By Rebecca Flannery,
Sometimes we here at Federated Farmers need to just get out and visit rural communities to learn and understand more about them and get a picture of where exactly we fit in terms of what they need, as opposed to what we think they may need …
So recently we got ourselves together (Gavin Forrest, the GM of Policy and Advocacy, policy advisors Peter Wilson and Angela Johnstone, and myself) and headed for South Westland. We arrived by air and road and then we took to the river, because that’s how our south Westland farmers farm – the rivers are their roads.
The people of South Westland are deeply hospitable. There really is no other word for it. Within minutes of getting to Haast we had ‘de-Wellingtonised’, amongst the free and frank chat. It’s refreshing to be amongst people that are not snowflakes; they are genuine. Even when they take the piss out of you, you just don’t mind.
Question is, why were we there?
Short answer – recent regulations that have been imposed on farmers regarding fencing water ways. You will have (no doubt) heard us and other farming groups banging on about how “one size fits all” blanket regulations do not ‘fit all’, and in fact the blanket itself is full of holes and needs to be thrown away, but more on that later.
Communication is a major problem in South Westland with just a two-kilometre radius of cellphone coverage around the township of Haast itself, and that is very recent. Plans and arrangements are made days out and stuck to, because without connectivity, they can’t be changed.
Later on day two of our visit, we experienced this first-hand. The Feds crew had all arrived from different directions, Otago, Mackenzie, North Canterbury, and Wellington. And we were still waiting for our West Coast president Bede O’Connor, who was bringing Gavin down from Westport.
They were scheduled to meet us on the banks of the Arawhata River at 12. They were late. Noon became half past, and my whiny town tendencies started creeping in.
The conversation with our locals went something like this:
“Why are they late?”
“It can be slow with all the road works.”
“Are they lost?”
“Nah they will be ok.”
“Do they know the exact location?”
“How do they know?”
“Because I dropped a pin on a map!!”
“When were you last in comms with them?”
“WHAAAT? What if they are lost? Can we text them?”
“No, there’s no coverage.”
“Still no coverage, and you wanting it isn’t going to change that!”
“But how do we know they are really coming if we can’t speak with them?”
“Just shut up, get in the boat, they’ll have to catch us up.”
And they did, one boat stayed back, and they turned up about an hour later.
South Westland, like many parts of New Zealand’s farming communities are facing major change. Why? The fencing of waterways regulations. Here’s the thing, because the West Coast has mountains very close to the coast, when it rains rivers can fair rage, and surging rivers are not unusual, the rivers can rise really quick, which poses a problem in terms of fencing because they are inevitably swept away and simply become a hazard to river and marine life.
This means that the new regulations are impossible to meet, while maintaining the cultural heritage of the community. Traditionally the riverbeds are passively grazed. If fenced, riverbeds like the Waitoto and the Arawhata would become overgrown, with a corresponding massive adverse outcome for the environment.
On our 40km jetboat ride up the Arawhata river with local farmers we discovered the network of huts. These huts are very vital as rivers can rise in an hour to become impassable and dangerous, so huts are dotted up the riverbeds to provide a safe haven in an emergency.
We also saw a handful of cattle, grazing peacefully. These areas have been grazed for over 100 years. And we did the ‘drink from the river’ test, just because it tasted so damn good.
That night we were privileged to meet with the community and learn more about them. It’s not mainstream New Zealand, this is a community like no other – an island on an island. They even generate their own electricity with a run of the river generation scheme on the Turnball River.
This sounds Idyllic, peaceful, and a beautiful lifestyle, and basically it is, but it isn’t easy. South Westland is often without power and roads are cut off due to weather events. And to get a tradesman to fix anything is pretty much a $600 round trip from Wanaka. This makes for an extremely resourceful community.
So why are they here? Haast is basically made up of five original families that landed at Jacksons Bay in the late 1800s. Interestingly, most families have got a secondary side hustle. You may recall in the ‘90s, they started harvesting and exporting Sphagnum Moss out of South Westland. Other things like tourism, jet boat rides, tramping, hunting. They even have a Kiwi eco sanctuary.
Delete the image of stock grazing in a paddock from your mind. Picture expansive river flats, where you may see one or two head of cattle at a time. What little stock there are, are doing a sterling job of protecting the precious taonga of our native flora from imported weeds and pests.
It is hard to imagine a farming community in New Zealand more compatible with its environment. Contrary to what the proposed regulations suggest, they are not harming, they are in harmony with the environment – as they have been for over one hundred years.
As we say here at Feds, if you ask the people on the ground for solutions, they will bring them. We will continue to do our best to get these solutions heard by those who make the regulations.