22 July 2016
by Fleur Anderson

Frogs spawn farmer's green tape nightmare

Laughing Tree Frog

It was during a post-flood inspection of his 21,689 hectare property on Queensland's Macintyre River with his zoologist neighbour that crop farmer John Norman spotted something in the water that looked like "it had come out of someone's nose".

In fact it was frogs' spawn, and with the increase of frogs came an increase in the local water bird population.

Mr Norman, whose family have farmed in the Goondiwindi area for the past 100 years, saw an opportunity to improve the local environment by adding water between his own farms to the natural water system before the water dried up and the frogs and birds disappeared.

Timing was critical but what followed was six weeks of bureaucratic wrangling with multiple government agencies and hundreds of thousands of dollars in earthworks, consultations, water testing and environmental reporting.

The farmer's experience of trying to do the right thing by the environment but being thwarted by agricultural regulations is a case study in a Productivity Commission report into agricultural "green" tape released on Thursday.

The report recommends bureaucratic regulation surrounding native vegetation, animal welfare and foreign investment needs to be reduced so it is easier for farmers to do business.

The commission heard that native vegetation and biodiversity conservation regulations actually discouraged or prohibited landholders from adopting practices that benefit the environment.

Mr Norman, who once farmed cotton but now grows chickpeas for export to India on 15,780 hectares of cultivated dryland, had to convince an environmental authority of the merits of the proposal, hire his zoologist friend at his own expense to monitor bird species, design the water within a regional irrigation management plan and label the whole exercise a "pilot" so it did not set a precedent that would commit government agencies to similar projects.

After building a $250,000 pipeline under a main road to address erosion concerns and a temporary weir, the water flowed at last.

Unfortunately it was too late to make a significant impact on the local wetlands Mr Norman had hoped to preserve.

"Yes, the frogs had died," Mr Norman said.

That was three years ago and Mr Norman said although all the government bureaucrats and officials were well-intentioned and encouraged his plan, the biggest impediment to the success of his project was delays caused by red tape.

Mr Norman, who has studied business at Harvard University and was awarded the 2010 Australian Cotton Farmer of the Year, would like to try again to exploit the "happy accident" of heavy rainfall to encourage local wildlife but the red tape has not got any easier to navigate.

"It's frustrating," he said.

"They just need to take a chance on us to be innovative and agile because we're the ones who have taken the largest risk.

"Crikey, just open it up, give us a crack, let us have a go and give us the legislation that let's us be innovative."

Cotton Australia's general manager, Michael Murray, said most growers realised agricultural regulations were made with the best of intentions but in practice become "overly burdensome" for farmers to run a business efficiently.

He said future projects like Mr Norman's wetlands plan could become easier after the Queensland government agreed to consider introducing an industry code of practice for the release of stored water for environmental outcomes.

If the code becomes reality it could become easier for farmers to make decisions like Mr Norman's to release their own water for the benefit of the local environment.