Should you be worried about the Ministry's 'challenging' water reforms?

Effective and sustainable land and nutrient management is fundamental to rural business success and long term operational viability.

Last month, the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) launched a proposed Action Plan for Healthy Waterways in a move to improve New Zealand’s water quality.  This initiative balances the targeting of agricultural emissions against an equal need for urban dwellers to better recognising the intractable challenges all human activity has on the environment and join in the contribution to the improvement of waterways management.

As part of this initiative, the proposed Action Plan for Healthy Waterways sets out new requirements to improve on what they identify as risky farm practices and where needed requires farmers and growers of the food we consume to understand and manage environmental risks through farm environment management plans (FEP).

The MfE envisions the plans will be compulsory across all New Zealand regional councils; achieved by toughening on-site regulations and ensuring that all farms have an FEP in place by 2024. Unsurprisingly this has drawn a mixed reaction. Some farmers have condemned the idea as scary and costly, while others believe it’s a step in the right direction for the industry. 

What’s so challenging?

Most Regional Councils fully support the FEP process saying it will help farmers recognise risks and develop a bespoke solution that reflects their farm’s local climate, soil and type of on-farm activity.

However, the reforms will include focus on further stock exclusion from waterways and nutrient discharge limits. All of these initiatives have direct costs to implement. Plus, implications for possible reductions in land available for supply food to consumers.  If these become substantial the economics of food production will come under pressure; in a supply chain that is already constrained by slim margins. 

What’s in an FEP? 

In its simplest form, a Farm Environment Plan is a Farm Map showing the on-site areas of environmental risks and a framework of the good management practices that each farm intends to implement, with a clear understanding of how to identify, manage and prevent environmental risks.
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Stephen Macaulay, Chief Executive Institute of Primary Industry, is enthusiastic about the initiative but sounds caution about the roll-out.

In an interview with Farmers Weekly, Macaulay suggested that the shortage of skilled staff to develop the plans may hinder the MfE’s desired 2024 target. 

“Once you break it down there are anywhere between 150-200 farm environment planners needed to get through that work and they are just not out there.”

Macaulay backed this up with the following:

  • Presently, there are 28,000 properties nationally that will require a plan in New Zealand and;
  • 40-50 people in the field that are capable of writing plans.
  • Experts predict that the plan will take a minimum of 2-3 days depending on the size of and activity on the site
  • The Institute of Primary Industry Management estimates that there are ‘at least’ 150 skilled farm environment planners that will be required in the coming years.

Stephen McNally, WSP Opus Head of Primary Industries, agrees.

Stephen Macaulay makes many valid points on the need for skilled professionals in the development of FEPs, the tool our primary producers can use to assess good practice land and water management in our food production systems.”

McNally says there is an opportunity for people wanting to make a real difference in environmental indicators to adopt sound, science-based land management processes, and for new entrants to consider the tertiary courses available to them.

However, he suggests this would only be the start of a pathway that requires a multitude of experiences and extension skills to make FEPs effective.

“For complex operations with mixed land use enterprises in varying terrain, the analysis and planning process could take considerably longer than the 2-3 days suggested and requires a high degree of expertise coupled with pragmatism for a FEP to be effective.” he says.

"While there are a number of highly experienced and qualified practitioners already operating in the market the uptake of FEPs may have been stigmatized by some of the giveaway or low-cost versions of FEPs issued that haven't really added the value they could to the farm management toolbox.”

So, what’s the solution for today’s farmers for the successful roll-out of FEP’s by 2024?

“To make an FEP attractive for the farmer who may view significant management change quite conservatively, it must be pragmatic, effective and independent; for the FEP practitioner the market must reflect their investment in building and making available appropriate skills.” says McNally. 

Need FEP Support? 

Need FTP SUPPORT WSP OPUSWSP works in partnership with heartland businesses, farmers, growers and landowners to manage their natural resources, particularly water and soils, in a way where rural enterprise, communities, and environments are able to co-exist.

Our specialist team of agriculture professionals is made up of pragmatic, capable people who understand that rural businesses are a way of life, not just a job.

We work for a diverse range of primary sector clients, from small privately-owned enterprises and farms, through to large corporate entities, iwi trusts and government agencies.

Our regionally based team includes primary sector specialists, project managers, engineers, scientists and planners.  This team of respected industry specialists has been extensively involved in developing best practice guidelines within the primary industries, such as the IPENZ practice notes for DairyNZ and the New Zealand Irrigation Design Code of Practice.

We can provide you with extensive experience in managing diverse and technically challenging land-use projects from planning and design through to construction & operational performance improvement.

We offer assistance and consultation with:

  • Farm environment plans and Nutrient budgets;
  • Environmental plan auditing and pre-audit checks;
  • Resource consent planning;
  • Riparian management and Constructed wetlands;
  • Soil management and Erosion control and remediation; and
  • effluent pond non-invasive leakage testing service