Farmers marching down Lambton Quay last November in protest at a variety of Government measures they said discriminated against them.

Environment Minister David Parker’s freshwater reforms have struck another hurdle, and a backdown on part of them is imminent.

Opposition from Southland farmers to strict requirements to prevent winter grazing paddocks from becoming boggy looks to have persuaded Parker to relax some elements of them on Thursday.

The reforms are contained within the National Policy Standard on Freshwater which comes into effect on September 3.

The relaxation will be a personal blow to Parker who has long campaigned against the excesses of winter grazing in Southland which can see cattle up to their hocks in mud.

And it is a risk for the Government which likes to campaign on its environmental credentials.

But the other danger for the Government is that it could face a repeat of the last farmer campaign during the 2017 election against Parker which resulted in farmer protests.

Farmers will require resource consent for some farming practices, particularly if they graze stock over more than 50 hectares of crops during winter.

Southland Federated Farmers president Geoffrey Young has urged farmers to boycott the consent process as a protest. (Southland currently requires a consent only if the area put into winter grazing is more than 100 ha)

Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage tweeted that his comments were “irresponsible”  Parker followed up himself by saying no-one was above the law.

But West Otago farmer Bryce McKenzie is now calling for a tractor trek to Parliament to show farmers’ feelings over the regulations.

Both Collins and National’s agriculture spokesperson, David Bennett, are now obviously seeking to exploit those protests.

Collins is promising to scrap the National Policy Standard on Freshwater altogether.

She made the commitment last night on a “Facebook Live” session with agriculture spokesperson, David Bennett.

Collins: “So, David, can we tonight promise, because this makes me very angry that these people would do this, that we’ll get rid of them?”

Bennett: “They are gone by, lunchtime.”

Collins: “Thank you very much, David.”

But in promising to scrap the Freshwater standard altogether, they have both gone considerably further than the party’s  Environment Discussion document which was published when Simon Bridges was leader and Todd Muller agriculture spokesperson in 2018.

Though there has been widespread farmer objection to some aspects of the standard, particularly the limits on dissolved nitrogen, farmers, in general, were supportive of the principles behind it.

Parker met those objections with a commitment to review the nitrogen limits over the next 12 months.

National, in its 2018 discussion document, said the feedback it had from its “Have Your Say” survey was that people were concerned about “how much water there is, who uses it, and the quality of that water.”

“Significant improvements have been made over the past 20 years regarding reduced pollution from point source discharges, but the more difficult issue of diffuse pollution (nutrients, pathogens, and sediments) remain a challenge,” it said.

Those concerns were precisely what Parker’s Freshwater Standard set out to address.

Pugging is a minority issue among dairy farmers. The DairyNZ survey, “the View From the Cowshed” published last week found that when asked about concerns about freshwater, 32% said that nutrient limits were their biggest concern, followed by 21% who said that the synthetic nitrogen cap was their biggest concern.

In the farmer consultation meetings last year that followed the publication of the draft statement, the current issue, pugging in winter grazing paddocks, was overshadowed by the bigger issue of nitrogen limits.

That may be because the pugging issue largely affects only Southland and Otago with the region’s heavy rainfall and heavy soils.

The new Policy Standard requires that the pugging at any one point must not be deeper than 20 cm, and pugging of any depth must not cover more than 50% of the paddock.

POLITIK understands that on Thursday the Government will amend these to clarify the definition of pugging and allow for some relaxation around gates and water troughs.

DairyNZ head of South Island Tony Finch says some of the regulations appear to be impractical and unworkable on farms. 

Dairy NZ and Environment Southland have called for meetings involving the Government, local Government and farmers to try and sort the issue out.

That is not an approach that Collins appears to approve of.

In a thinly veiled attack on Dairy NZ last night she said sometimes she got a little bit grumpy and disappointed when she saw some of the people who represented farmers thinking they needed to agree with the Government on some things.

“People should be agreeing with the government when it’s something that’s right for the country, right for farming, not just agreeing,” she said.

“These guys these are the people that we’re dealing with in Government.

“They don’t like farmers.”

Federated Farmers are aware that the Government is proposing changes and so yesterday toned its rhetoric down.

“This was going to be entirely unworkable for Southland farmers, and many others around the country during cold, wet winters,”  Federated Farmers’  water spokesperson Chris Allen said.

“This should be the start of many more changes to these regulations.

“The statement that we all want to leave the land and water better than when we found it is not lost on Federated Farmers and its members. It’s the mantra we all live by.

“Our concerns are not just over one single aspect of the direction or trajectory of the new regulations, but the fact that the new direction is complicated, not clear, and poorly defined.

“The government, at last, seems to be more willing to listen to farmers who know how things actually work in terms of production, the seasons, topography and animal welfare.”

The Government’s move to modify the regulations has left National high and dry, which is presumably why they have moved to the extreme policy of proposing the regulations be “gone by lunchtime”.

And yet for all their rhetoric, the party is likely after the election to have no pastoral farmers representing a South Island electorate.

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