Navigating constraints: Primary producers coping in changing contexts.

Executive Summary

This report investigates the wide variety of ways that producers (farmers and fishers) have coped with constraints. These constraints include industry restructure, market pressures and environmental restrictions. How environmental limits have been navigated, and even utilised, is a major focus of the report since this is a current issue for New Zealand (NZ) farmers. In looking at the overseas stories and in ‘bringing it home’ to the experience of farmers in the Lake Rotorua catchment, the report explores what producers have done, how they have thought and what may be useful to them in the future.

Farming is an interaction between the individual farmer (often with family), the physical features of the farm and the wider environment it operates in. Because of the complex and adaptive nature of this farming system, a useful way of framing this report has been to use ‘resilience thinking’. Resilience is defined as a system’s capacity to respond effectively to change. Resilience thinking assumes that change is normal not unusual, and considers the adaptive capacity of the people involved with the farm system. It has also provided a useful model of responses to change–strategies of Exploit, Absorb, Adjust or Transform (EAAT) (Darnhofer et al. ,2010b). Resilience thinking allows us to view farming as a dynamic system that is shaped and re-shaped by changing contexts.

Overseas producers that have successfully coped with constraints seem to accept this inevitability of change, and are anticipating what that might mean for them as far as they can. Two major strategies for coping with a gradual ‘expected’ change pressure, such as environmental limits, are Exploit or Adjust. The first strategy is Exploit where the farm takes advantages of successful existing activities to compensate for the stress in other aspects, – adaptation is thus marginal. Farmers that successfully respond with Exploit often drive efficiency in their operation and/or increase scale; they have a clear understanding of what their resources are and how best to use them. The second strategy is Adjust. Here the disturbance requires more adaptation of farming – maybe new production methods, new products, on-farm processing, etc. Both Exploit and Adjust farming strategies employ excellent business management, have a range of networks from which to glean new ideas and consciously adapt farming practices to reduce impact on the environment (and often to otherwise respect what non-farming people consider important). Farmers who have successfully made more adaptations in their farming business have experimented or diversified – both to test options and to provide a ‘broader base’ to their business. These farmers also recognise the importance of their own relational skills. Final aspects of successful adaptation using an Adjust strategy involve farmers choosing actions that mesh well with their values and that in some way satisfy their identity as a farmer. This report includes many quotes and two farmer case studies that showcase these elements. Strategies for sudden change are Absorb and Transform – these parallel Expoit and Adjust, with Absorb coping with the crisis out of the farm system’s capacity to buffer shocks (eg using equity) and Transform responding to the shock with major changes to the farm activities. They are not considered in depth as they do not relate so well to environmental limits. Rotorua farmers have been working with regulatory limits to achieve water quality outcomes for over 10 years. However now they face a ‘step change ’ from staying within a nutrient cap to making significant nutrient loss reductions. While they have so far generally been able to respond with the marginal changes of Exploit, these farmers may soon need to adapt further and Adjust. A survey of Rotorua farmers shows that there is significant scope to support how New Zealand farmers cope with environmental limits.

Outside influences are most helpful with actions taken alongside their farm businesses (e.g. learning about the environmental issue, or increasing their involvement with community or industry groups). Both ‘thinking’ (e.g. considering different future possibilities for their farm) and actions within the farm business (e.g. experimenting with farm management strategies) also have significant influence by an outside person/experience. Rotorua farmer responses to open ended survey questions pointed strongly to: their need for confidence in the wider change process; a desire for multidisciplinary solutions; the deep value of interaction with others; an d the contribution of personal resilience factors to how they think about change.

The main findings of this project come from aligning overseas experiences with the responses from Rotorua farmers, which reveals several areas that require action in order to better support farmers to live with and shape change. These are listed below.

Social/situation enabling

  • Develop a strategy for understanding and fulfilling farming’s social licence to operate.
  • Support farmer confidence in the processes of achieving environmental outcomes.
  • Initiate reflection to reexamine farming beliefs and re-form meaning and identity.

Mind-set enabling

  • Train rural professionals to lead the way with the skills and language of adaptation, and to focus on the process of making choices in their work with farmers.
  • Widely explore what diversity may mean in NZ agriculture settings.
  • Develop a self-evaluation process for farmers to identify strengths and opportunities in their farming ‘change-ability’.

Relational enabling

  • Facilitate farmers entering into a multidimensional web of networks, which may have to utilise a range of means.
  • Creatively work relational skill development into more than human resource (HR) activities.

Functional enabling

  • Continue to build business, technology and systems understanding to provide a robust base for adaptation and a ‘library of innovation options’.
  • Work with the technology sectors that provide tools that will support NZ agribusinesses’ ability to retain their social licence to operate and remain profitable.

Industry transformation

  • Integrate the above and lead industry adaptation that answers society’s desires and thus protects future competitiveness.

Readers of this report will thus gain insight into the wide variety of ways that producers have coped with constraints and the experience and desires of NZ farmers now coping with environmental limits. Overall, this report signposts current opportunities to support adaptive and resilient farming in a changing New Zealand context.

Navigating Constraints: Primary producers coping in changing contexts – Sharon Morrell

Our programmes work in partnership with some of New Zealand’s leading agribusiness organisations – click here for more.​