Throughout several months of Covid distraction the draft freshwater reforms have been simmering in the background.

Farmers who battled through submissions nearly a year ago might have been forgiven for thinking that their effort would make no difference to environment minister David Parker’s vision for New Zealand.

At the time submitters were encouraged by industry groups who told them that yes, suffering through the exercise of carefully crafting and submitting their views, on the cusp of peak work periods calving and lambing, was the best move available to them. Now the rules have landed and it is time to digest what they will mean at the farm level.

When the policy announcement was imminent in August, industry bodies tentatively revealed they were almost comfortable with what was coming but warned there might be some serious fishhooks in finer detail. Once these same industry groups saw the details clearly it became evident the feared fish hooks are of Maui’s fabled fishing proportions.

Stock exclusion – Mapping tool

For several years extensive sheep and beef farmers have been nervously wondering whether rules were going to come in requiring stock exclusion from streams on hill country. For these people, the new rules include good and bad news.

Regional councils have generally taken an approach in recent years that sees intensively grazed cattle and deer excluded from streams. More relaxed rules have applied to extensively grazed beef cattle and sheep, where stocking rates limit major impacts on water quality and fencing is a challenging exercise.

The good news is that the new policy excludes sheep. The bad news is that the decision-making around where cattle need to be excluded is complicated and based on unreliable, illogical mapping.

The new rules come with a map showing ‘low slope land.’ Farmers with low slope land need to exclude cattle. While this is probably intended to target relatively intensive grazing where there is potential for significant impacts from cattle accessing streams, as usual a desktop mapping exercise has resulted in a blunt tool and perverse outcomes.

Bureaucrats tempted by the convenience of turning desktop mapping exercises into regulation only need to look at historical controversies and inaccuracies at regional and district council level to see it is the wrong way to go.

This is a blunt, lazy approach, generally disguised as someone’s bright idea, and should be banned by politicians genuinely interested in balanced, targeted policy outcomes.

The mapped zones are based on land parcels which creates headaches. There are areas of flat paddocks not captured in the mapping while some hill blocks are mapped as low slope land.

We have Land Use Capability Class 8 land mapped as low slope land. This is the trouble with mapping created in an ivory tower, at a scale too coarse to cater for common sense and onfarm reality.

It is not the first-time bureaucrats have created stress and perverse rules based on mapping and crucially this new tool, possibly despite good intentions, does not accurately reflect varying degrees of environmental impact. In its current form it will not achieve the outcomes the rule writers and community want.

Winter feed – Slope catch

The other glaringly sensitive area for sheep and beef farmers is ability to accommodate intensive winter grazing in their farm systems. When winter grazing is not well managed and carefully planned the environmental consequences can be significant and visual.

It has been a hot topic for environmental activists and politicians for several years and pressure has grown for rules to control winter feed management. The freshwater policy is the most stringent regulation seen to date in this area.

Most sheep and beef farmers would argue that growing enough winter feed to enable them to carry a sensible number of stock is an essential property right which they need to maintain.

Where winter grazing becomes a problem is when people push limits – for example bringing in large numbers of outside stock, growing heavy crops on sloped land, in wet areas or near waterways.

A wet winter inevitably brings mud. Careful planning mitigates risk but can never eliminate all mud if stock are grazed in situ on high-yielding green feed crops. Regulation has been inevitable for some time. There was always potential for political and community concerns to take this regulation too far.

The most challenging aspect of the new regulations for many sheep and beef farmers will be the restrictions around when intensive winter grazing needs a resource consent. Resource consents are a seductive tool for councils when it comes to regulating farming activities. The challenge is where to draw the line that distinguishes between farmers needing a costly consent and those who can get on with life sensibly and relatively independently. The new rules look set to capture too many farmers in the consenting process.

Any winter greenfeed crops grown on land with an average slope of more than 10 degrees will require a resource consent. Despite major resource issues at regional councils and lack of clarity among agronomists, farmers and regulators, this will potentially apply to crops sown in spring 2020. However, hawk-eyed Federated Farmers policy people have picked up on the fact that existing use rights might nullify the implication of this particular rule at a farm level next winter.

If land is not mapped as low slope land it does not mean it is exempt – just that farmers will have to work out how to assess the slope themselves and be prepared to justify their position if it ever came to a debate. It is hard to imagine farmers will be allowed to assess slope as coarsely as MFE has.

Any crop that results in pugging deeper than 20cm also requires a resource consent. There is scant information on how this will be measured and managed.

If these issues are manageable, MFE has thrown another curveball. Winter feed crops need to be sown before October 1 for most areas and November 1 in Southland and Otago to not trigger the need for resource consent. Hopefully the weather gods have been informed of this requirement which shows a complete lack of understanding of how farmers and farm systems operate.

Compliance costs – Farm Environment Plans (FEPS) and resource consents

Every resource consent farmers have to apply for will cost them. Councils have long talked of streamlining consents for similar, relatively common or simple activities, to make them cheaper, faster and simpler.

While an attractive option for those facing mounting costs, turning this into reality has been a different story. Councils will not grant consents without being confident that the detail and conditions are specific enough to prevent them from appearing slack in the media.

This means at best a consent will cost $1500 for processing. More commonly, the consent will cost several thousand dollars in consultancy fees before the processing even begins. The processing cost will increase if the council staff feel they need more information than is initially provided.

Farm Environment Plans have been enjoying a gradual acceptance as a relatively painless way to demonstrate good practice on farm. They offer an opportunity to improve farm systems as well as being a cost of doing business under the gaze of an increasingly attentive society.

Progress with farm plans has been good, on the back of years of council and industry effort. Unfortunately, the new regulations have made FEP’s more costly. They will now need to be prepared or approved by an as yet to be defined expert.

These experts will cost and in the same vein as council staff will be interested in ensuring their own behind is soundly covered. These particular experts don’t exist yet but the current environmental consultants who are likely to be involved in this work cost anywhere between $120-180 per hour for their time.

Consultation through exclusion

What grates many submitters most is what they have claimed to be an arrogant lack of consultation. Federated Farmers were quite publicly shut out of discussions last year after MFE accused them of leaking draft information. Federated Farmers have strenuously denied they were responsible for any leaks but nonetheless they were not welcomed back to the table.

The fact that regulations showing an apparent lack of understanding of farm systems have been drafted, after farming experts were kicked out of the room, is far from a demonstration of best practice policy planning.

While the latest policy announcement has farmers and industry groups in a state of fear they are not the only parties who will struggle with the new rules. Regional Councils will have to find a way to implement the resource-hungry demands from the government.

Many councils are already stretched and rate burdens constantly increasing. It would not be safe to rely on councils applying a sensibly selective enforcement regime either because the pressure on them is immense. In the past three years, Environment Canterbury alone has been taken to court twice by Forest and Bird who felt they were not enforcing their rules adequately.