A year of extremities for Federated Farmers

By John Donnachie

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The Federation joined forces with Pacifica Shipping, Hamburg Sud, Rural Support 
Trusts and ports to organise straw shipments to assist drought-stricken farmers.
The Federation joined forces with Pacifica Shipping, Hamburg Sud, Rural Support Trusts and ports to organise straw shipments to assist drought-stricken farmers.

As farmers across the nation fought droughts, floods and storms, the Federated Farmers policy team supported them on consultation, submissions and appeals. John Donnachie looks back at some of the year's successes.

The Federation policy team spent 2013 immersed in numerous issues affecting the rural community. They were dedicated, spending long hours attending working groups, hearings and appeals, acting with due diligence and resoluteness.

On average, the Federation is actively involved on around 400 issues annually across all sectors - national, international and regional. By early December, the team had submitted almost everywhere there is a member.

The extensive lobbying generally falls under the radar with many successful outcomes, particularly in the provinces. It is rarely highlighted as one issue gets resolved another ultimately arises.

While the policy team rarely has time to sit back and celebrate its achievements, members were invited to discuss some of their more satisfying moments this year where their advocacy triumphed over bureaucracy, improving farmers' livelihoods.

General policy manager Nick Clark says good progress is being made especially on the Government's policy toward fiscal responsibility. With a return to surplus on track, expected by 2015, and a concerted restraint in government spending, the future is looking better for farmers and the economy.

"Federated Farmers is very supportive of the steps the Government is taking. To get the core Crown spending down and reduced to about 30 per cent of the GDP was one of our wishes," Mr Clark said.

"When Government spending is running rampant it means more tax for farmers with interest rates also likely to climb, putting more pressure on the exchange rate."

However, the Government's measured cumulative approach toward reducing expenditure and debt was shrewd and undoubtedly paid dividends. The process would stabilise monetary policy and ultimately help future generations.

Mr Clark said the Federation had been proactive in advocating support of the Public Finance (Fiscal Responsibility) Amendment Bill.

The Federation has also for many years campaigned on the annual Budget Policy Statement. This advocacy ensured the Federation was not only prominent, but also keeping the Government honest.

"We are one of the few key groups who regularly post submissions on the Budget Policy Statement. If we didn't, perhaps the Government would find it easier to keep increasing spending," he said.

Another area where the Federation succeeded in improving farmers' coffers was ACC. The Federation has long campaigned to get ACC to operate more efficiently. That lobbying is finally paying off.

Mr Clark said ACC is in good financial condition after being in a big hole a few years ago. Since 2008, it has moved back to its core function as insurance, rather than as another addition of the welfare state. This focus and its strongly-performing investment fund has helped reduce levies, with some big cuts recommended for next year.

On average, farmers could expect to see their levies cut by at least 15 per cent from April. Dairy and sheep farmers would be the biggest beneficiaries with a possible reduction of between 17 and 21 per cent.

The Federation is hopeful the government will follow ACC recommendations on the levy adjustments. It is in the hands of the minister responsible for ACC, Judith Collins, with a decision due shortly.

National PolicyThe national policy team achieved notable successes assisting farmers, particularly with fundamental services such as postal and transport.

Protecting Rural Post during a turbulent period of restructuring at New Zealand Post was a commendable result for the team.The intention to slash services against the backdrop of declining mail volumes threatens a vital resource for farmers.

The Federation was successful in convincing the Government that rural post was a necessity and not expendable. From July next year, the postal service will be maintained at five days for the majority of the rural community.Farmers can also look forward to lower compliance costs on the roads without compromising safety.

Transport regulation reforms around agricultural vehicles, road user charges and vehicle licensing and inspection are welcomed by Federated Farmers. In 2010, an agricultural transport review was instigated after the Federation approached former Associate Trans
port Minister Nathan Guy with concerns over the complexity of the regulations. The review was completed and complemented and the changes are estimated by the Government to save the agricultural sector $51 million during the next 25 years.

Federated Farmers has also been proactive in helping members deal with bureaucracy, for example the launch in November of our Immigration Package, which is a practical `all in one' electronic document which helps dairy farmers with the process for hiring migrant workers.

The past year has also heralded a brighter future for farmers and how they farm. Government reform of the Resource Management Act (RMA) is coming and the proposals have the backing of the Federation.

Regional Policy Manager Dr Paul Le Miere and his team have been unrelenting in pursuit of a better deal for farmers since they introduced the `farming six pack' in 2008. It appears the Government is finally taking note.

Dr Le Miere says many of the Federation's `six pack' objectives were factored into the Government's vision for a more equitable and streamlined RMA process.

Regional PolicyIn the provinces, the Federation's policy expertise comes to the fore regularly. This challenging environment never deters, but rather, inspires the policy team.

"It is a case of the little guy sticking up to the big guys. A lot of councils in the country have no farmers on it so we have to sell ourselves and our situation.

"This requires effective advocacy,'' says senior policy advisor Nigel Billings.

"It defies reality really, we often have the odds stacked against us,'' he says.

