Opinion: The Government doesn't 'hate' farmers

By Damien O'Connor.

OPINION: In the past few weeks I've attended meetings about the Government's freshwater proposals and visited farms around the country. 

I understand change of any kind can be scary, but people should be a little cynical about some of the misrepresentation taking place.

Despite what some might say, the Government doesn't "hate" farmers and we're not interested in destroying rural communities. That kind of "them v us'' talk isn't helping farming families.

We are interested in improving freshwater quality, something farmers and urban Kiwis agree is necessary. Doing so will help protect our farmers' international reputation for sustainably produced food and fibre and safeguard excellent commodity prices.

At the meetings, I've heard and respect farmers' concerns about proposed nitrate limits, fencing and other issues in the water proposals. There is work to do after submissions close and I'd expect changes.

I've been accused of not mentioning the good work farmers do. Rubbish. Since starting as minister I've proudly and regularly praised work including riparian planting, protecting wetlands, tree planting, fencing and limiting fertiliser use. Those things are happening now and not hurting farmers' bottom line. 

I've spoken many times about the need for change in urban centres - the often disgusting state of Auckland's beaches is a prime example.

However, I'm committed to meaningful baseline targets for things like nitrate levels in rivers - in urban and rural NZ - because that is a social, economic and environmental imperative.

The targets that we finally settle on as part of the proposals will be met over time. I want to see change over a generation and for it to be part of the good work already happening. Rural communities will talk with regional councils about the timeframe for achieving targets.

To put the nitrate target in perspective, there are many catchments where rivers are about or near the suggested level. There are others which will require greater effort, but I'm confident we can adapt by using best practice and technology to get there.

Last week, I visited several farms that have made environmental changes that did not hurt their bottom line. These things are being done, but we shouldn't ignore that in some places improvements are required.

I reject that the Government is doing nothing to help farmers. The Government set aside $229 million to spend on things like boosting advisory and extension services and the establishment of local groups so farmers can learn from each other about what works.

I'm talking to Beef and Lamb, Dairy NZ, and others about integrated farm plans to lessen workload. We're investing tens of millions of dollars in tools like Overseer to help farmers. 

A Farm Debt Mediation scheme will be a safety net for farmers and improvements to NAIT will help prevent some of the tracing issues we've experienced with Mycoplasma bovis. Soon we will release an industry-backed plan to ensure the sector gets the skilled workers it needs.

We've nearly doubled the funding for rural support trusts and the Budget had $1.9 billion for mental health to improve frontline services, rural communities included. 

Recently an independent survey found that the "urban/rural divide" is not the issue some make out.  People in cities are grateful and supportive of farmers' work. Please be proud and talk to people about what you're doing. 

I understand farmers' concerns, but I know that good work is happening and I'm confident that by working together we can improve water quality over time.

Damien O'Connor is the Minister of Agriculture, Minister of State for Trade and Export Growth and Minister for Biosecurity, Food Safety and Rural Communities.