Northland farmers networks, their conversations and phone calls, have been set alight by the regional council’s draft freshwater plan change, which opened for consultation on November 1.
“It will send farmers to the wall” and “this is the end of farming for me” have been typical responses.
Farmers fear that hill country grazing will not be a permitted activity and that they will need costly resource consents in the future.
More than 250,000ha have been identified for livestock exclusion, unless by consent to farm.
This is 18% of the region’s land – but it is a much greater portion, around 40%, of Northland’s 600,000ha under agriculture and horticulture.
To give effect to the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management, the draft plan changes target waterway setbacks to reduce E coli contamination and grazing retirements to reduce sedimentary losses to rivers and coasts.
The Northland Regional Council (NRC) estimates the cost of excluding stock from 91,000ha of severely erodible land, with slope greater than 35 degrees, at between $400 million and $600m over 30 years.
That would be 70% fencing and 30% operating loss, and the costs would be front-loaded to 70% in the first five years.
That would be $9,200 to $13,700 per sheep and beef farm over 30 years, 8% to 12% of operating profit before tax.
The first category is Highly Erodible 2 (HE 2) and the second category is High Erosion risk (HE 1) with slopes between 25 and 35 degrees.
For HE 1, should that be added, the estimated costs to each farm are between $16,500 and $24,700, or 14% to 21% of annual farm profit,
Collectively, that would cost the region a further $720m to $1080m.
Farmer groups say the NRC figures for fencing and operating loss are conservative and that, in a region that generates about $1 billion of export revenue annually, the stock exclusion proposals could chop 30% of income.
In presentations to farmer groups, council staff members have said that freshwater quality comes before people.
The Northland draft plan change is more advanced and more specific than other freshwater consultations around the country.
Northland also contains soil and water characteristics different from the other regions nationally.
One of the most effective tools for improving freshwater is to keep stock away from waterways, wetlands, and off highly erodible land.
“We think we will need both wider setbacks for stock and enhanced riparian vegetation to achieve the improvements needed in freshwater health,” Northland Regional Council said.
“We also think there is a case for excluding stock from our most erodible land to limit erosion and sediment going into waterways.
“The more we do, the greater the environmental benefits – but the higher the costs for landowners, many of whom are already facing tough times.
“This can be mitigated somewhat by allowing sufficient lead-in time, but even so the costs will be significant.”
The costs can be offset by planting in permanent forest and claiming carbon credits, with full offset reached at $35/tonne, the draft plan suggests.
The council is also proposing new rules limiting vegetation clearance, land preparation and earthworks in areas of high erosion risk.
It said all dairy effluent discharges to land will need resource consents.
The continuation of grazing on highly erodible land will also require resource consents.
Three waterway setback distances are included in the consultation: 3m, 5m and 10m, for permanently and intermittently flowing rivers and streams.
The council is known to favour the 10m requirement.
The minimum of 3m would apply under the government standard but there may be a case for an averaging approach at 5m on each farm.
The interactive map of slope and HE categories show large swathes of hill country included, but do not identify the overlaps with what is already Department of Conservation land, native bush or forestry plantations.
Farmers can focus down to their own districts, even paddocks, to check the identified waterways and slopes.
The council is also proposing a water allocation policy that in the future would reserve 20% of the water for environmental enhancement, domestic use by marae and papakāinga, or contribution to a Te Mana me te Mauri o te Wai fund.