The rural economy appears to be in good shape, but at what damage to the environment? Reporter Jono Galuszka asks Rangitikei politicians if the balance is right, and if there is a way both can improve.
If you believe the figures, the grass is looking greener for the rural economy.
Statistics from MYOB show one third of farmers expect revenue to grow going into 2018, while the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research expects higher dairy payouts to provide solid economic growth for the next five years.
Then there is the booming tourism industry, which is seeing more people visting the regions.
But the cost is largely an environmental one. Many of the country’s rivers and lakes are degraded due to nitrogen run-off from farms, while a lack of infrastructure is seeing tourists in some areas using waterways as latrines.
Green Party Rangitikei candidate Robin McCandless said it was impossible to put the two apart, noting a phrase his party’s former co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons once told him.
“If you show me your economic policy, I can tell your environmental policy by default.”
But the party did not believe growing the farming sector had to come at a cost to the environment or vice versa. Instead it wanted to move to a quality-driven model, McCandless said.
Doing so would reduce the number of cattle on farms, but enable farmers to look towards high-quality niche products.
“Once you’ve on the tables of the finest restaurants in the world, you can charge whatever you want.”
The Green’s proposed ‘Taonga Levy’, charging visitors to the country between $14 and $18 on arrival, would provide funding for small towns to build tourism-related infrastructure and raise Department of Conservation (DOC) funding, he said.
“DOC may as well be the ministry for tourism in New Zealand, if you look at why people come here.”
Rangitikei MP and National Party candidate Ian McKelvie said the tourism boom was benefiting small towns across the electorate by creating jobs.
“People like to be close to home, and it’s great to have the opportunity for people to stay in Taumarunui and Raetihi if they want to.”
Rangitikei’s economy was in as good shape as McKelvie could remember, despite wool prices falling through the floor.
Agriculture was also doing well, which helped service towns like Marton and Feilding, he said.
There were environmental issues to solve, with science set to play a big part.
Grants for research and development were already helping fund new ways to farm, which would only improve the environment in the long run, he said.
A big talking point this election has been Labour’s proposed water tax, with the party’s water spokesman David Parker saying farmers could end up paying 2c per 1000 litres of irrigation water.
Labour Rangitikei candidate Heather Warren said the exact makeup of the tax was still up for negotiation, but the party was committed to working with farmers to find the right balance.
“We’ve always been open and honest that we’re looking at tax across the board.”
Tourism was doing great things for places like Taumarunui, but government needed to ensure there were enough people to service tourists, Warren said.
Labour’s plan for targeted regional immigration would make sure that happened if there were not enough locals to fill positions in either tourism or farming, she said.
“The idea is we should be servicing the community first…but if there is that requirement, we can target immigration there.”
Warren said the ‘us and them’ mentality between urban and rural dwellers around environmental issues needed to stop, so everyone could move towards the same goal through investment in research and development.
ACT candidate Neil Wilson said free trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership would open new markets for New Zealand producers.
“New Zealand is a trading nation that needs greater access to overseas markets. When two countries trade, the people of both countries are better off.”
Being a free market was essential to a good environment, he said.
The party would introduce a system where water rights were tradeable, giving owners greater incentives to conserve and not pollute water, he said.