By Pat Deavoll,,  3 May 2016

Managing water quality must also involve understanding people, Duncan says. “A lot of policies around water quality are directed at farmers. There are assumptions made about farmers – what they should and shouldn’t do – there’s a lot of politics around that. Some of the assumptions are that farmers are deliberately polluting waterways. But I don’t think vilifying farmers is the solution.”

Duncan carried out interviews with 20 farmers in and around the Culverden basin, North Canterbury. All owned irrigated properties, either dairy, sheep and beef or arable.

In general, the farmers understood the issues of concern for water quality in terms of nitrogen and phosphorus, Duncan says. Some farmers talked about pathogens and sediments. All were adamant they wanted good water quality and didn’t want to contribute to rivers being in poor condition.

None objected to limits being set by the regional plan so long as they were fair and reasonable, did not affect economic viability and profitability and were carried out with sufficient transition times.

There was also plenty of agreement that they were responding by fencing stock from waterways, managing effluent, using Overseer, doing nutrient budgets, improving fertiliser application and planting trees. Many spoke of these as if they had been part of their farming for some time. However the dairy farmers felt a tail-end minority were letting the side down and some believed that water quality breaches went hand in hand with staffing issues. They had a ‘gut feeling’ if a farm was managed badly.

All the farmers seemed to have an intimate understanding of their soils. Many talked about recreation in the local rivers, and that signs of water quality problems were few. Some wondered why people living in cities with degraded rivers should expect rivers in agricultural areas to be pristine. Some farmers – particularly dairy – were at a loss to understand the prospect of governments imposing strict regulations that appeared to them to disadvantage their business.

When asked what their contribution to nutrients in rivers was, they consistently said “minimal.”

“Several were using Overseer and knew their leaching rates while other referred to their nutrient budgets and were confident they weren’t wasting any fertiliser as this was throwing away money. One farmer equated fertiliser use with productivity and because productivity was increasing, suggested that nutrient leaching was incongruous,” Duncan says.

“Farmers seemed to think their responsibility was mediated by physical things, for example the distance from the river, depth of topsoil, not a dairy farm, low rainfall area.

“Maybe they lacked an understanding of the movement of nutrients via surface water or groundwater into waterways,” she says. “They take moderate responsibility seeing water quality problems as dependent on a range of variable factors such as weather. ”

In contrast to how farmers see the land and water relationship, science policy frames this and farmers responsibility to it, as direct and unimpeded, Duncan says.

“It also shows that farmers are trying to grapple with the science which can be counter-intuitive at the local scale. They are not trying to dismiss it. “

Kirsty Blackstock of the James Hutton Institute UK thinks well reasoned, data-based and logical messages should be effective in persuading farmers to adopt preventative measures or best management practice, so long as farmers are convinced there is a problem and that their actions can solve it. However, there is not always agreement that a problem exists or that farmers bear some responsibility for it. Too many water management interventions proceed as if diffuse pollution from agriculture is an understood and accepted pressure rather than taking the time to discuss this with their farming partners.

Duncan’s research highlights the extent to which conceptions of the problem are out of sync. Farmers see the problem as temporary and based upon a range of highly variable factors and its effects influenced and impeded by a number of equally unknowable circumstances. In contrast, the regional council conceives this relationship as ever present if not visible, and a matter of cause and effect. In other words, the relationship is assumed to be ultimately direct and unimpeded.

Duncan says the research is backed by internationally recognised theories of knowledge that are critical of how science communication can be ‘you are wrong, science is right.’ This is alienating, she says.

“The local understanding and local knowledge of farmers and the local scale are very important to consider. It is about how we can increase our chances of engaging with farmers and come up with workable solutions rather than solutions that are unworkable or misdirected. It’s not a matter of trying to blame farmers or force messages onto them which seems to be the current approach.”

While easily dismissed as farmers lack recognition of the effects they have or misunderstanding of science, how farmers frame the water quality problem must be recognised. This is an important starting point for working with them in introducing new policies and rules and good management. Ultimately farmers need to be a large part of the water quality solution. A fundamental step is to increase policy maker understanding of farmers, says Duncan.