'As a farmer, you are often standing out in the cold, making decisions alone," Rabobank agribusiness manager Mike Russell says. "Action Groups give you the opportunity to bounce ideas off other people, build relationships with subject matter experts and the confidence to try new things."

Russell, along with two Rabobank colleagues was instrumental as a connector in getting two Red Meat Profit Partnership Action Groups off the ground in Whanganui.

The Red Meat Action Network model supports small groups — there's one in Northland — of seven to nine farm businesses to work together to explore ideas and share expert resources to help make positive changes. Kick-start funding of $4000 a farm business is pooled to fund facilitation and expertise.

When the model was announced, Russell immediately recognised the benefits it could bring farmers.

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"Back in 2017, we emailed some of our clients and other farm businesses — all sheep and beef breeders and finishers — about the programme," Russell says. "Then we followed up with phone calls and got 17 or 18 farm businesses who were interested."

Russell also approached BakerAg consultant Gary Massicks to see if he would like to facilitate a group.

"I had done a lot of facilitation for Beef + Lamb New Zealand days and leadership for young farmers and I was doing the RMPP facilitator training, so this was a great opportunity," says Massicks.

The farm businesses were invited to a meeting in Whanganui in December 2017, with Russell enlisting pilot programme farmer Brenda Stewart to take part.

"The Action Group concept was very new at that point, none of the farmers knew anything about it," he says. "Brenda really sold the idea to them, explaining the guidelines and how it was both about increasing profitability of your farm business and also quantifying that.
"We asked them to go away and think about that, in line with the guidelines of committing to improving their businesses and being active members of the group."

Groups gather momentum

Fifteen farm businesses opted in and at a further meeting two groups were established.
Only a few of the groups' members knew one another before they got under way and Massicks didn't know any of them but, once they'd got the ball rolling, he says, it gathered momentum very quickly.

Most members hadn't done much work around benchmarking, financial analysis or opening their business up to advisory services or third parties. They decided they wanted to use the Action Group to analyse and benchmark their business, set goals and be challenged by their peers with a goal of that leading to positive change. They all also have a particular interest in cropping and learning more about business plans and succession plans. The first group meetings were held in January 2018.

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"We rotate round group members' farms with a different one hosting on their property each time, and the subject matter experts come along. We look at what they are doing well and where they need help."

Russell says some farmers seem to quickly get over initial nerves over hosting. "There is a lot of conversation and questions and suggestions — 'Have you done this' and 'You could try this'. Sometimes we ring the host farmer for a chat about it afterwards.

"And, of course, the subject matter expert will be right there on-farm too. It's not like a classroom setting, it's very practical. You also get to interact with the experts in ways you can't do at a talk with dozens of people in the room — meeting them in a small setting makes you feel much more comfortable about picking up the phone to them a few months later to ask a question."

"A strong group culture is built very fast," says Massicks. "Good culture builds good banter and good banter gives you the confidence to act. There is really positive peer pressure. They are learning from the experts and also from one another. They are sharing and making suggestions within the group and there's definitely a feeling of accountability."