Meet Chris Sutton : Rerewhakaaitu Farmer and Rural Advocate

Meet Chris Sutton : Rerewhakaaitu Farmer and Rural Advocate


Chris Sutton is no stranger to Rotorua’s political and environmental scene. Chris is one of the new Rotorua District Rural Community Board members and has been involved in Project Rerewhakaaitu for over 10 years. He was also a member of the Land Use Futures Board, past Provincial President of Rotorua/Taupo Federated Farmers and national Vice Chairman of the Federated Farmers Dairy Section.

Chris and Rosemary Sutton have farmed 105 ha in Rerewhakaaitu for 23 years.  Up until three years ago they were milking 260 cows, today they  fatten heifers and steers. Chris and Rosemary are thoroughly enjoying the change in stock class within the new farm system.

Project Rerewhaikaaitu is an environmental success story based on local farmers taking the initiative with farm plans and mitigation trials, as opposed to having their farm practices regulated by council. In November 2015 the Project evolved into an Incorporated Society of which Chris is now Chairman. The Society’s expanded coverage now includes the greater Waimangu/Rerewhakaaitu Communities, Okaro, Rotomahana & Rerewhakaaitu Lakes and the upper Western Rangitaiki River catchment.

Lake Okaro has bettered its TLI target (5.0) for three years running due to some terrific work by catchment farmers and Bay of Plenty Regional Council – this result needs promoting! The Trophic Level Index (TLI) is a number used to indicate the health of lakes in New Zealand. As a general rule of thumb the lower the TLI number, the better the water quality in the lake.

Lake Rerewhakaaitu has also met its TLI target (3.6) but it can vary up and down with the lake level and climatic conditions. Chris says ‘Mother Nature is what it is and we can only do what we can. Our target TLI is the centre of this cycle’.

Most water entering Lake Rerewhakaaitu is surface runoff from farmland. Our target nutrient has been P (phosphorous) but as Overseer is strong on recording nitrogen this has ended up as a default target with the accompanying risk. ‘We strongly believe that if farmers are involved in the process then farmers will own the solution. By process I mean understanding the science and the options’ says Chris.

Project Rerewhakaaitu Inc. is now working closely with BOPRC to implement our responsibilities under the Tarawera Lakes Restoration Plan. While some farmers are within the Inner Catchment of Lake Tarawera, many are in the Outer Catchment. The group is also involved in the Rangitaiki River catchment process.

Actions 2 & 4 of the Tarawera Lakes Restoration Plan state all agricultural properties are to have Environmental Management Plans by 2020. The farmers have agreed to their Committee’s recommendation to use the Industry templates i.e. DairyNZ’s Sustainable Milk Plan & Beef+Lamb NZ’s Land and Environment Plan. If approved, these Actions could be completed three years early. In 2017 we will start on Action 5 with changes to the Water & Land Plan regarding land use change and capping nutrients. So the fun never ends.

Chris has been following the nutrient rules issue in Lake Rotorua and makes three points:

  1. We all have rights in New Zealand and if a citizen’s rights are limited by new ‘public good’ rules then the citizen should be compensated.
  2. Any rules that don’t protect a nation’s ability to utilise its natural resource risks economic failure. Land use capability must be the cornerstone of any nutrient rule changes.

All the science must be considered. An example of this is in 2003 when Prof David Hamilton was asked which nutrient should we focus on in Lake Rotorua, nitrogen or phosphorous? He replied ‘both!’ By pursuing only one nutrient the risk is too great.