New rules for cleaning up New Zealand's waterways came under fire at a heated public meeting in Whangārei last week attended by almost 400 people from around the North Island.
Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor and Government officials were forced to defend proposed new Ministry for the Environment (MfE) rules at the meeting — the 37th of 41 nationwide in a six-week national consultation series on major proposed freshwater management reform.
"I lie awake at night and can't sleep," Waimamaku farmer Paul Ambler told the meeting at Tikipunga High School.
"For those of you thinking of suicide [because of the new changes], don't leave this mess to your children."
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Ambler sang a haunting song to the meeting, expressing his concerns.
The September 26 meeting was one of four in Northland: two hui with Maori at Whangarei's Pehiaweri Marae and Kaitaia's Te Ahu centre and one for Northland council officials.
The proposed reforms are setting the stage to dramatically alter New Zealand's rural fabric and with that, the wider community.
MfE principal scientist and meeting presenter Chris Daughney told those present the proposals aimed to stop further water quality decline and, in a generation, restore waterways to a level that "we as New Zealanders consider acceptable".
He said 90 per cent of river length going through urban areas and 70 per cent through rural areas had nitrogen concentrations high enough to pose a risk to aquatic species.
Ministry models estimate the new proposalswill, over 10 years, cost a "typical" New Zealand sheep and beef hill country farm $148,500, a 430-cow dairy farm $93,000 and a commercial vegetable grower $92,000.
Mangawhai avocado grower Ewan Price said the Government was telling primary producers what to do. Most were already doing a great job looking after waterways and, unfairly, had to bear the consequences for a minority of defaulters.
"It's like primary school. There's one bad kid, he doesn't own up so the whole school gets detention," Price told the Minister.
Tutamoe dairy farmer Kristin Loewinger-Hayes gave a quietly impassioned address, saying farmers were working 10-hour plus days and those who had already begun fencing waterways were having to choose to do it at the cost of other aspects of their farming business. She and her husband were fencing at their own cost, without any support. They were under pressure and in the midst of peak work demand, which made getting to grips with the new freshwater reform proposals stressful.
"If you want clean waterways, help us with it," she said, her voice breaking.
She was among meeting attendees from around Northland and as far as Pukekohe and Wellington. Those present included dairy farmers, sheep and beef farmers, avocado and berry growers, hydroponics producers, vegetable growers, Greenpeace, Fish and Game New Zealand, Federated Farmers, Northland Regional Council councillors (current and standing), Whangarei District Council mayoral and councillor election candidates, current and former MPs, architects of the new proposals and rural consultants - all intent on knowing more about the ministry's proposals for freshwater management and safeguarding New Zealand's most productive, high-quality food-producing soils for the future.
The reform proposals are having immediate impact on the rural sector. Their earliest initial implementation begins in nine months and interim measures almost immediately to manage some of the worst waterway pollution.
Ruawai beef farmer and former Government MP Lockwood Smith told the meeting the new standards had already wiped several hundred thousand dollars off the value of his rural business.
Smith asked whether beef properties would still be able to be sold to dairy farmers before 2025, when resource consents will be required, for the first time, for all farming intensification.
Daughney said intensification would be restricted until 2025, and said the bar would be "quite high" when it came to resource consent. Pukekohe Vegetable Growers Association's Brendan Balle told the meeting those in his sector had never had such low morale.
The proposals meant growers would not be able to put the nutrients they needed onto the land to grow their crops or be able to expand their operations.
"Where is there mention of a helpline phone number or offer of professional help at these meetings?" Balle asked.
"The New Zealand vegetable sector will not survive. Where will our food come from now?"
Farmers at the Whangarei meeting were angry about proposals to widen riparian fencing to five-metre strips along each side of waterways.
One described it as sequestering land and questioned the legalities around riparian strip ownership once that had happened. The 5m strips affected his production ability.
O'Connor called on farmers to make submissions on the riparian fencing. He said 5m was an average and it might be possible to take other on-farm sustainability actions into consideration. Farmers would not suddenly have to race out and shift existing fencing; thismight be done over 15 years.
Phil Durham, Northland Fish and Game Council chair, asked - to applause from the floor - why forestry had been left out of the reform, given the industry was a significant contributor to sediment in waterways.
But Greenpeace's sustainable agriculture spokeswoman Gen Toop, from Pataua North, said the proposed new water quality standards did not go far enough.
Toop called for a complete ban on new dairy conversions.
"Since the 90s, the number of dairy cows in New Zealand has nearly doubled; the amount of synthetic nitrogen [urea] used has increased by more than 600 per cent and the amount of palm kernel used to feed dairy cows has gone up by nearly double," she told the minister.
O'Connor sdid not agree with restricting farming. The primary sector drove wealth creation. Farmers would, over time, adapt to the new changes with the innovation for which they were well known, he said.