The ecologists on the Farming with Native Biodiversity team, Becky Clements and Tyler Jarman, have spent the last 18 months working with farms to create long-term biodiversity management plans. The project involved 40 farms that are Silver Fern Farms suppliers who agreed to come on board. The farms in the pilot helped the ecologists develop their biodiversity planning processes on farm and explored how they could include more biodiversity in their operation. Some of these farms already had some fantastic environmental restoration projects underway, while others were just starting to look over the fence at what more biodiversity would look like for them. All the farmers who were involved brought their knowledge of the land and pastoral farming to the table, which was a huge asset to help the pilot apply ecology knowledge in a practical way on farm.
The process to create a farm plan takes place over several months. Before even stepping foot on farm, Becky and Tyler connect with farmers over email and on the phone to introduce themselves, the Farming with Native Biodiversity project, and to go over background information about the farm and the native biodiversity in that area. When they visit the farms, they continue the discussion with farmers to hear about their current view of biodiversity on their farm, what their wider goals are, how they want to change on-farm biodiversity, and the particular areas on farm that they think could be restored or managed for biodiversity. Then, the ecologists go on a drive around the farm and spend time in areas identified as biodiversity assets or potential assets, to do ecological assessments and find out the risks and opportunities for those areas. Based on this, they write and send a draft farm plan, which they then discuss with the farmer. Finally, after incorporating feedback from the farmers, they wrote a final plan complete with ecological descriptions, planting lists, and biodiversity management goals for the next five years. Over the course of the project the ecologists spent a lot of time and effort investing in relationships with the farmers and producing plans that were a good balance between ambitious and practical.
Here are the six big takeaways that Tyler and Becky had from their work on farms:
1. A lot of travel is involved for face-to-face work on farms. Tyler calculated that he drove 13,918 km and spent close to 200 hours in the car over the course of the project. The total distance he travelled is equivalent to driving from Cape Reinga to Bluff and back about three and a half times. Alternatively, that distance is almost the same as flying directly from Auckland to New York. This is all to say that while having the time on farm to talk with farmers is invaluable for co-creating farm plans, you can’t neglect the time, money, and effort that goes into travel.
2. Both council regulations and ecology differ greatly between farms. Farm locations were very widespread in this pilot and each were under different regional and district councils, so there weren’t consistent rules and regulations to follow for all the farm plans. This meant the ecologists had to wade through a lot of information to make sure that each plan was compliant. Likewise, there were big ecological and climate differences between farms. Since farms all had different climate conditions and biodiversity, recommendations had to be tailored to each farm.
3. There are several barriers for farmers to access and use funding. While ecologists were able to provide farmers with information and recommendations, they couldn’t provide them with the funding to carry out biodiversity projects. One barrier to getting funding is that grants have short application windows and can’t be applied retrospectively, so farmers must get funding before carrying out projects. Another is that farmers have to make sure their projects meet eligibility requirements, and if funding is granted, sometimes the funds can only be used for specific costs or activities like planting a particular species. Finally, grants often require reports from farmers as a way to ensure accountability. This means that farmers need to set aside time to complete this obligation, in addition to carrying out planned projects. Given that farming is often a 60-80 hour a week job, having time to do the administration, and even know when funding is available, is often not plausible.
4. Most farms face a huge challenge dealing with introduced species and weeds on a landscape scale. For example, one North Canterbury farm, who last season lost 35% of their lambs to wild pigs, spends $11,000 per year on pig control. Another north Canterbury farm has resorted to burning large areas of wilding pines, to prevent the trees from spreading. And one South Otago high country station often see mobs of more than 200 deer and routinely cull thousands at a time at the back of their property. These examples show that farmers are already spending a lot of time, money, and effort on controlling threats to biodiversity and productivity, so there might not be much left over for other actions like planting and fencing.
5. Monitoring biodiversity is important, but there are barriers to carrying it out. Much of the current biodiversity monitoring technology is expensive, time-consuming to set up and use, and requires an expert to implement or interpret the results. Additionally, there are not yet standardised ways to quantify and measure the success of biodiversity actions. Recording and analysing the results of these actions is just as important as carrying them out in the first place. There need to be changes within this area to help make biodiversity monitoring cheaper, easier, and worthwhile for farmers to do.
6. Forming trusted relationships is the most important part of this work. The ecologists have found that being on farm, having farmers show them the land, and listening to farmers’ ideas and perspectives is essential to this work. This partneship allows for biodiversity actions which work with overall farm planning and can improve elements of farm activities such as safer stock mustering routes. This work often takes time, but the results are best when farmers feel they have a voice and are invested in making changes on farm. Also, farmers prefer speaking to a trusted person, rather than looking up information. This means that while farm plans are useful, it is also important to have follow up conversations to talk through and discuss the plans.
This last point about relationships is important, because relationships aren’t only essential for carrying out the work on farms, but are also key for the larger Farming with Native Biodiversity project to be recognised and understood. Word of mouth is how information spreads, and by visiting farms, writing these reports, and forming relationships with farmers the ecologists created ripple effects in the farming community. A farmer will talk to their neighbour or their catchment group about the biodiversity plan and their experience having ecologists on farm, and their experience holds a lot of weight. At the end of the day, this work is as much about about building relationships as building up biodiversity.
To learn more about the ecologists’ work on and learnings from the Farming with Native Biodiversity pilot, watch Becky and Tyler’s webinars. You can find them in our resource collection.
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