Not as ungreen as painted

Mainstream and social media has had lots of stories about opposition to plans for a dairy farm at Simons Pass.

Neal Wallace provides some balance showing the plans aren’t as ungreen as they’re being painted:

. . . The Murray Valentine portrayed by critics of the dairy farm he is building on Simons Pass Station near Lake Pukaki is an uncaring, heartless capitalist, devoid of any ethics who plans to milk 15,000 cows on the most environmentally sensitive land in the South Island.

The Murray Valentine who occupies an orderly but busy office in Dunedin’s central city is genial, reserved, studied, methodical and who, true to his accountancy profession, makes decisions on fact not emotion.

He is not going to milk 15,000 cows on Simons Pass. . . 

Of the 800,000ha in the Upper Waitaki catchment, about 250,000ha is flat to rolling country that can be farmed. There is sufficient water allocated to irrigate about 25,000ha.

Valentine’s plans, which have never been a secret, are to irrigate 4500ha.

“Not many people who oppose me, I believe, have read the consent.”

Many of the people who oppose this and other similar plans tend to be driven by emotion not facts.

Valentine said critics demand he rip up his consents but that is not an option given the long, drawn-out process to secure them, dating back to soon after 2004 purchase of the property by his family trust.

He now has all the consents needed and started milking 800 cows this season.

That will progressively grow over seven years to about 5000 cows through three sheds.

Forty centre pivots will irrigate the 4500ha, of which about 1500ha will be the dairy platform. The rest will be dairy support, dairy-cross beef finishing and a halfbred sheep breeding unit.

Valentine said Simons Pass will be a closed unit worked in conjunction with a 2000-cow dairy farm he owns in North Otago.

He has made several significant and costly concessions including agreeing to control weeds and pests on 2500ha of ecologically-significant land he set aside for conservation as part of his irrigation consent.

The retired land dissects his farm in a large S shape and Valentine will protect it with 30km of rabbit fencing at a cost of $11.50 a metre.

That’s more than $300,000 of fencing alone.

A further 1300ha of land closest to Lake Pukaki was retired to the Crown under a tenure review agreement. . .

His consent requires annual monitoring of water quality at his boundary.

He intends doing it monthly to ensure he gets an accurate picture of the quality of water leaving the property and can respond quickly to any issues.

Technology measuring irrigation rates, soil moisture and the weather will help decision-making while drones will monitor the centre pivots and stock troughs.

Water for the small area of irrigation the previous owners and neighbour had consent for came from the Maryburn Stream but Valentine has invested $8 million in an 8km pipe delivering water from the Tekapo hydroelectric canal to his boundary, allowing the Maryburn consent to be retired.

“I believe I have shown enough responsibility on the conservation side. I am not shirking my responsibility.”  . . .

Many of those opposing the development paint the area as an unspoiled wilderness, but it’s not and one of the things spoiling it is hieracium.

The invasive weed hieracium is encroaching over much of the basin, killing tussock and causing soil loss through erosion.

Photos taken on Simons Pass in the 1970s showed tussock at hip height but 20 years later the weed has rendered the land barren.

“Most people would describe it as a desert.”

Cultivation and fertiliser in recent years have restored vegetative cover. . . 

Keeping invasive weeds at bay is costly in financial terms. Not doing it is expensive in environmental terms.

The Lindis Pass, which is not far from the Mackenzie, used to be covered in tussock. Year by year hieracium has taken over and hillsides which once waved with tussocks are now bare and erosion-prone.

If Fonterra wasn’t required to pick up milk from anyone who wants to be a supplier it’s possible that dairying in the Mackenzie wouldn’t be viable.

But unless, and until, the Dairy Industry Restructuring Act is changed to allow Fonterra to say no to would-be suppliers, the company has no choice about where suppliers farm.

Opposition to the plans has got personal, overlooking the fact that Valentine has spent six years and a considerable amount of money getting consents.

If those opposing the plans have grounds for their concerns they should be aiming at the consenting authorities and process, not the man.

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