Monday, April 22, 2024

Northland farmer project exceeds expectation

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More than 400 livestock farmers have been engaged in Northland’s Extension 350 programme, which is about one-quarter of the dairy, sheep and beef farms in the province.
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The meaningful engagement of Northland’s farmers in this pioneering project has exceeded the targeted 350, as the name signifies, and pleased the suite of partners.

They are Beef + Lamb New Zealand (B+LNZ), DairyNZ, the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), Northland Regional Council and Northland Inc, the regional development agency.

Fonterra has also contributed with farm environment plans (FEPs).

The five-year, $4 million to $5m project has 18 months to run and planners are turning to analysis of results and pondering what might follow.

Farmer-led and farmer-focused, the design of the project is 10 clusters running for three financial years in an overlapping timeline through the five years.

Group one, which had two dairy clusters and one sheep and beef, ran between mid-2017 and 2020; group two – two dairy and two sheep and beef – runs from 2018 to 2021; and group three (all dairy) from 2019 to 2022.

One rural professional in each cluster works with five target farmers, helped by mentor farmers, and as many associate farmers as can be attracted in the district.

Doing the maths, the target was an involvement of 35 farms per cluster, or 350 overall, and that number was recently exceeded, E350 project leader Luke Beehre says.

Target farmers, mentor farmers and consultants meet about 20 to 25 times during the three-and-a-half years, and target farmers are required to adopt plans, implement improvements and make regular written reports.

They also attend a Mark and Measure course on goal setting, and have whole farm assessments and FEPs drawn up with the relevant regional authority or industry-good body. 

Associates participate through regular emails, annual field days and associate meetings.

The overall objective is to harness the time-honoured power of the New Zealand farm discussion group, experienced farmers helping other farmers, to lift financial performance, along with farmer wellbeing and environmental sustainability.

Over 25% of Northland’s gross domestic product comes from farming, but per farm performances tend to be lower than in other parts of the country.

Beehre says as the participants neared the end of the large project it was apparent that the marketplace had changed between 2017 and 2021, but the needs and principles of the scheme held good.

Farmers learned best from each other how to boost the triple bottom line of financial, social and environment.

But how permanent are the changes achieved during the five years and can the Northland project be usefully repeated elsewhere in the country?

Some additional funding came in from MPI’s Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures to go deeper in evaluation of the E350 project and to make engagement with associate farmers better and more consistent.

Lincoln University and DairyNZ personnel were conducting qualitative interviews with randomly selected E350 participants to find out what had changed for them and how it is sustainable.

Scarlatti Ltd has been engaged for two years, including three months beyond the end of the project, to analyse all the numbers generated by E350.

“How do we capture the learning, avoid the hazards and calculate the return on investment?” Beehre asked.

He paid tribute to Gareth Baynham, formerly of AgFirst Northland, a farm consultant who was a key part of the team that helped conceive, launch and manage the project.

Baynham completed his sheep and beef farm cluster and began with a dairy cluster in the Bay of Islands before he and his family made a move to Southland last year.

“As with our other consultants, Gareth put in perhaps 20-30% more hours on pro-bono work and was a big loss to both the project and the region as a whole,” Beehre said.

Beehre says covid-19 has stretched out the term of some clusters from three to four years and introduced new ways of working with Zoom calls instead of kitchen table meetings.

E350 chair Ken Hames, both a beef and dairy farmer, says the degree of collaboration across industry, local and central government bodies in the sector was an outstanding feature of the project.

“As is often the case in the corporate world, new people come in and pick up what their colleagues have been doing,” Hames said.

“Collaboration and contributions have been well above any contractual obligations.

“Farmers often work alone, and this project has shown them new ways of collaborating around shared objectives in their own interest.

“It has also given them increased awareness of change in our sector and their part in it.”

Hames says the farmers involved had persisted through droughts, covid-19 and Mycoplasma bovis cases.

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