Sandra Taylor

Two Rangitikei farmers are driving a bottoms-up approach to improving water quality in their region by encouraging and empowering farmers and their communities to work collectively to address water quality issues.

Roger Dalrymple, who farms Waitatapia Station, a large-scale mixed cropping operation near Bulls and Taihape sheep and beef farmer Mark Chrystall, were instrumental in setting up the Rangitikei Rivers Catchment Collective (RRCC) two years ago. This group acts as an umbrella organisation for community catchment groups based around three major river systems in the region. Collectively these groups involve at least 250 farmers and numerous other community stakeholders.

Roger, who like Mark is a passionate environmentalist, says over the past 100 years, everything about environmental management has been driven from the top down and it is a model that has failed.

‘There is no model, some are bigger and some are smaller, but we focus on the boundaries around the communities in setting the groups up, rather than just the catchment area.’

Rather, the establishment of community catchment groups gives farmers and stakeholders the ability to collectively take ownership of the water quality and environmental issues specific to their catchment. It is these issues that ultimately affect their livelihoods and the well-being of their community.

Mark says the idea behind the RRCC was to really think on a big scale and encourage small community-driven catchment groups which address their specific challenges. This gives farmers the opportunity to take leadership in identifying the problems and driving the required change, but also to engage with the many stakeholders with a vested interest in improving water quality within their region.

Mark Chrystall and Roger Dalrymple: ‘We do everything we can to do the best job we can.’

There are now seven active community catchment groups within the RRCC and Mark and Roger have been encouraged by the unanimous buy-in from local farmers, but also the enthusiasm of Tangata whenua, Fish and Game, Department of Conservation, local councils and community organisations to get involved.

Mark and Roger say Horizons Regional Council has been on-board from day one and has been very supportive of the establishment of the RRCCG and the community catchment groups.

Amongst their other work, these groups have been carrying out regular water quality tests, measuring nitrogen, phosphorus, E. coli and turbidity (sediment) levels.

This helps them determine what is going on in their catchments and allows them to take a proactive approach to dealing with any contamination issues.

“All the catchment groups are different,” Mark says.

“There is no model, some are bigger and some are smaller, but we focus on the boundaries around the communities in setting the groups up, rather than just the catchment area.” In the Moawhango River, data collected by Genesis Energy has already shown a gradual improvement in the health of the river with an increase in the number of juvenile fish seen in the river.

RRCC has applied for funding to help pay for an employee to support existing community groups, help set up new ones and carry out the monitoring and measuring of water quality within the region.

Roger says there is a perception that environmental protection is expensive, but he says it is the management changes that typically cost nothing that have the biggest impact on water quality.

These include changes in grazing management, the use of minimal cultivation and managing soils (such as discing the outside of paddocks) to prevent run-off and retain soil and nutrients within the paddock.

He says while the fencing and planting of riparian areas is nice to do and will improve water quality, the big gains come from simple farm management changes.

One of the benefits of community catchment groups is that it provides a platform for farmers to share their knowledge and experiences of making management changes and encourage others to do the same.

Within their own businesses, the pair have been working to protect and enhance their natural resources for many years.

Mark, who along with his brother Richard and the Collier family, farm 2500ha of mixed terrain, wintering 25,000-26,000 stock units, has carried out 45km of riparian fencing over the past 10 years. This includes fencing off gorges and gullies to try and reduce sediment loadings and prevent stock losses.

Mark says their philosophy is about setting up farm policies to match the resource, not the other way around.

The Chrystalls have been part of Horizons Regional Council’s Sustainable Land Use Initiative (SLUI) and through this initiative they carried out Land Use Capability (LUC) mapping which underpins their management decisions.

“I know it sounds like a cliché, but we want to protect our hill country and pass it on to the next generation in a better state than when we first took it over, “Mark says.

Similarly, Roger and his family have set up their business around protecting their natural resources, particularly their sandy soils.

“We do everything we can to look after the environment. We keep animals away from waterways and natural areas and look after our soils.

“Our system is pushing boundaries, but we do everything we can to do the best job we can.”

The Dalrymples have hosted the Ministry for the Environment and Horizons on their farm several times and Roger has worked closely with the council in setting up the RRCC.

Beef + Lamb New Zealand’s environment capability manager Richard Parkes has worked with Roger and Mark in getting the RRCC up and running and says the group is an exemplar of what can be achieved when farmers, regional councils and stakeholders work together.

“It’s a win:win for everyone and enables change to occur at scale without the need for top-down regulation.”

As well as providing guidance and resources, B+LNZ is one of the organisations that has contributed to partially fund a catchment coordinator, the balance will be paid for by farmers.

Richard believes the RRCC model could be used as a template for other parts of the country and it fits with B+LNZ’s Catchment Communities Programme, delivering on the organisation’s visions of “profitable farmers, thriving farming communities, valued by all New Zealanders.

Alastair Cole, New Zealand Landcare Trust’s Manawatu/Whanganui Regional Coordinator, says his organisation has been involved with the RRCC from the outset, helping the group with its constitution and facilitating the formation of community catchment groups.

He credits the success of RRCC to the willingness of farmers to step up and take leadership roles not only in the RRCC, but in the smaller community catchment groups that have proliferated under the auspices of the RRCC. “Farmers have also put significant time and energy into setting-up groups and many landowners have already committed to a membership fee. That’s real skin in the game.”

Alastair says there has been a real groundswell of community catchment groups and this is where the rubber meets the road in terms of improving water quality but also in encouraging biodiversity, addressing pests and weeds and building community resilience.

Like Roger and Mark, Alastair has been pleased by the support the groups have received from community stakeholders such as Fish and Game and DOC but says there is still work to do to engage with other community interest groups and organisations.

“I’ve said to the farmers let’s make a start and then we’ll identify those who are not in the room who should be involved and invite them to come along on our journey.”

As well as helping set up the farmer-led catchment groups, Alastair has been helping coordinate the collection of water samples, analysing test results and feeding the results back to farmers.

For Alastair, who has been working in the region for eight years, the past 18 months have been really exciting with the number of community catchment groups being set up, not only in Rangitikei, but also in Manawatu, Tararua and Whanganui districts.

“They are popping up all over the region as a result of the RRCC and it is the farmers that have driven it.”

Alastair believes the way the RRCC is structured – as an umbrella for smaller community catchment groups – is an ideal model for larger catchments throughout the country.

It allows the sharing of resources and reduces administration costs significantly.

“It’s about working smarter not harder.”

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