Comment: King Country sheep and beef farmer Dani Darke says her community is under threat if the government's Essential Freshwater policy passes into law.

Nestled in the heart of the King Country, the settlement of Aria embodies the richness of community spirit that is associated with heartland New Zealand.

With a population of 300 and a bustling CBD of 68, it is a place where everyone knows your name.

The Cosmopolitan Club acts as the community hub. Here age is irrelevant and 70-plus year olds socialise with 18-year-olds. We have thriving squash and tennis clubs and a primary school boasting a role of 50.

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Ours is a community that comes together when times are tough, that embraces and supports individuals and families and collectively celebrates successes and milestones. It is a community that cares and it is a community under threat if the government's Essential Water policy passes into law.

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While on the face of it, the proposal to halt further intensification sounds sensible. But this unfairly penalises low-emitting farm businesses which would describe most farming operations in our area.

Many farms in our region are sheep and beef properties owned by farmers in their 60s who are likely to retire within the next 10 years.

Typically, these farms have been farmed conservatively, have little debt and their nutrient losses- which is this government's main focus- are minimal.

Under the proposed Essential Freshwater policy, young family families looking to buy these farms and service debt will simply not be able to make the numbers work, as they will not be able to increase production to match the market value of the land.

I'm talking relatively small changes to stocking rates to optimise the inherent capability of the land, not dairy conversions.

This means no increase in sheep or cattle numbers, no extra forage crops and no change in the farm system.

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Obviously retiring farmers need to maximise the value of their farms, so farmers will be reluctantly forced to sell to forestry interests. It will be heartbreaking for these people to see their life work being swallowed up by plantation forestry.

From a community point of view, the loss of family farms is devastating. These farms employ the bulk of Aria's residents.

We have shearers, woolhandlers, shepherds, contractors, casual labourers, meat processor workers and numerous other rural support people living in the settlement.

These people will lose their jobs and source of income. The school, clubs and community will lose critical mass and close down.

This echoes the findings of Local Government New Zealand whose economic modelling showed that land under sheep and beef production in a Waikato catchment could decline by 68 per cent as a result of the Essential Freshwater proposals.

King Country sheep and beef farmer Dani Darke. Photo / Supplied
King Country sheep and beef farmer Dani Darke. Photo / Supplied

This is due to a combination of increased compliance costs and lack of flexibility for farmers to adjust their systems to meet these costs, making farming unviable.

Under the policy, once the land is in forestry, it is in forestry for perpetuity. Pine trees have their place, but blanket planting ruins communities not to mention biodiversity, and water quality.

The "holding the line" blanket rule is focused around nitrogen, yet this is not a problem in our catchment.

I totally support "holding the line" regulations in already intensively farmed catchments which are over-allocated in terms of water resources and nutrient losses.

I just cannot understand the government's blanket approach which looks to set to unfairly penalise low emitting farmers.

Legislation should be effects-based - or in other words, polluter pays.

While the government says these proposed measures are interim, in the world of glacial-speed processes, this interim could be five to 10 years and in that time towns like Aria could be decimated.

What is frustrating is that farmers are already putting a tremendous amount of time and money into improving water quality and managing their natural resources.

Just take a drive around the back-roads of rural New Zealand to see what I mean.

Perversely, these policies could put an end to farmers investing in environmental protection work.

On our 412ha farm, 20ha is in native bush and we have carried out a significant amount of fencing and planting on vulnerable areas of our farm.

To be able to do this, we have increased production on other parts of the property, while still farming well within the land's capability.

Under the new rules, farmers won't be able to increase production, so will need to continue farming sensitive areas and will not have the funds to invest in fences or plants.

We are part of a sub-catchment group that works under the King Country River Care Group, a farmer-led community initiative put together to identify and address water quality and environmental issues specific to our catchment and community.

Through these catchment groups we are working collectively with other stakeholders in the community, sharing resources, knowledge and skills to protect and enhance our environment. This is how we create meaningful, effective change – not by applying blanket 'one size fits all' rules.

In principle, I support many parts Essential Freshwater proposals, and if the government can up with a fair and equitable system that actually targets polluters then I would be happy to see it passed into law.

All New Zealanders want the same outcomes. We all want clean water, thriving biodiversity, a strong economy and a place to call home. In its current form the Essential Freshwater policy will achieve none of these for our community.

- Dani Darke is a sheep and beef farmer in the King Country.