Sound environmental farm management needn’t cause grief

It's been two years since Marv Pangborn had his dairy farms and support properties near Rakaia audited by an independent farm environment plan auditor, and the outcome of today will affect his farming business going forward.

At his last audit, Marv received two B grades and one A grade for his Selwyn-based farms. The audit showed he needed to check the efficiency of all irrigation systems, improve effluent storage and pond management, and undertake a quantitative assessment of the soil moisture status on the run off block to meet an A grade standard.

With the goal of achieving three A grades this year, Marv had some work to do.

Under the Canterbury Land and Water Regional Plan, all consented farms in Canterbury are required to have a farm environment plan (FEP) which identifies on farm risks and sets out how the farm is going to manage its environmental impact.

All FEPs must be audited by an independent auditor and the results are reported to Environment Canterbury or an irrigation scheme as part of its consent conditions. Farms achieving a C or D grade are considered non-compliant and are required to be audited more frequently, while farms achieving an A or B grade are compliant and are audited once every two to four years depending on consent conditions.

Marv admits the change to farming practices had been a long time coming. While he had tried to pre-empt some of the changes, he quickly realised there was a lot more he needed to do.

"The writing was on the wall and we foresaw some of the problems we needed to address but not all of them.

"Someone told me once it was like the five stages of grief - you deny it, you don't want to do it; then you get angry, and then finally you get to the point where you say, okay how am I going to do this?

"I used to walk a lot back then and when I walked, I'd be thinking about what we can do, how do we change this whole system to meet these new standards. It meant doing a lot of new things."

Farm auditors help take the pain out of compliance checks

Farm auditor Alison van Polanen first met Marv two years ago and is revisiting his farms to understand what changes to infrastructure and management have been made since his last audit.

“Our role is to understand the parameters each farm operates within and assess its progress towards meeting good management practices. We do this through a combination of discussions, reviewing records and an on-farm assessment.

Our role is not to advise farmers of solutions, but rather to identify when something isn’t meeting good management practice. If a farmer seeks further clarification we can provide examples of what and how we have seen other farmers achieving good management practice, but it’s the farmer determines what is appropriate and relevant for their farm system,” Alison says.

Farm auditing was a natural move for Alison.

Having grown up on farms and having the relevant qualifications as well as working in the renewable energy and irrigation sectors, establishing her own agri-environmental business made sense.

"I was really interested in working with farmers and how they put things into practice on farm. A lot of farmers find the rules and regulatory requirements unfamiliar and this creates nervousness. If we can make the audit process a comfortable experience where learning can occur hopefully farmers can make the most of the process."
Upgraded effluent pond

Becoming a certified farm auditor is not an easy process though.

Alison had to complete the relevant nutrient management qualifications and be certified through Environment Canterbury. This certification involved an assessor attending two audits of different farms systems with Alison and reviewing her process and reporting. Alison now submits two audit reports annually and is now shadowed by an Environment Canterbury staff member once a year to ensure her audits and reporting are meeting the requirements. Certification renewal occurs every three years.

Requirements under the LWRP vary depending on each zone, so knowing the variations to rules and regulations and being able to answer farmers questions around that is important.

Like Marv, many farmers are striving for As or are already operating at an A grade level, Alison says.

Good environmental performance means fewer compliance checks

The audited self-management process can initially be a costly exercise when you consider consenting costs, nutrient budgets, changes to infrastructure and the cost of the audit. Farms at an A-grade level and outside of an irrigation scheme, only need to be audited once every three years.

“We want to do it right, but it’s also about keeping jobs being profitable so the less money we spend on things like that, the better for the whole operation. If we improve our environmental management, we will pay less in compliance costs,” Marv says.

In the past two years leading up to this farm audit, Marv has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars upgrading his effluent ponds and irrigation system as well as investing in bucket testing and soil moisture monitoring in the hopes of reaching that A grade.

Overlooking his old effluent storage system, Marv reflects on how things have changed.

“Back when we got our previous effluent system, we could get no one to help us design it - there was no one doing it. There was no effluent calculator and we designed it too small with only about 7-8 days storage which we thought was lots, because we were coming from a system where we only had one day storage,” he says.

This year, he installed a new effluent system which now includes 30 days storage.

On his run-off paddock, he shows Alison how he’s made changes to the way he irrigates. At the last audit, he only had one pivot, but now he’s using a fixed grid and two pivots and has found land has been much more productive.

"The farm used to be irrigated in a 16-day round with 50ml of water at a time; now we're using 5 ml at a time but more frequently which has helped with the leaching. We use half as much water than what we used to, and the land has been more productive."

Good environmental practices benefits bottom lines too

Having reviewed Marv’s farm environment plans, nutrient budgets and other data as well as viewing changes he’s made to infrastructure on farm, Alison was able to award him three A-grades.

“Receiving an A grade was pleasing as it showed we are on the right track and means that I do not have to spend the time and money on an audit for another three years,” Marv says.

For farmers striving to achieve higher grades, Alison has some advice:

“When an auditor comes, ask a lot of questions so you understand what good management practice is being reviewed, why it’s important, and what the options are available to address any issues.

“Treating your audit as a learning process will enable you to take as much value from it and may challenge your thinking in whether you can do things better to have a more sustainable and profitable business,” she says.

Often farmers have been nervous about their first audit, but they need not worry.

“Many farmers are apprehensive about their first audit but most farmers I see want to be doing the right thing and are aware good environmental practices are good for sustainability and profitability too. For example, fertiliser is an expensive resource, so it makes good business sense, as well as environmental sense, to apply it at a time when you have a plant which will actively use it.

“I am surprised at how many farms I have seen over the past few years that are at or very close to an A grade level already. This is a great result, but I always encourage these farmers to keep considering how they do things and whether they can do them differently or better. Complacency around our practices won’t see us achieve the changes we need to across the different catchments.”

For more information on farm audits see www.canterburywater.farm

Farm audits at a glance

Farms which require a consent to farm must have a farm environment plan as part of their consent conditions, and this plan must be independently audited.

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