Anxiety, stress and uncertainty among the Mid Canterbury community were key findings in the social impact report commissioned by the Mid Canterbury Rural Support Trust (RST) around new freshwater rules and regulations.
The National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management and associated legislation came into force in August 2020. It was government’s attempt to address water quality issues in New Zealand by providing a national objectives framework for freshwater management.
However at the onset the proposed regulations, which affected all farming types, caused more uncertainty for those in the agriculture sector from farmers at the coalface, to those in agri-support roles.
The Mid Canterbury RST commissioned researcher Rachael Inch to explore the social impact of the new rules on the Ashburton District.
The findings, gathered from qualitative research from a range of people and groups between April and May 2021, suggested there had been an increasingly adverse social impact on farmers and their families.
Mrs Inch’s work, peer reviewed by Dr Heather Collins, was presented to invited members of the community last week.
It included Ashburton District mayor Neil Brown and councillors, representatives from Federated Farmers, Rural Women New Zealand, Ashburton District Council, Ashburton College as well as Environment Canterbury councillor Megan Hands and North Canterbury RST chairwoman Gayle Litchfield.
“Farmers were already struggling to cope with the pressures they were experiencing,” Mrs Inch said.
The policy came on the back of other rural issues such as Mycoplasma Bovis, banking reforms, Covid-19, and drought which were already stress factors for farmers.
“The new rules and regulations then compounded the existing pressures, adding even more anxiety and tension.”
Concerns raised included flow-on impacts for loss of farms, reduced spending in the district impacting on the viability of rural supply businesses and increased unemployment.
There was also concern for the impact on schools if families relocated away from the district, searching for work, and increased need for social services as well as increased compliance costs and capital investment.
According to the research, the initial engagement process by government – specifically the consultation seminar held in Ashburton – created anxiety, stress, and uncertainty for the agri-sector with no clear pathway, little clarity on the changes or any reassurance about the knowledge of different farming systems.
There was also lack of acknowledgement for the positive works done by farmers through the Canterbury Water Management Strategy.
“One of the critical impacts for agri-professionals was the increasing stress and tension when interacting with farmers.
“The uncertainty hindered their ability to plan, provide practical advice, and progress forward with projects,” Mrs Inch said.
Conservative stances taken by banks and lending organisations saw advice to farmers often referred to Environment Canterbury, who were also in the dark around required targets and limits.
“The decreased confidence in farming was a theme for young farmers as they described how the new freshwater rules impacted them,” Mrs Inch said.
It centred around public perception, and negative public views expressed on social media.
It saw many begin to question their futures in farming.
Mayor Neil Brown, after the presentation, wanted to ease concern in the community and said the district would not be planted in pine trees or be pushed to farming cows in barns.
“I don’t think it’s all doom and gloom so don’t get hung up on (the nitrate numbers).
“There is light on the horizon. The technology is not here yet but we do have time,” he said.