Farmers are passionate about water quality….. oh really?

Farmers’ advocates are fond of telling us that farmers care deeply about the environment and about water quality, and that the only problem is that townies just don’t understand farmers. Bruce Wills, head of Federated Farmers, is upset that good farmers get lumped in with bad farmers, and all farmers are treated as though they are environmental vandals. No matter that he does exactly the same himself when he tells us that he has never seen farmers treating water more seriously and with more respect than they do today.

The Rural News Group is (unsurprisingly) on the farmers’ side too. The Palmerston North City Council has prepared an economic briefing on the agricultural sector within Manawatu province. Rural News Group reports the briefing as saying that the regional council’s water management plan, known as “One Plan”, is:

the biggest threat to farming in the region…

H/T Ele at HomePaddock: One Plan biggest threat to farming

Except that the report doesn’t say that “One Plan” is a threat to farming. In fact, the report never uses the word “threat”, although it does make reference, twice, to “threatened habitats.” Should you care to check for yourself, you can download a copy of the report: PNCC Agriculture Sector Profile 2012 (PDF 1904kb).

As the PNCC report points out, farmers will need to diversify and rethink their farming practices, and this may have a siginficant impact on farming in the Manawatu region. The impact on farm incomes could be negative, but it could also be positive (p. 26). Because farmers will be required to manage leaching from their land, the sale value of land could fall (p 38). And One Plan could increase farming costs which might impact on growth in the sector (p. 39). However nowhere is One Plan described as a threat to farming, let alone the “biggest threat” to farming.

All that is really happening with One Plan is that farmers are being asked to bear the costs of increased production, instead of externalising them to the rest of the community.

The problem is straightforward. Agricultural production has intensified significantly in recent years, with many more stock units being carried on each hectare of land. This has been achieved through various means, including increased application of fertilisers, and through more efficient stock management techniques. Increased fertiliser and increased stock numbers has led to much more run-off of “animal effluent” (that would be “animal sh*t”) and surplus fertiliser into waterways. So the profits from intensification of agriculture accrue to individual farmers, while a significant proportion of costs are externalised, and borne by the whole community.

Yes, plenty of farmers are responsible about the impact of their businesses. They minimise fertilizer use, plant riparian strips, ensure that stock can’t get into waterways, and monitor the quality of water leaving their land. But plenty of them don’t take any of these measures, and they allow the water leaving their land to become polluted. If they did genuinely care about water quality, then there would be no need for One Plan. These are the farmers that One Plan is targetting.

I recognise that Bruce Wills’ job is to be an advocate for farmers. He seems to run a fabulous farm himself, making genuine and effective efforts to work with New Zealand’s natural resources. The trick is to get more farmers thinking this way, instead of pretending that all farmers already care enough.

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4 Responses to Farmers are passionate about water quality….. oh really?

  1. Denny says:

    I have been banging on to anyone within earshot that farmers do not take responsibility for all the costs of running their businesses, and seem to think that it’s in the national interest to pay for cleaning up any impact they have on the environment. And it’s absurd that the National government supports a goal to double dairy production by (I can’t remember the year) without considering what to do about increased effluent, fertiliser use … Let alone that its not managed now. Rod Oram writes and talks a lot of sense about the economics of this issue. It’s good to read you writing the same sort of thing. Let there be more common sense …

  2. Malcolm says:

    I think there is a real opportunity here for Federated Farmers. Why not set up a set of sustainable farming awards. Instead of constantly reacting, they could go on the front foot and set the agenda. For that matter, why aren’t the Green party doing this?

    • homepaddock says:

      The Ballance Farm Environment Awards are already well established and very much on the front foot. They celebrate and reward best practice and winners become mentors to help others reach their high standards.

  3. Malcolm says:

    Thanks homepaddock. I had never heard of them.

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