Saturday, December 2, 2023

Big shortage of farm planners

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A dire shortage of assessors capable of completing farm environment plans looms under the Government’s proposed freshwater quality standards.
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Institute of Primary Industry Management estimates are at least 150 skilled farm environment planners will be required in coming years as the plans become mandatory.

There are 28,000 properties nationally that will require a plan, institute chief executive Stephen Macaulay said.

“And once you break it down there are anywhere between 150-200 farm environment planners needed to get through that work and they are just not out there.”

His estimate is on the conservative side, given it assumes the planners will be engaged full time in writing plans, something that is unlikely.

So there will have to be a significant shift in numbers over the next two to five years for any effective implementation of plans. 

He believes there might be 40-50 people in the field today capable of writing plans. 

However, there is no formal farm environment plant qualification. One is being established in conjunction with the Government.

“But those people are doing farm environment plans as part of their overall business. It is not their sole business so there’s a definite gap out there.”

A recent Local Government New Zealand report on the implications estimates Southland alone will need another 34 employees capable of doing plans and 26 more staff will be needed to deliver back office and administrative support.

That number will peak in 2024 when 1440 plans will have to be completed.

Costs per farm are estimated at about $5200 and plans will take at least two days to do.

Those figures were based on Bay of Plenty Regional Council experience in the Rotorua catchment, where seven staff can do 300 plans a year, about one staff member per 40 farms.

Auditing the Southland plans every three years is estimated to cost $3700 a pop.

But Macaulay said the shortage will be even more dire when allowing for the auditors required to assess farm compliance.

“If you look across 28,000 farms an audit could take two days to do. We estimate you would need 120 auditors on top of the planners to do that job.”

Auditing the plans will require suitable staff to not only have an understanding of farm systems but to have also completed an internationally recognised auditing assessment.

And it remains unclear whether the auditors will be employed directly by regional councils or be contracted. 

Environment Canterbury uses accredited independent auditors for its farm plans.

Even in the absence of a formal qualification the planners still face some stringent requirements. 

After completing a degree in an aspect of agriculture and with three years’ experience in the industry they are required to complete Massey University’s advanced nutrient management course followed by assessment in the field of their core competency then pass a final exam.

Macaulay said doing plans might give young graduates a foot in the agri sector door.

“They might start in terms of getting a portfolio established of plans and from there it becomes an opportunity to build a career in a rural profession.”

It is possible farmers who share a catchments or even irrigation scheme might get together in working groups to write plans. 

However, when consents to farm are required things get complicated and might require other experts like freshwater ecologists to be involved.

The LGNZ report said the shortage of staff in the early stages might result in price hikes for plans, placing a burden on farming communities.

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