Friday, April 12, 2024

This is where you find ground-up change

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Want farmers to adapt? Look to catchment groups.
Catchment groups were formed from farmers and community members with a passion for their communities, for the land, their waterways.
Reading Time: 3 minutes

By Richard Kyte, CEO of Thriving Southland

When everyone is trying to push through their ideas, including regulations, too much pressure on farmers – or anyone for that matter – actually puts the brakes on. 

You have to slow down to speed up, and then you have to give people space and time to sit round a table to identify problems, opportunities and then solutions.  

More than a decade ago now, I facilitated a workshop given by Sue Yerex, a Taupō farmer who had been instrumental in working through the challenges faced by her community.

Sue’s message was clear. Change is coming, and you need to get on board the bus, be part of the discussion and have a voice as a community. Alternatively, you can stand in front of the bus as it picks up speed and cross your fingers. 

It was a direct message to farmers to get involved rather than be dictated to.

A group of Southland farmers took Sue’s words to heart and that was the beginning of the formation of a new wave of community catchment groups. 

By 2018, there were 18 catchment groups in Southland supported by sector organisations, the regional council, stakeholders and the New Zealand Landcare Trust. 

These catchment groups were formed from farmers and community members with a passion for their communities, for the land, their waterways and for wanting to make changes in a way that worked best for their communities. They had an independent voice, while having the ability to work as a collective and through a catchment group forum. 

From these groups, a cross-sectoral group of farmers and rural professionals decided to combine their efforts and look at funding in a different way. Thriving Southland was formed. 

It was time of huge policy noise, when farmers felt they were getting continuous flack, and pressure was coming on for change. Not a lot has changed in that respect. 

Farm systems may look simple from the outside but every single one is different, and each contains multiple complexities. Farmers, daily, have to juggle these complexities and constantly factor every part in their decision-making. Implementing one policy change and dealing with the implications can be hard enough, but when you have several simultaneous changes, it starts to create real challenges and risk to the existing business model. 

Our role at Thriving Southland is to give farmers and communities the tools and information they’ve asked for, connecting in the science and specialists, so they can make decisions on their individual pathway forward.

Not long after its formation and unfunded, the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) approached Thriving Southland about delivering on-the-ground programmes for farmers coping with policy changes. Thriving Southland was able to show that catchment groups are already doing this. 

MPI not only saw the value but also offered funding to be used to set up Thriving Southland as a formal organisation with a board, and for the funds to be administered to catchment groups through Thriving Southland.  

Even better, MPI agreed to let catchment groups have autonomy around their ideas and projects. Normally government funding is linked to an individual project and the model means you’re not catching the wave of farmer’s enthusiasm to access different types of funding when they need it. 

Thriving Southland integrates funding for farmers and connects catchment groups with sector groups, the regional council, iwi, stakeholders and Crown research institutes to work together and help deliver amazing projects and outcomes for the environment and community.  

Our model means people are supported to understand and be a part of the development of their land and their catchment. In less than two years, we have jumped to 35 catchment groups with 1300 farmers involved, covering 90% of the Southland productive area. 

For the first time we have whole communities, with dairy, deer, beef and sheep, crop and more, coming together and bringing a range of different expertise and experiences. 

People underestimate farmers’ ability to do big things and deliver ingenious solutions. This ground-up approach with support from Thriving Southland offers a far more effective way of bringing about change on our farms than any policy document ever could. 

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