McKenzie, looking down the bank of the Pomahaka River that runs about 3km of its course through his Southland dairy farm.
He grew up on this river, swam in it as a kid, and has for decades fished it with a fly rod.
As a founding member of the Pomahaka Watercare Group, he is also one of its guardians.
If you ask people who have spent a lot of time with Bryce, they’ll tell you the watercare group is one of his biggest passions.
The group was formed in 2018 after a meeting at which only three farmers showed up.
The farmers were outnumbered by industry organisation speakers, who said the Pomahaka was in bad shape.
“It was daunting to realise how bad the waterway was. The phosphorus levels were very high,” Bryce says.
A few weeks later a group of farmers met in a pub and the watercare group was officially formed.
Bryce is standing knee-deep in coxfoot and ryegrass, in a fenced-off section on the riverbank.
“It’s a wonderful filter,” he says.
“I’ve caught a lot of fish under there,” he says and points to a willow tree with a slow section of water under it. “Only brown trout here, but we get big salmon. Biggest one I’ve taken out of here was 32 pounds [14.5kg].
“I was fortunate that I got taught by a next-door neighbour, Gordon Hellier, who was very good fly fisherman. I just got hooked on that. My sons are really good too.”
The watercare group began by testing water from the river.
Tests showed spikes of different kinds during different times of the year.
After heavy rainfall, E coli was a problem, mostly from sheep dung, he says.
“Sheep dung is wrapped in oil. It’s protected. It takes quite a bit of rain and then suddenly it releases,” Bryce says.
“We noticed that it’s very difficult to do anything about phosphorus because it clings to sediment. There’s no easy answers.
“When you’re doing something on the farm, it’s being conscious of the effect you’re having on the environment. If you’re thinking consciously all the time, about what impact you are going to be making – if you get everybody doing that, then change happens,” Bryce says.
In his case “the farm” is in Waikoikoi, Southland.
A lot has changed on the farm over the years.
Bryce’s father, Warack, was a sheep and beef farmer in Scotland. He came to New Zealand and did the same.
His mother, Evylyn, came from England as a baby.
The McKenzie farm was a sheep and beef operation until 15 years ago, when both Bryce’s sons, Jared and Warack, decided they wanted to farm, and they converted to dairy as sheep and beef would not cut it financially.
Bryce’s son-in-law, Paul Butson, taught Bryce, Jared and Warack the dairying ropes.
Then Paul left to help his father, and Warack left to contract-milk on a farm nearby.
Jared now runs the McKenzie operation.
Bryce helped out a lot just after the conversion to dairy but says the conversion was the right time to let the boys take over.
The farm is 338 hectares with 700 cows at peak milk, sitting at 3.5-4 on the farm intensity scale.
“We do put some input in, but not all year round.”
Climate is likely the biggest challenge on the farm, he says.
“Too much rain can be worse than too little. We can get a lot of [pugging] damage to our pastures.”
The year is going well, with so much grass growth they are already making baleage.
Bryce says as they became more aware of how farming impacted land and water production on the farm changed.
“I remember I had beef cows here. They used to cross into the neighbour. There were no fences. On a hot day they spent half the time in the river. That was just natural, I’d been brought up watching that happen.
“We’re not trying to utilise every last piece of the land [anymore]. We’ve recognized some parts of it are better in wetlands and natural habitat than what they are in pasture. The biggest mind shift is not capitalising on every square inch of your land.”
If it wasn’t for his involvement in the watercare group Bryce reckons he would never have stepped into politics.
“If I hadn’t been part of the water care group I don’t think I would have gotten involved enough to form Groundswell. I had enough experience to realise that you can’t regulate, you’ve got to get people to understand and buy in.”
When he saw how the National Policy Statement for Freshwater wanted to, for example, regulate pugging levels and sowing dates, he threw his hands in the air. He knew it wouldn’t work.
“Everything had to be sown by the first of October; on this end of New Zealand that’s a pipe dream. We’d all love to be able to do that but that time of year it’s too wet. You can’t get onto paddocks.”
“If you regulate people all you’re doing is giving them an opportunity to try and beat the system. It was making us all criminals before we started.”
But he admits, “it’s a fine line. In some instances you need control, there’s always regulations, because there’s always laggards that won’t do anything.”
Bryce walks up a hill to look down on native plantings.
His knees bother when he tackles such hills.
He felt it the other day when he walked almost 8km in a river to fly fish, he says.
He played representative rugby for Otago. The broken ribs and collarbones don’t come back to haunt you, but the knees do.
He also played club rugby, mostly in the backs, had a good career. He was mostly “on the wing”, and, yes, he was fast those days.
After a trip to South Africa he had a hand in bringing South Africans over to play for local clubs.
“I had a good rugby career,” he says.
After about half the people in the catchment got on board, the water quality began to improve.
Bryce says in 2018 farmers still had an interest in changing things.
“Farmers went from an era of being incentivized by governments to increase production, and then all of a sudden we woke up and somebody said this is wrong. It was a complete flip, for farmers that was totally alien, because we’ve been told that you graze right to the edge of the river.”
Bryce admits as a fly fisherman he has some vested interest in clean rivers but wishes he had become involved sooner.
And he sees the irony in the fact that Groundswell fought the previous government on environmental regulations, but he is part of a group that got funding from that same government to plant natives and improve the river he loves.
“Unfortunately we didn’t start measuring macroinvertebrates until about a year ago. “Everybody looks at the health of a waterway and looks for trace elements in the water. A good gauge of healthy water is to look at what life it supports. We did measurements and it classed very high [for macroinvertebrate health].”
These days when Bryce sees the river is discoloured he doesn’t just think it could lead to a bad day of fishing – he wants to know why it is discoloured and drives upriver to other properties to see what caused the change.
The Pomahaka group started a best-practice response team with a hotline that anyone can call if they see water quality issues.
People who ring usually report farmers who manage stock in a way that would be detrimental to the environment, he says.
If there is a complaint, Bryce and another member go and speak to the farmer.
“In most instances whoever it was, was having one hang of a bad day. Sometimes it’s a personal thing. You end up talking through it with them. In most instances they are apologetic and happy it was not council knocking.”
Through involvement with the watercare group he saw that you get fluctuations of, for example, E coli or phosphorus levels, and that you often don’t know why there is a fluctuation because you can’t pinpoint where or how something worked through the soil profile.
“The minute you start regulating for that sort of thing and you get an aberration, somebody’s livelihood could be completely affected by something that nobody actually knows what’s causing it.”
He remembers when the river bank was eroded, but plantings have improved it.
“I’d like to shake people and say, look, if you don’t want regulation then be responsible. Take an interest, don’t just fight it because you don’t like it. You’ve got to actually understand why and what you’re standing for. Because if you don’t, then you just look like you’re a denier.”
This article first appeared in our sister publication, Dairy Farmer.