Farmers need more understanding of environmental groups in their efforts to reduce adverse effects on the land, an outgoing sustainable farming advocate says.
The New Zealand Landcare Trust is seeking a new regional co-ordinator for the top of the south as stalwart Barbara Stuart retires.
Stuart worked for the trust for 18 years, finding her niche in helping farmers reduce their impact on the land and seeing a huge shift in attitudes about sustainability.
But she did not envy her successor, taking over in an election year when dairy farming and sustainability was in the spotlight, and causing division, she said.
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The new co-ordinator would need to have a technical understanding of sustainable land and water management, though Stuart was “just a farmer’s wife” when she joined the trust in 1999.
“I always chuckle and say I’d never get the job today if I applied for it,” Stuart said.
“We had recently lost a child, and coming out the other side of that I thought, ‘I need to do something’. The trust had just started and I made contact with them … and they ended up offering me a job.
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“I had to get out of that sad place. And meeting all the farming families did that for me.”
After growing up on the Allandale sheep and beef farm in Canterbury, and settling on a farm in Cable Bay with her husband Ian, Stuart was in her element working with farming communities, she said.
She worked closely with the Marlborough District Council to establish bridge crossings and culverts to improve the region’s waterways.
“It was quite a hard coalface to be because it took a lot to convince farmers it was having an effect. And the community, and the companies. There was a lot of denial to begin with. But there has been incremental changes to intensive farming,” she said.
“Over 15 years there has been a large change in attitudes, but you have to look back to see it. Back then, cows had access to rivers and creeks. These days, we’re more dealing with run-off from farmland.”
Marlborough had just 60 dairy farms which were typically smaller than those in other regions, Stuart said.
“We’re not as intensely farmed as other areas. And soils in the Rai Valley are good for mopping up the cow effluent that lands on the ground, and breaking it down.”
Projects included working with farmers and recreational groups to minimise the spread of Chilean needle grass, and creating wetlands to filter run-off from dairy farms.
Banks and businesses did not initially understand that farmers needed support to implement environmental goals, Stuart said.
“If you can’t get the support from stock and station agents and bankers, you’re on the road to nowhere. You’ve got to get them on board.”
Banks were unlikely to loan farmers money for environmental projects, but their attitudes had since improved, she said.
“[Farmers] do want to do the right thing. They just need a lot of support to do the right thing.”
Stuart linked many groups, including farmers, trapping groups, local government and scientists in her work, often holding public meetings to discuss issues.
“Having everyone involved in one room is great.”
Stuart’s replacement would need to be a “people person”, she said.
“Being able to understand the predicament farmers are in and the pressures they are under is very important.
“And you have to be flexible. It’s not a nine to five job. And your partner has to be flexible, when you’re sitting up at night taking phone calls,” she laughed.
Stuart was looking forward to spending more time at her farm at Cable Bay, and maintaining the walking track that ran through it, she said.
But she would miss the farming families she got to know through her work, she said.
“The rural community is full of amazing people. They’re down to earth, because they’ve got to make a living, and owning land comes with a lot of responsibility. I feel really privileged to have worked with farmers around the region. They’re the sort of people who love the land, and they’re into the big picture plans. If they think it works, they get behind it. If they can afford it.
“In my role it’s always been about the relationships I’ve been able to have with those people who are my champions. Without exception, they’ve been open and friendly and polite to me when it’s probably been quite hard for them.”
Looking to the future, she hoped people would try to be more understanding of farmers and the challenges they faced.
“We were so fortunate to have the dairy industry during the financial downturn years ago, because we would have been hit a lot harder without it. But for the future, we need to be less reliant on farming. We need to be able to support our economy in ways that don’t hurt the environment.
“Farmers and their environmental impact has been made political because we’re in an election year. That bothers me, because it’s not politics that will solve this problem, it’s ordinary everyday people.
“I think [farmers] feel picked on by the wider green movement and not understood in their situation. For the wider green community to understand the farmer, then we’ll be able to make happen what needs to happen. It will be a 20 to 50-year plan and we need the dairy industry to be a part of the solution.”