By Simon Edwards
If there’s one thing about the whole winter grazing saga that brasses off Bernadette Hunt (and to be fair, there are quite a few things) it’s the impression some have that farmers have only just woken up to the need to lift their game on getting animals through the cold months while minimising damage to the environment.
“Good winter grazing practice has been evolving…every year there have been changes and improvements and more farmers getting on board with better ways of doing things,” the Federated Farmers Southland Vice-President says.
“That goes back to mid-2014, and even earlier. Every year there have been good steps forward. I don’t like seeing all the credit for the improvements farmers have made being given to the threat the Minister (David Parker) put on us last year. The stuff was happening anyway.”
But Bernadette also recognises that need for change.
When in 2007 she and husband Alistair first moved from the North Island to the mixed sheep, arable and dairy grazing farm they’d purchased in Chatton, Gore, it was April, and crops were already planted.
“The way it was explained to us, the focus of winter grazing then was about getting the animals through to the end of winter having at least not lost condition, and being raring to go into the Spring period,” Bernadette said.
Protecting waterways didn’t much come into it.
“From the get-go, we were uncomfortable about the level of mud. Alistair’s got an agricultural science degree and he was very aware of soil structure damage. But early on, we had heaps and heaps of debt and we didn’t have that many choices.”
But over time, the couple resolved they wouldn’t graze fully grown cows through the winter because the farm’s soil type just didn’t support it.
“Many farmers were making those kinds of decisions, thinking about other ways of doing things and making transitions over time.”
Bernadette said those changes were spurred along in 2014 by the Southland Water and Land Plan and also by a study done at Telford which highlighted some of the things that could be done to make winter grazing less risky for the environment.
“It sort of all came together, and awareness and action took off.”
Nevertheless, Bernadette recognises there needed to be regulation. There were still too many farmers falling short.
“We set up the intervention hotline and various other mechanisms to proactively reach out to those farmers. Unfortunately, there are a small number of people who when you go onto their farm to say there’s been a complaint, will reply ‘which rule am I breaking? None? Then go away.’
“You get those sorts in all sectors of society. They’re a very small number, but they’re not there for the right reasons and without stricter regulations, they won’t budge.”
However, the winter grazing rules in the Essential Freshwater package were definitely not the answer.
“There was absolute frustration because even the farmers that were following every good management practice, and doing the right thing by waterways, were going to be penalised. In all likelihood they’d need to go through a resource consent process – with all that bureaucracy, cost and hassle – and all of that for no benefit, because they were already doing the right thing,” Bernadette said.
In what hit the headlines around New Zealand, the Federated Farmers Southland President Geoffrey Young and his executive made a stand, and said farmers should refuse to apply for the consents.
“It wasn’t a hot-under-the-collar decision,” Bernadette recalls. “We did give it a lot of thought but in the end it wasn’t a struggle to get there. It was the right thing to do.”
There had been talk in other districts of working with the local councils on “quick and dirty work-arounds” on the resource consents to make it easier.
“But what’s the point of having 3000 people with resource consents that can’t be monitored? It just makes a mockery of the whole process.”
The idea of a tractor trek with a petition rolling all the way up from Southland to Parliament was raised but there wasn’t really an appetite for that in some other regions.
The Southland Feds executive got together with the Southland Chamber of Commerce and set about organizing a Town & Country Hui, to underline the point that when farmers are hurt financially, provincial towns and the local economy are also hurt. Bernadette said it worked in their favour when press coverage focused on the impact on one of the province’s largest retailers, H & J Smith’s.
“It was exactly what we wanted because it drew in the interest of the urban audience.”
The stand made by the Feds executive caught the attention of another local farmer, Bryce McKenzie, who went big on social media with his thoughts. Thus were the beginnings of Groundswell.
In the end, Groundswell’s huge rally of tractors and other farm vehicles hit Gore, followed by an even bigger turnout to the Feds/Chamber ‘Hui’ in Invercargill the next day.
The outcry was all too big for the Government to ignore. Ministers Parker and O’Connor came down to Invercargill for a behind-closed-doors meeting with recognised top farmers, including leaders of catchment groups and the Dairy Leaders Group.
“I wouldn’t say at all that it was comfortable for the Ministers but it was contained. It wasn’t a big town hall meeting, just a bunch of very level-headed, articulate farmers presenting their concerns in a calm and unemotional way.”
As pretty much everyone in farming circles now knows, that meeting led to the setting up of the Southland Winter Grazing Advisory Group, which included Bernadette and two other local farmers, and staff from Federated Farmers, Beef+Lamb NZ, DairyNZ, Fish & Game and Environment Southland.
