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Consent to farm: Stu’s journey

It’s fair to say Stu Stokes knows his stuff. The Springfield farmer has cultivated his 380-hectare plot for decades and knows his land like the back of his hand.

After a lifetime living in the foothills of the Southern Alps, Stu knows to expect the unexpected, manage risks and plan for adverse conditions. He knows which parts of his farm drain well and which are best suited for different farming operations.

Over the years, he’s adapted his operation. Stu’s gone from running 800 cows and cereal cropping to around 700 velveting stags, 1000 breeding hinds and 80 cattle – or as he calls it: “a simplified operation”.

There’s no doubt that – when it comes to his farm – he’s in his element.

So when Stu found out he was expected to write a farm environment plan and apply for consent to do what he’s been doing for so long, it’s fair to say he was sceptical.

He works with agronomists, fertilizer people and all sorts of experts – so why should he have to justify the practices they use to get the best out his land?

But with a bit of guidance from his local land management advisor and a lot of help from a local industry group, Stu received his land use consent to farm earlier this year – and maybe even learned a couple of new tricks on how to best take care of his land.

Stu's farm encompasses rivers, springs and wetlands which feed into Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere).

Why does the land use consent to farm exist?

Canterbury farmers are some of the most productive and efficient in the country. Our consenting process helps ensure that environmental, economic and cultural values are balanced on farm.

Stu’s land is intersected by the streams that form the start of the Hawkins River, which winds around the Malvern Hills close to the Waimakariri before joining the Waikirikiri / Selwyn River.

That means the water that drains this land ends up in Te Waihora / Lake Ellesmere, some 70 km downstream. Te Waihora is a taonga (treasure) to Ngāi Tahu, and subject to strict land management rules.

Landowners in an area around the lake, its margins and wetlands, as well as land within 20 metres of lowland rivers flowing into the lake, are part of the Cultural Landscape/Values Management Area.

In this area, a whole range of land use activities are subject to resource consent, recognising the sensitivity of Te Waihora to discharges of contaminants and the taking and use of fresh water.

Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere is the largest lake in Canterbury and has strong cultural and environmental values.

Finding the right information

In Stu’s case, although he’s outside the Cultural Landscape/Values Management Area, phosphorus sediment risk area rules set out in the Land and Water Regional Plan mean land use consent to farm is required.

It is important that farmers needing a consent to farm have the tools to do so. Information on the Farmers’ Hub helps guide the process. The consent requirements have been around for some time, and Environment Canterbury staff in your zone are available to help.

The first step is to check the specific rules for your catchment and zone on the Farmers’ Hub to find if you need a consent or if your operation is a permitted activity.

Getting a helping hand

Looking for the first time at the Consent to Farm procedure Environment Canterbury had set up was daunting, Stu said. The task wasn’t made any easier by Stu’s dyslexia.

“The actual process of consent to farm looked very hard from the outset, for me. I’m dyslexic, so writing stuff down was incredibly hard. I think most farmers carry the knowledge around in their heads and don’t necessarily put pen to paper.”

Stu had worked with Deer NZ on his Farm Environment Plan (FEP) and leaned on a good working relationship with land management advisor Sylvia McAslan to kick start his consent to farm process.

Stu has built build a good working relationship with land management advisor Sylvia McAslan.

What is a Farm Environment Plan (FEP)

An FEP is a tool that can help recognise on-farm environmental risks and set out a programme to manage those risks. They are unique to a property and reflect the local challenges of a farming operation.

“A lot of (the FEP process) is the obvious stuff,” Stu said.

“I thought I knew where my issues were, but the FEP helped me to see which issues are most important, and rank my responses to prioritise the most serious.

Sylvia travelled out to Stu’s farm to discuss what a consent to farm might look like and how it would fit into the day-to-day running of the farm.

“I was probably trying to pass the buck (to Environment Canterbury) a bit,” Stu laughed.

Making changes on farm

The tricky geography of the farm means there were a list of tasks that needed to be ranked in terms of priority.

“This farm has a huge number of challenges,” Stu said. “I have natural springs, I have a river that runs right through the middle of it, as well as several drains. I knew all of that would eventually have to be protected.

“So, at the time I said I could budget for $20,000 a year on protecting all those things, because that’s what I could afford then. But I wanted to spend it in the right place.

“I didn’t want someone to come along later and tell me ‘well, you should’ve spent it all over there.’ So that’s where I got ECan involved and how it all started. I tell people now; the hardest part is taking the first step, and the biggest fear is the unknown,” Stu said.

Stu talks to biodiversity officer Ellen Williamson about bank stabilisation.

Getting the balance right

Farmers receive advice every day – from their industry group, neighbours, family, regional council and irrigation schemes.

Stu said although advice is intended to come across as just that, it can be taken to heart by farmers who are often under huge financial and other pressures.

“The pressure of getting things right and using money effectively is huge and it can ramp up so quickly,” Stu said.

Stu decided to go through the Consent to Farm process with others in the deer industry, working as a team to get the best result for their individual farms. It’s an approach he’d recommend to anyone in the same scenario.

“I know the deer industry has been really proactive and have several groups going through it together and I’d suggest that’s an environment that’s probably the best to be going through it. You’ll learn a lot and it’ll be a hell of a lot easier than doing it yourself. And you’ll have a few laughs along the way.”

“Get with your industry group. Having a second pair of eyes is invaluable. We all seem to have tunnel vision when it comes to our own farms.”

And even the greatest expert can learn something new about their land – and even make economic gains.

“For mine, what we know now and what we knew 10 years ago about farming is light years apart,” Stu said. “I’m looking forward to what we’ll learn in the next 10 years.”

“I can say I’m doing my bit to reduce pollution, but if at the end of the day I’m using less fertiliser, it’s also an economic thing – I’m losing less money.”

Stu Stokes has prioritised fencing and willow removal along waterways on his farm.

Land Management Advisors: your local touch point

For Environment Canterbury land management advisor Sylvia McAslan, working with Stu Stokes on his journey to farming land use consent was a positive experience.

“I first met Stu at one of our monthly Darfield drop-in sessions, where we are available for farmers to pop in and ask any questions regarding consents, compliance, rules and more.”

“I explained that the process is not a plea to be able to stay in business – but a document where you identify the potential risks to the environment on your farm, and outline strategies to avoid them.”

“Stu was well informed, and he had some interesting ideas and suggestions which he was happy to discuss. Following our chat, I visited his farm with a biodiversity expert from our team.”

Stu worked with Janet Gregory at Landcare Trust to create a Farm Environment Plan template for deer farming, which was a big job, and went above and beyond. It’s a great tool that other deer farmers can use to get started.

Environment Canterbury land management advisor Sylvia McAslan and Stu Stokes observe deer winter grazing

Support

Other industry groups like Dairy NZ, Beef + Lamb, Foundation for Arable Research and Horticulture NZ have developed their own Farm Environment Plan templates, so farmers don’t have to start from scratch.

If you have any questions about obtaining land use consent to farm, call Environment Canterbury customer services on 0800 324 636 and ask to talk to your local land management advisor. We’re here to help.

Further information