Sharing knowledge, supporting each other and getting “best bang for buck” are the reasons farm owners Shannon and Ben Johnson joined the Lagmhor Westerfield catchment group.
The couple have been farming in the Ashburton District for 20 years, building up to a 3000-cow dairy operation.
Shannon says they’d “already done the big things” – improving irrigation and effluent-spreading efficiency, and optimising crop rotation.
They wanted to get into planting more native vegetation for stock shelter, aesthetics and to increase bird life.
When neighbour Darryl Oldham contacted them about a year ago to gauge their interest in joining a new catchment group, “that appealed to us”, Shannon says.
It’s early days for the group, with the Johnsons and three other farmers leading the charge.
“There’s another 30 or so who have shown interest but aren’t really hands-on at this stage,” Shannon says.
The group has joined the Mid Canterbury Catchment Collective (MCCC) and started monitoring groundwater, drains and creeks with borrowed nitrate-testing equipment.
“We’ve had a couple of drop-in sessions at Westerfield Hall where people could bring in water samples.”
Shannon and Ben are looking to tap into wider MCCC knowledge about what planting works best under pivot, and what they could plant in drains to filter nutrients and lessen the need for periodic cleaning out with diggers.
“It’s a learning curve for us all,” she says.
The Foothills Catchment Group, also under the MCCC umbrella, has been since 2018 and founding member David Acland, Federated Farmers Mid Canterbury president, says it now has 11 members.
A recent workshop featuring water scientist Dr Brent Painter drew nearly 40 farmers, who heard about the group’s work monitoring local creeks and streams to build baseline data that can inform farmers’ consent applications.
Acland strongly believes farmers need to feel a direct stake in a catchment group for their actions to be effective.
He likens it to when the requirement for health and safety plans first came out and many farmers succumbed to consultants’ pitches that it was complicated, and to hand it over to them.
“None of the plans worked because the farmer or the business owner hadn’t developed them. A consultant is good to make sure you have the fundamentals right, but you actually need to think about it and build it up yourself to take ownership of it,” Acland says.
“It’s the same with catchment groups. When you understand the environmental challenges in your own area, and work with your neighbours on a plan of action, you’ve got a better chance of minimising your impact on the environment or mitigating it to the best advantage for farming.”
Acland says David Parker created multiple headaches for the sector, but some farmers probably did need a nudge regarding practices.
“There’s no doubt we’ve seen a vast improvement in winter grazing practices over the last five or 10 years. That’s from pressure.
“It’s just that swing of the pendulum and making sure we come to rest in a place where those farmers who do need to up their game get a bit of heat, but the zealots who want everything pristine at any cost are batted away.”
For the Foothills group, building up good science and data “allows us to focus our investment, in both time and money” and offers the prospect of more farm activities becoming permitted when Farm Plans come out, Acland says.
One of the longer-running Canterbury catchment groups is Ellesmere Sustainable Agriculture Inc (ESAI), with more than 100 members.
Federated Farmers national arable chair David Birkett was a founder when it started more than 20 years ago as a water user group. He’s been a leading member through its progression as an irrigation society to its current status as kaitiaki of the district’s land and environment.
“That also demonstrates the progression we’ve had – from being a single-issue (water) group to now taking a whole-of-environment approach,” Birkett says.
ESAI has notched up a list of achievements in the last three years, including the launch of a pest trap ‘library’, and 60 restoration projections on members’ farms along 14kms of waterways, with more than 50,000 plants dug in.
Birkett says catchment groups are a great way to get farmers working together.
“You don’t want to let your neighbours down, and we have a record of good outcomes we can demonstrate to other farmers.
“You can achieve more working as a group. There are farms which have done it on their own, but most haven’t got anywhere near as good results, or are as cost-effective,” Birkett says.
“I’m not saying there aren’t any laggards out there anymore, but I think there has been a real shift in people’s attitudes and approach.”
ESAI’s focus over the next three years is to help the region’s farmers develop Integrated Farm Plans (IFP). The aim is to reduce the time, expense and anxiety involved in completing multiple audits and reports by having an IFP which covers off the evidence and documentation to meet all regulatory and industry requirements.
Birkett says monitoring and other work done by ESAI can inform Farm Environment Plans.
“For example, when it comes to renewing our consents – water is the big one for us – we can go to ECan as a group and say, ‘Look, there are 300 consents involved, how can we manage this in the most effective way for both of us?’
“We can demonstrate we’re not just paying lip service to water quality and so on. It makes it easier for them if we can have some common conditions across all those consents. When there are only tweaks needed, it can speed up the whole process.”
Federated Farmers, New Zealand’s leading independent rural advocacy organisation, has established a news and insights partnership with AgriHQ, the country’s leading rural publisher, to give the farmers of New Zealand a more informed, united and stronger voice. Feds news and commentary appears each week in its own section of the Farmers Weekly print edition and online.