Quality advice key to whether farmers sink or swim in environmental tsunami

A wave of unprecedented environmental compliance is crashing over New Zealand's primary industries and it's not just farmers who are working hard to stay afloat.

The implementation of farm environmental plans represents one of the most significant changes in how farmers think about and undertake their work. Solutions now and into the future will involve a fundamental rethink in the way we farm and manage our natural resources.

How the industry deals with those regulations and the associated scrutiny of urban New Zealand and international consumers will impact on the production and profitability of farming operations into the future, as well as farm property values.

As regional councils across the country roll out their land and water plans to meet requirements under the Government's National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management, those who have traditionally advised farmers are also having to rethink how to assist their clients in meeting new environmental regulations.

As farmers work hard to meet new obligations there is a strong cry from the rural community for more advisory capacity to assist them in developing and implementing farm environmental plans to reduce, or stabilise, their impact on water quality.

In the recent Stuff article Otago farmers search for advice to reduce their water impact (June 21, 2017), farmers were vocal about their need for advice to help them achieve their goals. This is not an isolated case and has been a concern widely shared by other farmers as well as regional councils from across the country.

Of pressing concern within the primary industry has been how do we grow and develop the advisory capacity needed to assist the farming community in the development and implementation of farm environmental plans to ensure they comply with regional council regulatory requirements, and, more importantly, at the scale and speed required.

The reality is that the market cannot respond by itself because it takes time and investment to build the body of advisors needed to meet the demand for farm management and environmental expertise so desperately needed at the moment in the primary industry.

As part of the endeavour to help prepare and upskill advisors and other rural professionals in areas of environmental compliance and nitrogen mitigation strategies, a number of certification schemes have been developed through the Transforming the Dairy Value Chain (TDVC) Primary Growth Partnership programme, led by industry partners DairyNZ and Fonterra and partnered by the Ministry for Primary Industries.

The purpose of the certification schemes is to provide the farming community, regulators and, by extension, our international markets, with assurance and confidence that individuals certified and recognised under the schemes are competent and have skills and knowledge in the provision of professional advice in the areas they are certified.

Hundreds of rural professionals have now benefited from this campaign of upskilling, in topics covering everything from nutrient and effluent management to business finance, animal welfare and human resources.

The New Zealand Institute of Primary Industry Management (NZIPIM) and DairyNZ, with the support of the TDVC programme, have been involved in the establishment of the Dairy Farm Systems Certification Scheme, which assesses and recognises the competency and knowledge base of individuals in dairy farm systems.

Under the scheme advisors are required to demonstrate proficiency in developing, with their clients, Whole Farm Assessments, an important tool in helping reduce the environmental impact on-farm, but also in exploring options to lift productivity and profit.

To help build advisory capacity, the scheme also provides junior farm systems advisors and individuals entering the profession with a pathway to build their knowledge base in dairy farm systems.

Early indications suggest that regional councils are recognising the legitimacy of the certification schemes by seeking individuals accredited under the Dairy Farm Systems Certification Scheme to develop or verify farm environment plans. This also reflects increasing emphasis around 'credentialisation' of individuals providing professional services to their clients, which we expect to see more of in the future.

Development of the certification schemes represents a significant achievement in building and improving the capability and skillset of the advisors providing professional advice within the dairy industry.

That capability needs to go hand-in-hand with our ability to build a sustainable supply of advisors with the expertise and knowledge to effectively service the farming community in meeting their growing obligations.

The key question for the industry, regulators and the Government is how do we scale up and resource more advisors within the rural profession to assist and work with farmers in meeting the wave of environmental compliance before them?

The TDVC programme has provided an important part of the answer - it has set the industry on the right path through the establishment of independent frameworks that recognise and upskill the knowledge base of advisors.

The ongoing challenge in meeting the growing expectations of regulators and our markets involves doing even more to support and grow the capacity of rural professionals, to ensure the future of the primary industry and the positive impact it has on the New Zealand economy.