Some councils are more receptive and pragmatic than others toward finding solutions on issues which affect farmers.In Taranaki, the New Plymouth District Council has ruled the current way farmers are protecting their significant natural areas (SNA) is the most appropriate way forward.

This `don't fix what isn't broken' outcome is especially satisfying as the Federation has long argued that farmers are the best guardians of their land. By adopting this non-regulatory approach, the council is ensuring farmers remain on board.

Above all, it gives farmers more incentives to work productively with councils. This ensures a winning outcome for the environment, council and land owners.

The Federation was also active in minimising the impact transmission buffer zones have on farming activities. Successful appeals at both ends of the country set a precedent and establish a favourable trend in how disputes with Transpower, landowners and district councils are settled.

Transmission buffer zones and their effects on land use have been contained to the established Industry Code of Practice in spite of strong lobbying by Transpower to have increased controls.

In Southland, the Federation's advocacy prevailed after a determined campaign to oppose Environment Southland's targeted rate differential on dairy farmers. Federated Farmers' influence has led to successive annual decreases since its introduction in 2009,
cumulating in an 11 per cent reduction this year.

District council planning on rural subdivision has kept the Federation's regional policy team busy. Many councils seem unaware of how vital it is to have subdivision rules which allow enough flexibility to meet the `farming for the generations' needs of the rural community while retaining the use of productive soils.

The ability to subdivide off a long association lot, build extra homes for workers or retiring farmers, is important because it provides for social well-being in dispersed communities, said Dr Le Miere.

The Federation is generally successful in convincing district councils of the need for greater flexibility. Recent examples in Matamata and Horowhenua demonstrate this.

This is a limited snapshot of what the regional policy team has achieved for members during the year.

Industry policyFederated Farmers maintained momentum in the industry sector applying more influence and partnership among working groups focused on improving this aspect of New Zealand agriculture.

General Manager of Policy and Advocacy Mark Ross said the Federation was not only driving the agenda but was also playing a significant role in devising policy with respective industry groups.

The Federation had been actively involved since 2007 with the Government Industry Agreements (GIA). This has resulted in a much more industry-aligned Deed of Agreement, which is being processed by Cabinet. The formulation of an 18-month FMD project by Government is also welcome within the biosecurity framework.

Mr Ross, who previously spent 11 years at MAF (now MPI), said the FMD prevention programme was a great initiative driven by the primary sector.

"We have got more to lose than most. As a major exporter of primary production, worth 15 per cent of our country's GDP, we must be prepared and able to respond to any possible future incursion.''

The recent Blackgrass incursion in the South Island provided a timely reminder to
farmers and the industry sector on the importance of biosecurity.

The Federation played a `key role'' liaising with a Government-appointed technical advisory group to provide information on what was a suitable response to address and prevent the problem from spreading.

Changes to the importation of Palm Kernel Extract (PKE) from Asia were also a necessary and effective policy outcome. Manufacturing plants in Malaysia and Indonesia have to meet New Zealand standard compliance and be certified after Federated Farmers raised concerns with MPI over possible contamination originating from countries supplying PKE.

Animal welfare courted media coverage this year for all the wrong reasons. The Federation was assertive in submitting and working with the Government on animal welfare compliance and the Animal Welfare Amendment Bill.

The Federation worked hard behind the scenes to improve communications since MPI replaced MAF. Mr Ross said a "bad situation had been turned into a good situation'', with a better understanding established after the ministry reshuffle.

Farmers could be confident MPI had a greater appreciation of how animal welfare issues affected them.

Federated Farmers supports an altered enforcement system for farmers who intentionally abuse animals. It considers the legislation progressive and should act as a powerful deterrent to reduce animal abuse. A mark of the Federation's policy advance was demonstrated by numerous initiatives undertaken this year.

In the dairy industry, the Federation joined working groups on developing and formulating the Sustainable Dairying: Water Accord covering riparian, nutrient, effluent and water management.

Also, along with DairyNZ, the Federation and processors have combined to implement a strategy with achievable targets, giving regulators and customers' greater confidence in what has been a tumultuous year for the industry.

A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was established with the New Zealand Forest Owners and the Forestry Association. The agreement will allow for `good neighbourly relations' between all parties with regard to boundary fence issues.

It's the first, of its sort, between respective parties providing an alternative to a potentially lengthy and costly legal solution.

The Federation is delighted with the outcome which promotes communication and co-operation.

This MOU requires farmers and forest managers to control plant and animals from within their boundaries. There is also provision for planting/replanting and for declarations on agrichemical over-spray on to a neighbouring property.The often forgotten scourge of mental health was also tackled by the Federation.

Government figures, which showed rural communities at bigger risk than their urban counterparts, prompted the policy team to investigate the situation.This led to fellow stakeholders forming a Rural Mental Health Strategy Group.

Early indications show the initiative is a success with plenty of feedback and the Government considering options on how best to address the issue.The initiative has also been particularly valuable in building relationships with Federation members and the rural community.

Overall, it's been a busy year for the policy team. Members' diverse skills and advocacy
are a vital resource which benefits farmers now and into the future.

It goes without saying, the bigger the membership of Federated Farmers, the more effective they are at fighting on behalf of farmers and the country's primary industries.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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