Friday, December 8, 2023

An advisory service that flows both ways

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As well as helping farmers with policy directives, the MPI’s On Farm Support performs the very valuable service of telling Wellington what’s on farmers’ minds, Alan Emerson says.
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When the Ministry for Primary Industries announced it was reinstating a farm advisory service under the guise of On Farm Support, there were howls of protest. The issue appeared to be that there were adequate private sector advisers and the state shouldn’t be involved.

Generally speaking I prefer less state to more, but on the farm adviser saga I support MPI.

In addition I’d suggest the criticism is incorrect on fact. We don’t have enough farm advisers now. 

I can remember in the old days the majority of farm advisory services came from the then Ministry of Agriculture or Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. The Douglas-inspired Labour government of the mid 1980s effectively nuked the government advisory service under the spurious argument that the state had no role in farm advisory services.

While that’s fine from a theoretical point of view, as much of the Douglas projects were, it totally ignores the practicality of the information flow between the farmer and central government.

Farmers are suffering for that on several fronts.

They are suffering because an army of civil servants in Wellington have absolutely no idea of the practicalities of life on the farm. Pre advisers, neither did MPI. 

An example of the MPI issue was the Mycoplasma bovis incursion. Officials were energetically travelling around farms making, at times, ridiculous demands. It is to the credit of both MPI and Federated Farmers that a team approach was adopted and an additional credit to MPI that it figured it needed practical people on the ground to stop the problem happening again.

To me that is a major step. The M bovis incursion was massive and it is thanks to many, from Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor down, that it is under control – but it took time as it was being run from Wellington.

Now incursions and catastrophes, be they biosecurity or climate events, can be handled on the ground by qualified people who know the area. That is a far better way of doing business.

The wider civil service’s ignorance of practical life on the farm is also considerable. We can all think of ridiculously stupid or impractical advice or legislation that has come out of the Ministry for the Environment, the Environmental Protection Authority, Immigration NZ, Worksafe and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

While MPI advisers can’t reset the wholesale stupidity of all of the government departments, they can help temper it. MPI in Wellington will know the reaction of farmers throughout the country and in real time. It can also get information to farmers quickly and without fuss.

Dr John Roche is the director of the new on-farm support team as well as being MPI’s chief science adviser. He is committed to developing a collegiate approach involving different sectors of our primary industries.

He points out that in the old days government farm advisers and scientists worked together, often from the same office.

With the nuking of advisers plus the compartmentalising of science with the Crown Research Institutes, that collaboration hasn’t occurred.

Roche has visited all of our research establishments in an effort to restore that dialogue. He’s confident he can. In addition he points out that MPI has access to international developments that can be readily communicated to farmers. 

We’re not talking massive resources. There are 10 regional managers, 33 regional advisers and two specialist advisers.

The budget for four years is just $55 million.

The team already has runs on the board from the Hawke’s Bay cyclones, Tararua floods and the Northland severe climate event.

Roche is passionate about the quality of his team and the direction they’re taking.

“We don’t have enough farm advisers in NZ now and half are aged over 50. In addition, 25-30% of farmers aren’t connected to any advisers or support staff now. They need to be. 

“Our aim is to support farmers and growers to be the best in the world. For the primary sector to be more profitable and sustainable into the future. We have the calibre of people to do just that.”

Another pleasing feature of the On Farm Support initiative is the new scholarship programme to encourage young people into agriculture.

It’s taken nearly 30 years but I’m pleased we now have a provincially based, government-funded farm advisory service that can get pertinent information to farmers quickly and from farmers to the government at the same speed.

Those who don’t agree with me should ask themselves a simple question: Would they prefer an MPI-employed Lincoln-trained farm adviser who understands agriculture and farmers, can shear a sheep and fix a fence, both advising the government and bringing timely information to farmers? 

Or would they prefer the previous position of government-employed eco-warriors with obscure degrees from the likes of Victoria University who have never left town and wouldn’t know a sheep from a goat?

I know where I stand.

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