It all started with a letter and the desire to encourage fellow farmers to think more about environmental outcomes.
Southland farmers Simon Hopcroft and John White were asked at the DairyNZ Dairy Environment Leaders' Forum in December 2015 to write themselves a letter outlining their goals.
They’d both been thinking about establishing a catchment group to help preserve the Aparima River and Jacobs Estuary.
The letter they wrote that day helped crystallise their vision and a couple of months later they founded the Lower Aparima Catchment Group, with the help of DairyNZ.
The group aims to increase awareness of water quality issues and upcoming environmental and farming policies in the Southland Water and Land Plan. It also exists to help with the transfer of information between farmers, the community and the regional council, Environment Southland (ES).
“There are three prongs to our purpose,” says John. “It’s about engaging with the community; passing on information to farmers and the public about the current water quality situation; and monitoring and improving water quality.”
We need simple, subtle changes that have a positive effect on water quality and don’t become a growing financial cost to the business.
John and Simon were motivated to set up their group after seeing the good work being done by other farmer-led groups in the region.
“We looked at the purpose and objectives of the neighbouring Pourakino Catchment Group and gathered some ideas from them, although each catchment is quite different,” says Simon, who milks 1000 cows on 350ha in Gummies Bush.
A key incentive in establishing the group for Simon, a fifthgeneration farmer, was to protect and improve the environment for future farmers.
“We need simple, subtle changes that have a positive effect on water quality and don’t become a growing financial cost to the business. If our next generation sees the rewards of these changes, hopefully they’ll want to be part of that,” he says.
John, who runs two farms with "a great team" and family investment, is also passionate about the future of farming in Southland.
“My love of farming is based on my love for the outdoors and I’d never want to see the opportunities - to farm, fish, hunt, observe and be involved in the natural environment – reduced or degraded for our children and future generations,” he says.
From the outset, Simon and John decided to involve the entire community, not just dairy farmers, to help open the lines of communication. As a result, the group includes everyone from sheep and beef farmers and contractors, right through to recreational users of the Aparima River. Anyone in the catchment area can join and the group currently has about 50 members.
Regional Water and Land Plan
A key focus for the group has been to help raise awareness of environmental policy changes and compliance requirements affecting farmers in the region.
Knowing how these will impact their businesses and Southland's dairy sector enables them to discuss policy issues with ES, and possibly influence policy outcomes.
Collectively, they’ve made a submission on the Regional Water and Land Plan, which is ES’s response to the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management.
Also, after attending a submission workshop held by the Pourakino Catchment Group, the group held their own submission workshop at Simon’s house to help farmers to make individual submissions.
We’ve been here for 100 years; we’d like to be here for 100 more.
Otaitai Bush farmer Luke Templeton says one of his main reasons for joining the Lower Aparima Catchment Group was to gain a better understanding of the proposed changes to the Water and Land Plan.
“It’s in our interest to be aware of any proposed environmental and farming polices. If I’m learning about that, why not share it with other people who may not be aware or understand how it will affect them?” he says.
Luke is a 50:50 sharemilker on his parent’s coastal farm east of Riverton and he too feels strongly about protecting the local environment for future farmers.
“We’ve been here for 100 years; we’d like to be here for 100 more.”
To tell the community about steps farmers are taking to improve water quality, the group has held regular meetings and public field days.
For example, John ran a field day at his Riverton farm to show how he’s managing bank erosion caused by the Aparima River, which flows through his property.
Members of the public got to see a 150-metre-long rock retaining wall designed to stop the river eroding his land and potentially threatening a stopbank. Although built by ES, John has contributed $30,000 towards the cost. Reducing erosion also reduces the amount of sediment and phosphorus entering the river and Jacobs Estuary.
“This work is ongoing due to the constantly changing river and other areas on the farm at risk of being eroded,” John says.
John’s neighbours, Andrew and Sue Verhaegh, have also invited the community onto their farm. A large pond on their farm, built with the support of ES, showed the value of riparian planting in preventing sediment and nutrients from entering waterways.
These meetings and field days also provide an opportunity for farmers to glean ideas from each other and have some meaty discussions.
Experts are regularly invited to speak at meetings, where they advocate good practice on-farm and help farmers understand local issues, including water quality of the Aparima River and Jacobs Estuary. Justin Kitto, a DairyNZ water quality specialist, recently came along to talk about water quality in the area.
ES experts have also been invited to explain policy changes.
Not surprisingly, the group’s efforts are making an impact. Sheep and beef farmer Andrew Horrell says he’s already made a few small changes since joining the group, particularly around the way he grazes his sheep over winter.
“I now think of the direction I graze animals, and have become more aware of managing my critical source areas,” he says.
“One of the differences between dairy and sheep farming is that a lot of sheep are wintered in an intensive all-grass system in Southland, using temporary electric fencing. Planning and managing this type of grazing to reduce faecal contamination in waterways is a really easy thing to do, with very little cost. I believe this change in mindset among farmers is happening very quickly.”
Andrew joined the group because he wanted to be part of improving the region’s water quality.
You’re better off being involved than not. There are lots of little things farmers can do, and these will be different for each farm. There’s no one solution around water quality.
“You’re better off being involved than not. There are lots of little things farmers can do and these will be different for each farm. There’s no one solution around water quality.”
Collectively, small changes can make a big difference, Andrew says. He adds that it's been great seeing the different farming sectors coming together to work with ES on improving water quality.
Raising the bar
DairyNZ catchment engagement coordinator Julia Christie helped John and Simon form the Lower Aparima Catchment Group. She says having expert speakers at the meetings gets farmers thinking about ways to keep improving environmental measures on-farm.
“The speakers are inspiring them to continue raising the bar.” Julia says being part of a catchment group gives farmers collective power.
“Two brains are usually better than one, plus it provides access to specialists that individuals often wouldn’t have. It can also provide more credibility when talking to council around policy changes or issues.”
The catchment group, which is one of nine in the region, has support from DairyNZ and ES. And Julia says she’s heard from a number of other farmers in Southland who are keen to set up a catchment group in their area.
ES land sustainability officer David Moate says: “The farmer groups are helping with the challenge of improving water quality in Southland by providing clear communication, supporting good management practices, and encouraging other farmers to get involved.”
That final point is one John and Simon can’t emphasise strongly enough. They say getting involved is the first step for farmers, followed by making small changes on-farm.
“Start small, get help and advice from other groups, seek assistance from regional council, and look to the best farmers in the community for good-practice methods,” says John.
John and Simon, and other farmers who've attended the Dairy Environment Leaders' Forum, strongly encourage other farmers in their region to establish their own local catchment group. They believe grass-roots, farmer-driven solutions are the best approach.
To learn more about joining or starting a farmer catchment group in Southland and Otago, contact Julia Christie on 027 702 8349 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To join or start a catchment group anywhere else in New Zealand, contact Helen Moodie on 021 816 365 or email@example.com.
1. Find out if there’s a catchment group in your area and get involved or start one.
2. Plan and implement good management practice across your farm.
3. Learn about new rules and regulations so you can