The Ministry for Primary Industries is halfway through recruitment to its contentious On Farm Support team, and some of the new farm advisers have jumped into the deep end after Cyclone Gabrielle.
MPI divisional director and chief science adviser John Roche said the new East Coast team members along with three from Bay of Plenty and four brought in from the South Island began their roles with cyclone recovery work.
They assessed the needs and fed these back to central government, emergency management response and the regional councils.
“Really pragmatic individuals connected with landowners and collected good intelligence to be able to build a recovery framework,” Roche said.
He has appointed 41 people to On Farm Support Teams so far, including regional managers in 10 locations.
These are Northland, Waikato and Coromandel, Bay of Plenty, Taranaki, East Coast, central and southern North Island, northern and western South Island, Canterbury, Otago and Southland.
MPI’s briefing paper for the new regional service says the aim is to have 50 staff members in place by March, growing to 90 nationwide over time.
The budget is $55 million over four years.
Roche said the remuneration levels are similar to those in the private and industry-good workforces of rural professionals and he is confident MPI is not paying above the board.
He also addressed concerns that MPI will poach privately employed farm advisers, saying that a majority of the employees are new to this work.
“First and foremost, they have empathy for the primary sector and have agricultural qualifications or experience but were not in advisory services in the private sector.
“I have told the private sector that the country is short of farm advisers overall and we are growing the workforce.”
Roche has visited the regions and talked with rural professionals and the NZ Institute of Primary Industry Management to allay concerns.
Within the budget, MPI has included part funding for new entrants into private sector advisory services.
It will recruit and train younger farm advisers who will in time seek private positions.
Roche said On Farm Support is not tasked with new and existing national MPI campaigns as its work will vary from region to region.
“Different regions will have different challenges and existing support networks.”
Consultation with the existing advisory services will identify the gaps where MPI On Farm Support can help.
NZ’s food-exporting success is built on strong relationships between scientists, advisers and farmers, he said, and MPI On Farm Support will be a conduit within the sector.
“This is not about an operational plan from Wellington but establishing regional teams and having them see where we can be of help.”
Roche said surveys show 25% to 40% of farmers and growers do not seek advice at present, either from private consultants or industry bodies like DairyNZ and Beef + Lamb NZ – “yet all primary producers have to meet obligations and climate changes coming at them”.
“We believe we have both an opportunity and an obligation to help the harder-to-reach farmers.
“When the MAF Advisory Service was privatised in the 1980s, central government lost its eyes and ears on the ground.
“On Farm Support will have input to policy development and the ability to ground-truth proposed regulations.
“Our people will know what requirements are coming down from the markets and talk with farmers before it becomes a blunt discussion.”
Roche spoke at the 35th annual FLRC Workshop at Massey University in February on the practical and philosophical base for his MPI work.
“The challenge ahead of food production is to produce as much in the next 30 years as was produced in the past 2000 years,” he said.
“Consumers want natural foods, without a doubt. They also want a correct balance between economic growth and environmental sustainability.”
Roche said alternatives to milk and meat are not gaining ground but effectively replacing themselves with new products – soy with almond, almond with oat and so on.
Alternatives are growing, but off a small base compared with the standard commodities.
Compliance with regulations arises out of what global customers and New Zealanders are demanding of farmers.
“We have faced headwinds before and we are still here and it will be the same in the future.
“We can meet our obligations, maintain our profitable businesses and continue to enjoy what we do.”
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