Thursday, August 18, 2022

Farming in a changing world: lessons from E350

The five-year extension programme has given valuable insights into the strategies farmers need to thrive in an environment subject to such frequent and deep changes.
The five-year E350 extension programme in Northland is being evaluated by DairyNZ scientist Callum Eastwood. Photo: Supplied

Robustness, adaptability and sometimes a willingness to transform their farm systems are the qualities farmers need in a sector that increasingly requires them to be resilient.

So says DairyNZ scientist Callum Eastwood, who has been working with Jorie Knook of Lincoln University and consultancy firm Scarlatti to evaluate the impact of Northland’s E350 large extension programme.

This has involved interviewing farmers who were involved – target farmers, their mentors, farm consultants and associate farmers.

“What have we learnt about on-farm change and resilience?” Eastwood asked rural professionals attending an environmental sustainability workshop put on by Northland Inc.

Farmers face many demands for change, in areas such as nutrient management, greenhouse gas emissions, animal welfare, maintaining social licence, general compliance and recurring seasonal challenges, he said.

“Much of the worry associated with these changes is due to uncertainty as to what will be policy changes and how consequences might work out on farm,” said Eastwood, who is also based at Lincoln and focuses on farm systems research, innovation and use of new technologies in dairy workplaces.

“Some external factors can clash with your own internal values about what it means to be a good farmer. It is difficult to make significant changes which don’t align with your values.”

E350 included the aim of building farmer resilience to cope, either by managing stress and/or making changes.

Resilience in this context would mean that the farm system can provide the needed functions in the face of increasingly complex shocks and stresses. It can involve having a farm that is robust, adaptable, or is able to be transformed.

However, a farmer’s stage of career, farm business context and capital structure can vary and have a large bearing on the state of resilience.

Farmers and their advisors can use this tool to gauge their stages of resilience. Design by Lucia Wang, Scarlatti 

The first level of resilience relates to farm system robustness, that is its ability to withstand pressures like covid or a drought without visible change. This can be thought of as a farm business’s ability to flex and then return to its original state.

The second type of resilience in a farm business is the ability to adapt and implement some minor changes.

Involvement in the E350 programme helped many farmers increase their robustness and adaptability, Eastwood said.

A third aspect of resilience is transformability, or large-scale change to the farm system, and was beyond the scope of most farms in the E350 programme. 

Robustness can involve creating a buffer in farm finances by reducing debt, or within farm systems by having more conserved feed on hand, and in business networks by enhancing social connections and farmer wellbeing.

“In E350 we saw examples of farmers and mentors responding to the pressures by changing their livestock classes and numbers, growing more supplementary feed, and planning for the effects of drought.

“A feature of E350 was building networks that farmers could use when times get tough.

“Another feature and a big success of E350 was increased wellbeing of participants – to be able to take time out, bring in relief workers, and think through the stressors.”

Eastwood also noted the increased involvement of farming partners who have attended Mark and Measure courses, were included in talks with accountants, were more active in goal and succession planning, and who joined new networks, such as Dairy Women’s Network.

“Many farmers gained confidence from knowing their partners were on the same page,” he said.

“Sitting down and talking about goals was a way of bringing the team together and building robustness in the system.”

Wellbeing discussions require conversational skills that can be difficult for many of us, Eastwood said.

Target farmers were asked to fill out their own wellbeing score on a regular basis and this became a conversational starter with their mentors and consultants.

Farmers also learnt to celebrate success, such as the end of a good dairy season, and to ask after the wellbeing of their employees.

Adaptability begins with formalised goals and consideration of separate visions before planning.

The main drivers for adaptation are increased profitability and productivity.

In the environmental areas, achieving compliance is the initial impetus and Eastwood noted that involvement with the regional council is often positively enhanced in the process.

Target farmers all spoke highly of the mentors involved, and trusted relationships were built thanks to the mentors’ real-world experiences, credibility and ability to bring different ideas.

They also enjoyed interaction with other target farmers. Being involved in E350 gave them a lot in common and provided a good starting point for conversations.

Networks were enhanced with mentors, consultants, accountants, rural bankers and livestock agents.

With the E350 programme now ending, a key question is how farmers build and maintain these networks without the machinery of the E350 programme. 

The lessons for future extension programmes will be compiled by Scarlatti in its evaluation report, due to be finalised in September.

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