Turi McFarlane 2018 Nuffield Scholar – Global Insights: Farm optimisation for sustainable productivity within environmental constraints

Right now, farmers throughout New Zealand are confronted by a need to implement change to improve multiple environmental outcomes while still returning a profit. 

Supporting them on this journey industry groups, regional councils and central government have developed the Good Farming Practice Action Plan for Water Quality, which acknowledges a range of Industry Agreed Good Management Practices. This has been useful in providing clarity and collaborative industry support for farmers around agreed standards. But I’ve found myself asking the question, “what happens when good practice is not good enough’? By that I mean, what happens when farmers who in good faith have invested in changes to improve the environment to be considered operating at Good Farming Practice, still exceed community agreed limits? My Nuffield research seeks to explore this issue, considering farm and land use optimisation at both farm and catchment scale. 

Farm Environment Plans (FEPs) are often hailed as a primary means to help farmers improve environmental outcomes – and I agree, they have a huge role to play in this space. A tool which farmers can take ownership of to drive tailored and farm specific actions targeting specific management objectives. 

However, I really think that we need to utilize FEPs better, and I fear that as they are linked to compliance with an increasingly dominant pass/fail focus around Good Management Practice, FEPs are losing more of the aspiration of a living document and becoming more a tick box for minimum standards. 

In the early stages of my individual travels I have been pulling apart different examples of Farm Environmental Planning in Canada, Australia and the UK, leaving me with several key insights – a few of which I’ve highlighted below: 

  • We need to be encouraging farmer innovation with FEPs and provide real market linked incentives for their success.  
  • FEPs should reflect a holistic farm assessment which considers environmental, financial, social, and cultural priorities.  
  • Environmental considerations should have a broad focus, more effectively incorporating aspects around native biodiversity, climate, and greenhouse gas emissions.  
  • We need to be able to more effectively recognise cultural aspects and functions to our landscapes such as mahinga kai. 
  • We should better inform FEPs with non-regulatory decision support tools considering the role and function of ecosystem services and land use optimisation at farm and catchment scale. 

To help set farmers up to succeed in the long term, we need to enable effective Farm Environment Planning – linked to market and informed by non-regulatory decision support tools and farm systems modelling.

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