Be proactive; begin environmental work now ahead of regulations and tap practical and financial help to do so.

That was the message to the 280 growers, dairy, sheep, beef and deer farmers who attended the Bay of Plenty Future Farming Symposium at Te Puke. And it came from not the regulators, but farmers themselves during an event organised by the Pan-Sector Industry Alumni Events subcommittee of the Bay of Plenty Ballance Farm Environment Awards.

It was the first of its kind held in New Zealand and set out to give an overview of the types of regulations farmers and growers face, particularly under the new Essential Freshwater plan, and offer solutions to address them.

Subcommittee chairman Rick Burke said if landowners took ownership of their issues and implement Farm Environment Plans, they would also take ownership of the opportunities and the value of their land.

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Climate Change Minister James Shaw, who had agreed to attend the symposium, did not front in person as he was part of a Government announcement of major reforms to the Emissions Trading Scheme made in Wellington that day.

However, he did send a video in which he said New Zealand farmers were the most adaptable, resilient, productive, efficient and innovative in the world and had the capacity to feed 40 million of the world's projected 9 billion population by 2050.

Ministry for the Environment's director of water Martin Workman said to get noticed in world markets New Zealand needed something distinctive to set it apart.

"Our environmental conditions and sustainability are a key part of our story. We need a story, a brand to distinguish ourselves to reach higher-paying customers and credentials which support that."

However, Workman said the state-of-the-environment report Environment Aotearoa, released in April, showed that, while some waterways were improving, many in both in rural and urban areas were not, and action needed to be taken.

National MP and spokesman for agriculture Todd Muller said New Zealand must play its part in addressing climate change and, when it came to improving freshwater quality, the way forward was collaboration.

"Maximising the outcomes across New Zealand of people working together to get the best freshwater outcomes is fundamental."

He believed farmers could find solutions without the pressures of reaching onerous prescribed nitrogen limits. "There are numerous examples of sub-catchments of farmers and communities working together looking at river and stream values. The key policy question is what you do to encourage that degree of collaboration and to what extent a 'stick' is used."

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Newly re-elected Bay of Plenty Regional Council chairman and dairy farmer Doug Leeder said his council was working to convince regulators that one-size did not fit all when it came to proposed nutrient limits.

He emphasised that farmers and growers know their land and environment best and should be encouraged to make the improvements which work locally. He said council had resources and expertise to help landowners meet the necessary changes.

Whakatane dairy farmer Fraser McGougan told the symposium that taking positive action, including implementing a Land Environment Plan, to improve outcomes was not only good for the environment but also personally and financially rewarding.

His comments were backed up by Rickki James, manager of the large mixed dairying, grazing and orcharding enterprise Cameron Farms near Matata. Eight years ago, the property began implementing a riparian management plan which has led to extensive changes in land use and ultimately increased profitability.

Katikati dry stock farmer and kiwifruit grower John Burke, Janie Stevenson, NZ Landcare Trust regional co-ordinator and Simon Stokes, environment, strategy manager for Beef + Lamb spoke of the value of catchment groups in bringing together neighbouring landowners and urban residents with a common goal of improving water quality and environmental outcomes in their specific areas.

• Elaine Fisher is a freelance journalist