An inaccurate draft proposal had the good people of South Canterbury up in arms. Frances Coles reports.

We’ve had a wee storm in a teacup happening in our neck of the woods recently, with the Timaru District making the front page in spectacular yet negative fashion.

It was all kicked off a couple of weeks ago by the release of the Timaru District Council’s Draft District Plan, which seemed to imply that the mere act of farming animals – particularly dairy cows – was an intensive activity which needed all sorts of regulations.

To be honest, it sounded too ridiculous to be true at first glance, but attention was being directed to it by people I trust and respect, so I started to look a little more closely at the specifics.

In the interests of research on which to base an educated opinion, I conducted some quick ‘back-of-the-envelope’ colouring on one of our farm maps to get an idea of exactly how much of our home farm would need to have animals excluded if the proposed regulations were to be applied.

You’ll see from the photograph of my masterpiece that the prescribed set back of 100 metres from road and internal boundaries and 400m from residential units on adjoining sites was going to rapidly convert us from dairy farmers to cropping farmers or some other alternative and have serious repercussions on our bottom line. The mere existence of neighbours along our boundary was going to have a particularly dire effect on the bottom part of the farm!

On the same day I did this, a farming newspaper ran a front page story about the dangerous precedent this district plan was setting for other councils around the country, and this was in due course shared in various places on social media. It was like a red rag to a bull for all the keyboard warriors of the district and the storm was in full force.

Trusting my gut instinct that the idea seemed too ridiculous to be true, I held off joining the mob who were no doubt all pounding out an online submission expressing their virtuous rage at the council’s presumption that even the sight of farm animals in a rural setting was offensive to neighbours and passers-by.

Sure enough, the level-headed communications manager from the Timaru District Council set about allaying people’s fears and reminding everyone that the plan was just a draft.

A few days later this was followed by an email to local members of Federated Farmers:

“To put people’s minds at ease, we can confirm Timaru District Council has been in touch and have stated that the setback for stock was an error on their behalf and will not be in the final draft plan. “

And with that the storm seemed to subside, the clouds parted and the sunshine could be glimpsed again over the verdant green pastures of South Canterbury.

But I still had a feeling of unease – a real sense of disappointment that it was farming news media, not urban-based mainstream media that had beaten this whole thing up in the first place.

This year has hardly been the year many hoped it would be as they optimistically sipped on their celebratory New Years’ beverage. Many farmers are under the pump already for various reasons, even if it’s just that this is traditionally the busiest time of year for many. So they don’t need the news outlets charged with championing their cause to be the very ones adding unnecessary mental load about the often-trumpeted urban-rural divide and tidal wave of compliance bearing down on them.

Keep the stories upbeat – inspire farmers to believe in themselves and their neighbours – and at the very least provide some balanced journalism! Back when I was a reporter it was simply considered good practice to have both sides of the argument offered the opportunity to speak their piece – a privilege it seems the TDC was denied in this case.

Here’s to a calmer, more considered 2021 for all – cheers!