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Farmers need support to improve water quality

GOOD publicity, collaboration and support are vital for farmer involvement in cleaning up waterways, a report on the Rere water quality project has found.

The Wharekopae River Water Quality Enhancement Project involves all 21 farms in the river’s upper catchment, which have completed farm environment plans and do regular water monitoring.

It began in 2015 when Gisborne District Council and Beef and Lamb New Zealand collaborated with Rere farmers to improve water quality in the river, which runs through the world-famous Rere Falls and Rockslide, to a swimmable standard.

Both sites are popular swimming and tourist destinations, although there are permanent signs warning people of health risks due to E.coli contamination from sheep and cattle.

The Ministry for the Environment commissioned a report, the Rere Story, to investigate the high levels of farmer engagement, in order to guide similar projects around the country.

Social researcher Rachael Trotman said the farmers involved all knew how special the river was to the community and wanted to improve the water quality, but often lacked the resources and funding to do so.

“All farmers I know want to protect the environment, but we run a business,” one farmer involved said.

“Sheep and beef farming hasn’t been as profitable as dairy. We haven’t been able to invest in environmental measures.

“We need help – funding to plant and fence and to do water reticulation.”

Ms Trotman said part of the success of the project was supporting farmers in not only identifying environmental problems and solutions, but then assisting with implementing those ideas.

Support, workshops, fundingThe Rere project offered farmers support in establishing FEPs, ran workshops on environmental solutions, and provided funding for fencing and riparian planting.

Farmers have since installed 4.2 kilometres of new fencing, increased stock exclusion from waterways and installed new water reticulation systems.

Good quality data, evidence and monitoring was also important to show progress and improve knowledge about the river.

The approach by GDC and Beef and Lamb of supporting and building relationships, rather than dictating policy, was integral to the project’s high level of involvement.

“The collaborative approach has been appreciated,” said one farmer.

“Everyone is buying into the concept of improving water quality.”

Ms Trotman said it was a common theme.

“Agencies working together with the community around a big issue with a common goal, and taking action with the community, rather than forcing policy on people, is important.”

The collaborative approach also created goodwill for farmers, many of whom felt “vilified” by media and the general public over freshwater degradation.

“It is hard to stomach being vilified,” one farmer said. “That is what made us get involved.”

“The media has a huge effect, it is usually very negative,” said another farmer.

“The project has created goodwill and a sense of togetherness.”

Farmer-centred approachMs Trotman said the farmer-centred and relational approach worked well.

“Farmers need to feel valued, respected and part of shaping an initiative to get buy-in.

“They are under the gun and often blamed for water quality issues as a whole.

“The project raised good feelings in an environment where there is typically a lot of blaming and finger pointing.”

The goodwill has since spread further down the catchment and out in the region with farmers expressing interest in getting involved.

The project was nominated for one of the Government’s Green Ribbon environmental awards earlier this year, and in August was awarded a $800,000 grant to expand the project throughout the entire catchment.

Ms Trotman recommended the Rere farmers be further supported to investigate and trial more sustainable land uses, such as native forest reversion, honey and ecotourism.

“This would hold particular appeal for farmers with large areas of unproductive land and those struggling to keep their farm viable.”

Another area to improve was in engaging with local iwi, which had not been involved to date.

“This is a major weakness to be addressed in the project’s next step.”

Ultimately, the main driver of a successful project was having passionate and respected people involved.

“It all comes down to people,” Ms Trotman said.

“If respected farmers get involved, that encourages others to participate. You also need a strong local community that is very aware of the issues.

“There is huge potential right across New Zealand for similar projects. Water quality is a massive issue, and we need to take action now.”

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