Building an even 'better' Waikato
Wednesday, August 15, 2012 at 11:28AM
Bill Barclay

An article in the latest issue of Forest & Bird raises some serious issues that emerged during the course of the recent Face Up to the Future Conference, strongly supported by Federated Farmers.

Forest & Bird appear to be having a love affair with new FF President, and former banker Bruce Wills, who is bringing some new and fresh attitudes to the industry, though just how much support he has for those views is moot. It appears on the surface that there is a new reality present on the FF Executive that recognises the need to turn away from the 'head in the sand' attitude exemplified by the previous president Laughlan McKenzie.  

Wills is quoted as saying “Farming in important to New Zealand and is needed to pay our bills but it needs to be sustainable” – heresy!

He indicated that 30 years ago, farmers were being paid to clear marginal hill land that in hindsight should never have been cleared – the effect on water quality in particular was never recognised. That is pure rubbish of course – it was well recognised, it is just that the farming community were not listening to those who were issuing the warnings, and as I recall, Muldoon was right at the forefront pushing those land clearances. Does anyone remember the sight of the huge chain strung between two massive bulldozers. 

The matter that should now be at the forefront of FF thinking concerns the vexed question of stocking rates. For some reason, as soon as this subject is ever mentioned, landowner ‘rights’ come to the fore, along with squeals of resistance from what appears to be the entire framing community. It is as if 'stocking rates' are the two words that must not be spoken (again, with apologies to Oscar Wilde!). Capping stock numbers was seen as contentious when the WRC land and water quality sub-committee met on 26 July to approve a review of of the regional plan change on water quality. Waikato Federated Farmers president James Houghton felt it was another case of local and central government trying to tell farmers what they could and couldn't do. "What we would like to see is less rules and more results". That is probably a more accurate view of where farmers are coming from, and is the point where greed trumps common sense.

But at last, a speaker who happens to be a farmer came out of the woodwork and let fly at this Conference on this very subject. Jeff Williams, a Manawatu (of all places!) biological dairy farmer, has drastically reduced the use of fertilisers and other chemicals on his farm in the last four years. But wait for it – he has also reduced number of cows per hectare to about the level of 30 years ago, but profitability is higher than four years ago because costs are far lower. “Farming today is carried out on the basis of what I call the moron theory. It all based on getting more cows in each paddock, and applying more fertiliser (and supplementary feeding!) to maximise production”.

Mr Williams indicated that by returning to a more natural way of farming, soil and animal health had improved on his farm, and the result was better quality milk.

Of course, this is all in the absence of any knowledge as to Mr William’s particular financial situation. It is a given that the drive to higher production that has led to the unsustainable stocking rates has arisen almost entirely from the willingness of banks to fund ever higher land prices, and the consequential need for ever higher production to meet the financial commitment.

Young farmers have been encouraged in these practices by their elders anxious to exit the industry, and corporates who are able to benefit from scale, and the prevalent employment practices that have resulted in thousands of immigrants, principally from the Philippines, taking up these opportunities.  

Until our farming industry is prepared to face up to a few home truths, the sound of Bruce Wills beating around the bushes will do little to assuage the effects of these grossly damaging farming practices, and we will continue to see elevated  effluent levels in our waterways. Eventually we will see the same algae blooms in the Gulf that Regal Salmon is now facing in Queen Charlotte and elsewhere.    

Never mind the rest of the country, if the WRC was not beholden to farming interests, we would already have seen the introduction of rational, and mandated sustainable stocking rates throughout the region. Only then could the pious claims of the farming sector, and dairying in particular as to its abiding love and respect for the land attain credibility. The economy may be dependent on dairying, but that does not gainsay the need for sustainability – otherwise we have no future.   




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