Thursday, 08 February 2018 09:55

Taupo farmers tackle environmental problems head-on

Written by  Pam Tipa
Mike Barton describes it as “incredibly confronting” being told farming was polluting the lake. Mike Barton describes it as “incredibly confronting” being told farming was polluting the lake.

It was “incredibly confronting” for Taupo farmers to be told in about 2000 that their farms were polluting the lake and they would probably have to go, says Mike Barton, of Glen Emmreth Farm at Lake Taupo.

Some were ballot farms developed by Lands and Survey. Others were Maori farms compulsorily developed under government policy and handed back with mortgages.

“You imagine if you were a ballot farmer who took over in your 30s. You were now nudging 60 wondering whether to retire or whether you could hand your farm on to your children. In the case of the Maori owners, they had just got on top of the mortgage.”

Barton says he and his wife Sharon were the only people to buy land in the catchment between 2000 and 2010. Legislation was underway to cap nitrogen in the catchment. With only four dairy farms in the region this was essentially an issue for sheep and beef.

 “I did some due diligence on the issue and I figured this was going to come to every catchment in the country at some point,” he says. “So why not get involved with it from the beginning.”

The Bartons have a 1500ha beef finishing property on Taupo’s west coast. They farm within the legislation finally gazetted in 2012 after 12 years of “hard negotiating” and catchment science.

“Taupo is a nitrogen sensitive water body and so nitrogen was our issue – it wasn’t sediment. We have beautiful free draining soils,” he says. 

“Every stream in the catchment had been fenced, planted or let revert since the 1980s, so we thought we had fixed the problem. But nitrogen leaches down through the soil profile and maybe in 80 years it ends up in the lake. 

“So it didn’t matter what we did to fence it off, the problem still existed.

Pastoral farming only represents 20% of the Taupo catchment; 80% is in either original land or vegetation or pine forest. 

“Given we only had 20% in farmland we didn’t think we were much of a problem. Every stream in the catchment was fenced off by 1982. All the land in the catchment was developed by the government -- either the Lands and Survey Department or the Maori Affairs Department.

 “The lake is one of the cleanest in the world. The levels of nitrogen were hardly measurable but they were increasing.”

Increasing nitrogen had mixed with high levels of phosphorus through the volcanic activity that formed the lake, promoting growth. 

“Nitrogen in the lake would lead to algal growth and a decline in water quality,” Barton explained.

Farmers participated in the science measuring leachate for seven years. 

On Barton’s farm they have done lucerne trials for five years, proving it leaches much less than was shown by Overseer. 

“We didn’t want to accept a lot of the science from other catchments,” he says. “A lot of the science used to start the discussion with us was based on Rotorua and Bay of Plenty and other soils. Little work had been done in our catchment; we didn’t want to go with that.”

Legal advice was to form an incorporated society, one benefit of which was to attract funding for science. About 95% of Lake Taupo farmers are members.  Over 15 years they raised about $500,000 from farmers for a ‘fighting fund’. And they raised $4-5 million in science funding. They got “really good at applying for science funding”.

They represented the majority of farmers – not just sheep and beef – dairy farmers also.

The group made formal submissions at the hearing stage and at the Environment Court stage. 

“That is when things get really brutal and really interesting.  That is when you get to see what other parties really want of you and expect of you and you get a chance to challenge it. It is not a nice place and it is very expensive. 

“I think we have significantly influenced the outcome and have come up with legislation that is both workable and implementable. From a farming point of view it is doable.”

One thing they could have done better was model for economic impacts; they tried but their arguments were cast aside.

He says under Section 32 of the Resource Management Act the regional council is obliged to model and show the impact of any legislation they are enacting. It must be modelled at a farm level, a regional community level and a greater regional level.

When you are confronted with a problem, you want it to be someone else’s fault, Barton says. 

“In the end, the science showed that over 90% of the manageable nitrogen came from farming activity; 7% came from near shore settlements and septic tanks and other human activity.”

When the process started the catchment had 105 farms and four were dairying.

“This is not a dairying problem, this was a sheep and beef problem. There are still four dairy farms in the catchment; there are now 73 other farmers, the balance have been shut down.

“The realities we’ve had to accept: you cap stock urine, you have to cap stock numbers. 

“If you are capping stocking rates you are capping the income of the farming property under existing commodity regimes that we tend to all work under.”

Farming under a cap

Barton's farm is capped at 2004 livestock numbers in perpetuity. He says he can ring every bit of performance out of each animal, but he can’t grow his stock numbers. 

The Bartons’ are part of the BLNZ Economic Service monitoring programme so he knows costs have increased 48% since they were capped.

“You can imagine a capped income and uncapped costs. That’s the fundamental issue here.”

If the capping system had been production per hectare rather than stock numbers, he couldn’t have got the per animal performance gains he has since 2004.

“You get strategic thinking about what you are going to argue for and, whoever you get to represent you, you need to support the hell out of them,” he explained. 

“You need to think about everything you ask for. I am really grateful, in the end, that we were able to ring per animal performance gains out of the system.”


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