Without a vision or a farm environment plan, it won't happen, reckons Waikato sheep and beef farmer Bill Garland.
And he should know. Bill and his wife Sue have been retiring land — steep land and gullies prone to erosion, severely degraded forest fragments, waterways and other sensitive areas — since the 1980s.
He was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to farming and conservation in 2004.
Last Tuesday Bill hosted Environment Minister David Parker and Agriculture and Biosecurity Minister Damien O'Connor, along with a governance group, for the launch of the national Good Farming Practice Action Plan for Water Quality on his 420ha farm that shares an 8km pest-proof fence border with Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari.
The action plan is a national set of good practice principles and actions that horticulture and farming leaders, regional councils and central government have agreed on to improve New Zealand's fresh water quality.
The aim is that every farmer and grower will have a farm environment plan to help them identify environmental risks and set out ways to manage them.
Bill, whose farm has been promoted by TK Meats and Beef + Lamb NZ and recently starred on Country Calendar, reckons it's a real buzz to have the Environment Minister visit his farm.
"My view is that it's not just water quality that will benefit," Bill says.
"By having a farm plan you look at areas to be cultivated, pastures that can be improved and water reticulation. Fencing and planting also means shelter and shade for stock, improved stock movement, increased productivity, habitat for birds, and offsetting carbon emissions."
A farmer for 50 years, Bill knows what he is talking about. He's already had several farm plans since the 1980s.
"We had a series of slips and gullies blowing out. It was devastating seeing the land wash down the creeks and through the boundaries. Our first plan was an arrangement with the Waikato Valley Authority to do some pole planting and retire patches of bush on the steeper sidings.
"It is a bit contagious. When you have done everything and ticked all the boxes you look around and think what next?"
Thirty-five years on, about 40ha has been retired, and his water quality has improved.
Bill uses the Overseer model to manage nutrient use on his land and has a nitrogen reference point of 12 "which is pretty low".
AgResearch has also tested his water quality and the results showed that nitrogen levels in his stream were lower when it left his property.
For farmers starting out for the first time on a farm environment plan, Bill has some advice.
"Starting at the top and working your way down is hellishly important. If you fence off the top of the gullies you take some of the energy out of the rainfall and waterways and prevent erosion downstream.
"I think that every farmer has to have a farm plan but, more importantly, those farm plans have to be the guiding principles going forward. They have to have some bite to them, so people are obliged to follow through with them.
"You have to have a vision and commitment in place. Unless you commit to doing something, you are going to spend your money on something else."
Waikato Regional Council Resource Use director Chris McLay, who is in the Good Farming Practice Action Plan for Water Quality governance group, says the national requirement of having a farm environment plan is consistent with the council's policy approach to managing our Waikato and Waipa catchments.
"Farm environment plans are required under the Healthy Rivers/Wai Ora: Plan Change 1 so many Waikato farmers will already be needing to do this.
"It is great to see the rural sectors taking the lead on supporting farmers to have a farm environmental plan that identifies risks to land and water on their properties and the appropriate ways to manage them. We look forward to working with the rural organisations to achieve this.
"Bill is a leader in the farming community. He's had plans for decades and understands the importance and benefits of having them."