The group debated practical solutions at any number of Zoom and face to face meetings, and eventually hammered out a set of recommendations that the government subsequently adopted, almost in their entirety, for the set of new regulations now out for consultation.
So, what in the end made the difference?
“I think in the end it was that we provided practical alternatives that would work, and would get the outcomes everyone wanted. We didn’t quite get down to the level of detail of policy writing, but came pretty close to it,” Bernadette said.
She is convinced that the advisory group concept is one that could provide a template for sorting out other controversial aspects of the flawed Essential Freshwater package.
But didn’t the government put together a technical advisory group to advise on its proposals?
“I think that’s the challenge. When the government chooses the people versus when the people who actually live the stuff choose the people, you’ll get quite different people,” Bernadette said. “The cherry-picking of their advisors is really concerning.
“When 17,000 submissions come in, I think it shows they didn’t get it right.”
What about the protests, and alleged friction between Groundswell and Federated Farmers that the media have been keen to play up?
Bernadette believes “making noise”, such as the Federated Farmers Southland call to refuse to apply for consents and the farmer tractor protests, are necessary to grab politicians’ attention.
“But once that had happened, getting in a room with multiple parties and coming up with sensible alternatives is the only way forward. We couldn’t just refuse to comply, we needed to provide sensible solutions, and that is what happened through the Advisory Group, and then ongoing follow-ups with officials.”
Bryce McKenzie himself has said a number of times that Groundswell will not be getting into the advocacy and detailed policy work with government agencies and councils that Federated Farmers takes on.
Noise is sometimes absolutely necessary to open doors and start conversations. Then the noise has to stop and the hard work begins – and that is where the real change comes from. Feds President Andrew Hoggard has said that will be the organisation’s mode of operation with all the rest of the regulations coming at farmers.
“It is hard work, it takes time, and sometimes it doesn’t work – in which case, we then reassess our options,” Andrew said.
Southland farming leader juggles multiple roles
There’s a saying ‘If you want something done, ask a busy person’. Bernadette Hunt fits the bill.
Bernadette joined the Federated Farmers Southland executive in 2014, at around about the time the Southland Water and Land Plan came in and conversations started in earnest on the need for winter grazing improvements. She was to come to national prominence on that front but there’s more strings to her bow than that.
Once a keen rower who after a stint travelling overseas moved to Cambridge to chase national selection, Bernadette’s CV includes roles in television production (remember Education TV, and the magazine show Fifty Forward with Selwyn Toogood and Catherine Saunders?), IT, primary school teaching, the Parliamentary Service and social capacity projects from Gore District Council and the Community Networking Trust.
She’s said in the past that volunteering is “what makes communities tick” and besides her roles with Feds her extensive community involvement includes voluntary roles with Gore Parents’ Centre and the Gore Kids’ Hub. Bernadette is also a trustee/director of Gore Health Ltd, which runs the town’s hospital, a medical centre, dental practice and MoleMap franchise, and is on the Board of Trustees for one of the local high schools.
Two years ago, in the face of continuing workforce gaps on local farms, Bernadette pulled together others keen to do something about the issue and launched an initiative that became the Southern Primary Sector Workforce Placement Programme. In essence, it’s about connecting job seekers who want to know more about opportunities in the province’s food and fibre industry with primary sector employers keen to hire. They’ve supported job fairs and initiated introductory training programmes, placements and mentorship initiatives.
“We’re just in the process of revising our action plan, coming up with phase two and seeking renewal of government funding,” Bernadette says.
All this when she is also a working farmer with husband Alistair, and mother to 8 and 12-year-old daughters.
The couple met in Young Farmer circles and in 2007 moved down to Chatton and the farm they’d purchased the previous year. They run a mixed sheep, arable and dairy grazing operation, and they also run an agricultural contracting business.
When FedsNews calls, they’re in the middle of lambing and calving, and with alert level 3 lockdown, their two girls have relished helping out. Bernadette admits she’s “not the first choice for tractor driver” but is busy with stock work and “tends to be the general dogsbody that keeps everybody else going”.
It’s something that will be familiar to many other Federated Farmers volunteer leaders – the need and expectation to read up on background material and attend all sorts of meetings and conferences, often alongside salaried government agency and council officials for whom those meetings are part of their paid job.
Bernadette and two other farmers on the Southland Advisory Group that delivered a breakthrough on the winter grazing impasse invested countless hours of their own time on the process.
She believes the advisory group concept could work very well for sorting other contested aspects of the Essential Freshwater package “but you do question whether farmers should have to do that when our taxes already paid for it once.
“If the government had done the job properly and hadn’t rushed the consultation, maybe we wouldn’t have had to give up those hundreds of hours for meetings and stuff to write the recommendations.”