On Farm Support, the new advisory service in the Ministry of Primary Industries, is more than halfway staffed, with a planned workforce of over 80 budgeted for next year.
MPI divisional director and chief science adviser John Roche said he has 44 staff members in the OFS, including 10 regional managers.
Speaking to Farmers Weekly, Roche read the tallies of employees in North Island regions like a commander of battlefield orderlies deployed to pick up the pieces after this year’s storms, floods and landslides.
In the north as many as 20 rural advisers have spent much of their working time in the past six months on recovery from adverse weather events for farmers and orchardists in Hawke’s Bay, East Coast, Bay of Plenty, Northland, South Auckland, Coromandel, Wairarapa and Tararua.
For those in the field, empathy with those who have been displaced and flattened by Cyclone Gabrielle is the primary requirement.
Ideally, they are also from the regions in which they are hired and have large networks of rural contacts among whom trust has built up.
“I go home to a dry house and a warm bed every night, whereas there are rural people who still do not have that,” Roche said by way of framing the task at hand.
OFS advisers are guiding applicants for government relief, holding workshops on soil and silt movements and remediation options, and running working bees for fencing.
“We don’t want anyone to miss out because they didn’t know how to apply.”
The agency is not a gatekeeper for government funds but provides eyes and ears on the ground for other government departments needing assessments and recommendations.
Advice is also given to regional and local authorities on infrastructure rebuilds.
MPI has employees from other divisions on the ground throughout the East Coast and in Hawke’s Bay, working in forestry, rural communities and fisheries.
OFS is also proactively moving senior team members into regions threatened by more heavy rain and high winds, when forecast.
Some events are in conjunction with Beef + Lamb New Zealand (BLNZ) and DairyNZ, for example a slip recovery workshop in Ararua, Northland, which was attended by more than 60 landowners.
“Experts in their field talked about slip movements, fertility losses, fertiliser, grass seed and stabilisation.”
Roche attends as many interdisciplinary meetings as possible and said early apprehension over the establishment of OFS from other industry bodies and rural professionals has moderated.
“As they see what we do and how it is complementary and helpful, the mood has changed.”
An example has been the BLNZ Generation Next programme to boost computer literacy among young farmers.
Another work stream is integration of farm plans across various industry groups, regions and processing companies.
Harking back to the multidisciplinary structure of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF), OFS is working with Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) on making available specialist knowledge and resources to farmers and their advisers.
OFS has appointed two national specialists and has plans for five or six roles that extend the office of chief science adviser.
The first two are Justin France in Hawke’s Bay, a horticultural systems specialist, and Chris Arbuckle in Canterbury, for freshwater farm plans and environmental extension.
Roche is on the lookout for farm systems knowledge, economists and market analysts.
“I am keen to recreate that MAF-like flow around farmers, advisers and scientists in today’s communications, whether it be webinars or podcasts, or whatever.”
Specialist advisers will reach into the CRIs and help capture, for the benefit of farmers, all the good work done by scientists.
“And let us get the needs of farmers reflected back to the CRIs – the CRIs are really excited about this.
“I hope no one sees that as a threat, but that the government is paying for national specialist capability.
“We have a powerhouse of economic intelligence in the ministry [MPI] that farmers and growers would get value from.”
The internet has changed the delivery channels, Roche said, so the challenges is to “ensure that farmers get the right advice consistently”.