Aaron farms on the family’s 600ha property that falls within the Waimea River catchment, a major tributary to the Mataura River.
Up until 2007, the family ran a traditional mixed sheep-beef-deer operation but the increasing difficulty of sustaining an income for three families prompted the family to convert to dairying.
While initially stocking up to 950 cows, this season the farm is milking 800 on the 400ha milking platform. This is partly in response to expectations of a tough El Niño season, but also to the lower payout prospects and a desire to make the operation more self-sufficient for feed sources.
“We probably do not have the highest producing cows but it is a pretty low input system, with all grass, silage, 18ha of sugar beet and 40ha of fodder beet for wintering on,” says Aaron.
With zero growth days through July, farming for the winter requires a good supplement store and an acceptance that “you can’t fight nature”.
Having a voice
Not long after converting the farm, Aaron became increasingly uneasy about disparities in Environment Southland’s regulations for dairying effluent discharge, and had a feeling farmers’ concerns were not being heard at a council level.
“It really hit home when we were constructing a new effluent pond, one we had decided to take the initiative on, rather than having to do.”
Within six weeks of building the pond, the rules had changed.
“We fell into a rabbit warren of regulations and were eventually issued with a non-compliance notice. At the end of the day, we would have been better to let the existing pond’s consent run for 10 years. Instead we eventually only got five years on the new one, due to elevated E.coli levels that could not even be proven to be from us.”
Discussion group comments left him convinced he was not alone in his frustrations and murmurings were made about “protesting like French farmers” on council steps.
“But I decided we needed to back ourselves and give ourselves more of a voice with council,” says Aaron.
His readings about the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management and what was happening in other regions convinced Aaron they had to engage more constructively with council, or risk operating under rules and conditions they as farmers had no input on.
Waimea group is formed
The creation of the Waimea Catchment group was “pretty ad hoc” initially, with a couple of informal meetings at the local pub.
However the group’s first action was well focused – it commissioned an expert analysis of the region’s groundwater and the elevated nitrate levels experienced around Waimea.
“We were able to prove it was a geological anomaly that was causing this, due to the district having no snow-fed rivers and an old aquifer that did not attenuate nitrogen very well.”
He also convened the group’s first field day on wintering methods at a sheep and beef property, deliberately ensuring the group would not be seen as a “dairy only” exercise.
“We pulled in about 150 farmers and we have had three field days and over half the catchment would have been to at least one by now.”
The group has about 40 members across all land use types and Environment Southland staff are a regular feature at its meetings, from paid staffers to councillors and even the chief executive. The other field days have had riparian strip establishment and run-off management as topics.
Behind the scenes Aaron has worked hard to build direct, open and frank contact with Environment Southland staff.
“We have found they are craving this sort of contact and input – it is a good way for them to get feedback. I never realised just how powerful these relationships really are until we built them.”
Farmer concerns remain over how Environment Southland will develop its nutrient limits for dairying, and there is call for a roadmap that farmers can follow.
“It is not going to be a perfect process. But if it is done upfront and clearly, and not fudged or done too quickly, it can work. The environment needs to win, but people have to live and farm here too.”
His efforts at Waimea have created a base template for other groups to follow and now six catchment groups almost cover the province.
Aaron’s advice to intending groups is to ensure they have knowledge on their particular catchment’s intricacies well understood before kicking off.
“That helps build authenticity and authority into your relationship with councils.”
Celebrating our successes
Aaron acknowledges a slight “siege mentality” in dairy farmers toward councils and regulations. But he believes those same farmers need to celebrate their successes in welfare and environmental management more, and make wider use of social media to do so.
“That just helps personalise what we do. People will trust a friend on Facebook and we have to remember what we do is so different. So many people outside farming are interested but just don’t understand how farming works.”
He also urges farmers to get engaged or risk a wall of compliance that smothers the “number eight” innovation that has taken dairying to where it is now in New Zealand.
“We have much to offer with grass-fed milk products – if we go putting cows into sheds we lose that uniqueness. It should be possible to farm in this wonderful environment and use the knowledge we have to innovate on-farm and protect that environment.”
This article was originally published in Inside Dairy April 2016