The old adage that if you give a dog a bad name it will stick is unfortunately true.
Farming, and dairying in particular, has got a bad name for poor environmental performance even though most are doing all that’s required of them, or more.
Despite 5.7 dairy cattle for every man, woman and child in Southland, the region now boasts some of most environmentally compliant farmers in New Zealand.
“The compliance monitoring results from Environment Southland, which came out before Christmas, was a real boost for our guys,” says Russell MacPherson, Federated Farmers Southland provincial president.
“It is not just us in the far south but this is a trend throughout New Zealand. After catching talkback radio recently, the shame is that some people have been suckered in by a clever but increasingly redundant slogan.
“I mean the Ministry for the Environment’s “River condition indicator Summary and key findings” must be the most non-reported study of 2013. A 10-year review of water quality found, “of the parameters we [the MfE] monitor, all are either stable or improving at most monitored sites. Four of our parameters show stable or improving trends in 90% of sites”.
“Take the Mataura River, which received the regional award for the most improved river at the first New Zealand River Awards. There are physical results proving that it is working and it goes to show how Southland’s farmers are hitting their straps environmentally.
“The majority of Southland’s 887 farming effluent discharge consent holders inspected by Environment Southland were fully compliant with their consent conditions.
“While we farm in what seemingly feels like a glass house, the fact is we are doing better each year environmentally and economically.
“In terms of ground and surface water, the vast majority of our farms are doing pretty well here as well.
“Federated Farmers believes a new attitude shown by Environment Southland, to actively work alongside farmers like in Taranaki, is starting to pay off. Farmers previously felt like they’d be belted for anything but we’re now seeing partnership and greater understanding.
Councils and farmers working together will achieve better results than if there’s an antagonistic attitude between them.
“The way town and country are coming together is also evidenced by the way the New River Estuary has galvanised Invercargill residents around storm and wastewater.
“It will upset those who have made a career out of grievance but truth eventually cuts through spin.
“Perhaps that’s the nub of the issue we face as it’s all about perception, much like that Lincoln University survey from last year. There’s what some people think we do and what we actually do. Trying to connect the two is going to take time.
“That could start by having the same scrutiny our farms are put under extended to our local councils.
“. . . there’s been three human sewerage spills within a month into Lake Wakatipu and the latest one closed a 200 metre stretch of beach right where our family, like many, swim and boat when on holiday.
“If town and country had the same level of scrutiny then the national conversation, I feel, would be much better,” Mr MacPherson concluded.
Poor environmental practices in one area doesn’t excuse it anywhere else and there’s no room for complacency about water quality in urban or rural areas.
Some farmers have been far too slow to get the message about their responsibility for water quality and act on it. But the majority are compliant and are working hard to ensure they stay that way.