"Just get on and start doing stuff."

That was the message from a group of southern farmers who have stepped up to take leadership in the environmental space.

Speaking at the South Island Dairy Event, Lloyd McCall, Allister Body, Raewyn van Gool and Ewen Matheson all shared the stories of their catchments and their involvement within those patches.

When Raewyn and Tony van Gool bought a farm in the Waituna catchment in Southland in 2000, they set up an environmental programme.

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For the absentee owners, that environmental work was an excellent way to get to know the Waituna community, van Gool said.

She believed the more farmers engaged with others about what they were doing, the greater the understanding became - not just between farmers and non-farmers but also farmers in other sectors.

Back in 2011, life changed for farmers in the Waituna catchment when scientists announced the Waituna Lagoon - part of the internationally-recognised Awarua wetlands - was about to "flip" to a permanently degraded state.

It became a very political issue and the community decided to fight back.

The reaction to the threat to their livelihoods was similar to a grief cycle.

But going through this together as a community actually became a strength, van Gool said.

Once farmers knew what they could do - or needed to do - they "simply got on with it" within their budget constraints.

By the end of 2014, after three years of intense scrutiny, the toll it was taking on farmers was becoming evident.

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Some were getting burnt out and just wanted to get back to concentrating on farming.

That was recognised and support put in place. Finally, farmers had become much more aware of environmental best practice. The lagoon never flipped.

It was crucial to understand what the real issues were.

The whole community needed to be involved and local skills and knowledge, particularly historic, needed to be used, she said.

In 2014 Lloyd McCall first became involved with water quality issues in West Otago.

His son was the fifth generation to farm in the area and that link to the land was why he was "here now", he said.

He was driven by a desire to see his grandchildren and future generations being able to swim in the Pomahaka River.

McCall was one of the instigators of the Pomahaka Water Care Group which stemmed from a New Zealand Landcare Trust project.

There were somewhere between 3000km and 4500km of waterways in the catchment, depending on definition.

All farm types had an effect on water quality and a big part of the process was developing awareness.

"We're all in it together. It's all about the future ... we can't be told to do it, we've got to want to do it," he said.

Decisions needed to be made not for five to 10 years out, but for centuries.

Farmers were becoming "too solo" - "they think it's their problem but it's everybody's problem", he said.

He believed Otago and Southland was in an excellent position "to get out there and do good practice" - get marketers and the media involved, and "tell the world".

"We've got to start selling our story a little bit more," he said.

Allister Body, who farms sheep and deer and does some dairy grazing just out of Tapanui, said the Pomahaka Water Care Group had influenced farmers in the catchment.

"It's been slow but people are starting to change," Body said.

His take home message for farmers was that if they were going to do one thing, they should start doing some discharge testing, find out where the problems were - "and just get on start and doing stuff".

Ewen Matheson, a founding member of the Pourakino Catchment Group, said the group's formation was a reaction to community concerns about the role farming was playing environmentally.

The group continued to "go from strength to strength" and was looking at large community-led planting projects and predator control.