As the driest period since records began grinds on for farmers in our region, it is perhaps timely to return to the vexed issue of freshwater management. A recent review from the Ministry for the Environment and Stats NZ, Our Freshwater 2020, paints a grim picture. From a farming perspective, the crucial points are that over 90 per cent of our wetlands have been lost, 76 per cent of our native fish are at risk, most of our rivers are polluted with nutrients, sediment and pathogens, and that herbicides are measurable in our groundwater.
For anyone managing land and growing food outdoors, unless they are irrigating, rainfall is the main limiting factor on production – either too much or too little. As the climate heats up and rainfall becomes less reliable and more polarised – heading for wet seasons and dry seasons with an overall decline in rainfall for the northwest of the country – we are looking at more difficulties for pastoral farming.
So how do we grow food for export for our economy when the climate is squeezing us and the impact of growing food is generating unacceptable environmental and social costs?
One thing is for sure, we cannot continue to ignore the problem and hope it will sort itself out. If there’s anything this Covid-19 pandemic has taught us, it is that we can’t be complacent about our impacts on the planet; they will come back to bite us and bite us hard. So yeah, going hard and early, or at least not waiting until the last possible second, is perhaps a good mantra to apply here, too. The other lesson that we could apply is that of being kind and bringing the whole country along together. So these issues, although they are inescapably in our faces for us farmers, are equally shared by everyone in the country. We are all in this one together, too.
So, I’m wondering if we couldn’t have a more imaginative response to help us collectively work through some of the practical solutions on a regional basis. Most of us in the farming sector work such long hours and are so financially stretched that we work in the business, not on the business. There’s not a lot of space for planning and blue-sky thinking, or spare cash for grand schemes or even small schemes most of the time. Many in the sector are also feeling pretty overwhelmed by the confluence of seismic issues and mental health is at an all-time low. The best thing we can do to help farmers right now is to give them the acclaim they deserve for being essential workers, working hard in the background without receiving much recognition or wage assistance in these traumatic times.
What could be needed is some sector and government funding for catchment and sub-catchment facilitators to work through with individual farmers their options and new ways of doing things. This might include practical help to apply for grants and other financial assistance to implement environmental schemes that would benefit both the bottom line and the wider ecology. It depends, of course, on getting the right sort of practically focused folk into the work and having them properly supported and funded, but I’ve seen this approach work well to achieve the outcomes we all want to see for our families and the legacy we leave behind.