NZ Farmer, 9 May 2016

Jamie McFadden grew up on the tough, undeveloped hill country farm his parents bought in 1966 and witnessed the 800ha property’s transformation from ‘‘tiger country’’ into a productive farm where native bush, pine trees, poplars and pasture grow side by side.

‘‘It was in two big blocks, there were three small paddocks at the front and a wee musterer’s hut. It was all native – bush, tussock, matagouri, gorse and broom, and nassella tussock,’’ McFadden says.

Taking advantage of farm development subsidies, his father went to work breaking in the property, called The Acheron, but from the start he resisted the temptation to clear all the bush to maximize production.

‘‘When Dad started out, he went through the bush and quite liked it and didn’t really want to clear it. There was very bad erosion so they drew up a farm plan with the catchment board (a predecessor of the regional council) that we’re still working to. Farm plans have been with us for 35 years so it’s not a new concept for us, but they were more a tool to help farmers with actions not the compliance auditing model we see today.

‘‘It was all about the erosion, protecting the areas of bush, subdivision fencing, leaving the bush along the waterways, all of the stuff they’re talking about today.’’

McFadden’s parents formed a relationship with the catchment board which helped them set up a poplar nursery on the farm and every year they harvested poplar poles to plant around the farm to combat erosion in areas where native bush wasn’t doing the job.

That planting programme continues today with many of the old varieties that had big heavy branches that break in strong winds now being replaced with hardier new varieties that cope better in the dry.

But poplars and natives are the only trees on The Acheron. In 1983 pines were added to the mix. Jamie Mcfadden

‘‘Dad had identified country that was either covered in a lot of weeds – gorse and nassella particularly – and there were a couple of areas that we put in pines with very bad erosion; the patches of native bush that had been left were not holding the erosion so the call was made to fill in the rest with pines.

‘‘They were seen as a future income stream but also to help us beat the weeds and control erosion.’’

As a boy McFadden explored the bush-covered gullies, fished and hunted and rode a farm bike to every corner. When he got married he and his wife Linda went overseas for three years, before returning to the farm where Jamie worked with his father for the next 10 years.

By the time his younger brother Scott returned from his OE, Jamie and Linda had started a native plant nursery that was growing into a new business.

‘‘We were planting natives all round the farm and then some local farmers asked if they could buy plants off us so we set up the nursery as a business and it just took off. We decided to shift out of farming so we shifted into Cheviot and that’s our business now.’’

Though he now lives in the nearby town of Cheviot and works full time in his business Hurunui Natives, McFadden is a regular visitor to the family farm, which is bounded to the east by SH1 and to the north by the Hurunui River.

Sitting on knob above the farm house, he looks up into a valley clad in native bush, pine plantations and poplars, between which is pasture – now browning off as weeks with no rain stretch into months. He points to a block of bush known as ‘‘The Reserve’’.

‘‘That was fenced off in 1983, it’s had no stock in it since.’’

From his vantage point McFadden can also see a block of kanuka his brother recently fenced off and another area they’re considering putting into a QE2 covenant.

‘‘We’ve all done it ourselves at our own cost. We’ve improved this place environmentally and productively.’’

But despite their efforts to look after their land and to protect the environment, the McFadden family found themselves in conflict with the Hurunui District Council in the mid-90s when the Resource Management Act came into force.

‘‘The council of the day decided to map these areas of bush just with a felt pen on their topographical maps and said we weren’t allowed to do all sorts of things in there.’’

He points to cultivated land on the farm. ‘‘All that was included and it was all called a significant natural area and they had rules about what we could do there. The maps were hugely inaccurate and there was no consultation. ‘‘My Mum’s garden was included as a significant natural area,’’ McFadden laughs. ‘‘Technically we couldn’t plant exotic vegetation in Mum’s garden.’’

McFadden and his father fought the council and he spent six years with Federated Farmers trying to get changes to the RMA and better council processes. Frustrated he wasn’t making progress there, he stood for Hurunui District Council and did two terms. He says after six years he and like minded locals had succeeded in changing the composition of the council.

‘‘We had a group that actively went round the district looking for potential candidates. We didn’t specify what they had to say or what they had to think or what their views were, we just looked for good practical people who understood rural issues and would articulate them on our behalf.

‘‘We had a complete change around with the council and by the time I left the council and the landowners were very much onside. We thought we had it all sorted and then the regional council (Environment Canterbury) came along and put a spanner in the works.’’ McFadden says while the district council is prepared to work with landowners to look after sensitive country, the regional council, Environment Canterbury, prefers strong regulation. And with the Hurunui district plan up for review, he’s worried more regulations could be in the wind.

‘‘What’s happening now is all of the parties are … jockeying, I suppose is the word. You’ve got the likes of farmers being nervous about more mapping, and DOC and Forest and Bird and ECan are all trying to get more rules. That’s all about to open up again so what we had 20 years ago is about to be repeated, unfortunately.’’

He believes Environment Canterbury is over-ruling the district council’s preferences.

‘‘The Hurunui council would quite like a system that works with landowners and they developed a strategy that we agreed to and the community agreed to in terms of looking after these areas and then ECan have come along and said, ‘You can’t do that’, and they’ve told the district council it will have to implement what ECan want, a more regulated approach.’’

Worried the voice of landowners wasn’t being heard, McFadden and 10 or so others recently formed a new group called Rural Advocacy Network, aiming to become their voice on rural issues.

‘‘A group of us got together one night, local farmers, irrigators, dryland farmers, rural businesses and we’d done these submissions and we started talking about things that were going on.
We’ve got the nutrient issues, we’ve got SNAs and we talked about how individual farmers were having these battles with ECan and there didn’t seem to be a support network that could jump in there and help.’’

The network has applied to become an incorporated society and has launched a membership drive. McFadden says the new group is meant to complement Federated Farmers, which is down to one branch from the six there used to be in Hurunui and whose staff are struggling with a flood of new regulations affecting farming.

‘‘We’re just a mixed bag of farmers and we felt that we’re all in this together. It doesn’t matter if you’re a dairy farmer or a beekeeper, so we saw ourselves as being a voice for rural people generally.’’

Rather than just involving themselves in the submissions process, where McFadden says they’ve had limited success, the group want to be proactive.

‘‘We’re open to any actions we can take that will benefit rural people in terms of making sure the science is right, challenging misinformation, telling the good-news stories, trying to get some practical understanding of farming.’’

He looks out over the family farm again. ‘‘We don’t need rules to protect this, we just need some help with the weeds and pests. We need some advice – a bit like we used to have with the catchment board. That’s gone with ECan.’’