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The Government’s proposed freshwater policy was the main concern raised by North Otago farmers at last week’s meeting with National Party agriculture spokesman Todd Muller.

Twenty people attended the gathering at Papakaio, where Mr Muller was accompanied by Waitaki MP Jacqui Dean. They also held meetings in Waimate and Fairlie to discuss rural issues in the electorate.

Mr Muller said farmers’ response to the Government’s water plans was “at a scale that’s taken their breath away”.

He urged farmers to band together in their fight to retain land uses and seek catchment-based water standards.

North Otago Irrigation Company chairman Matt Ross said he believed the freshwater submission process would be collaborative and articulate, but asked when objectors would get their chance to follow up – there was no select committee stage for the legislation.

“This is going to cut rural New Zealand off at the knees,” Mr Ross said.

Mr Muller recommended asking the Ministry for the Environment, regional councils and MPs for updates.

“Engage with the new regional council that’s just been elected.

“This is eye-watering for them.

“There’s a lot here we can corral in terms of pressure. We need a fundamental campaign to get these guys to check and change. I’m confident there will be buckling.”

North Otago Irrigation Company chief executive Andrew Rodwell said the proposed freshwater policy could interfere with irrigation schemes that were still selling the balance of their available shares. His company had 10% unsold.

He also feared it would stifle the uptake of technology that would apply water more efficiently, allowing new land uses and environmental gains.

Farmer Alan Gibson asked whether overseas markets were at risk without major improvements to our water.

Mr Muller said producers of animal protein needed to give its provenance, and it had to be world-class.

But he did not believe the rest of the world viewed New Zealand as polluted.

“[Environment Minister David] Parker is dressing up climate change and water in the language of catastrophe.

“It works for his policy of appealing to urban middle New Zealand.”

When North Otago farmer Marty McCone asked what a National government would do to change Labour’s moves, Mr Muller said it would signal a return to its previous policy statement on freshwater – but with a caveat.

“There’s a political debate to be had. It will come at some political cost.

“I think there will be quite a lot of change yet between what’s been said and what happens.”

Federated Farmers North Otago president Simon Williamson raised the possibility of young people being able to buy shares in Landcorp property that could be split into economic units.

Mr Muller said that would only benefit “a singular subset”. He would rather find a model that could be used for the enduring benefit of New Zealand farming, perhaps trialling responses to climate change.

Mr Williamson also said it was difficult getting Ngai Tahu agreement to proposals in the Mackenzie Basin, where he farms Glenbrook Station.

Mr Muller said that was “just the reality of having to operate as a farmer today”.

“This country will continue to grapple and wrestle with what the Treaty [of Waitangi] means today. It won’t go away.

“It is who we are as a country. At one level, we’re miles ahead of other countries.

“I’m ultimately optimistic about this.”

Some farmers at the meeting believed it was time for New Zealand to start debating the use of genetically modified plants that could do away with the need for sprays and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Mr Muller agreed that the time was “getting closer”.