A group of lower North Island dairy farmers are reaping the benefits of closer connections with their sheep and beef counterparts as well as their urban cousins, thanks to the Agricultural Communities Respecting the Environment Group (ACRE).
"There's often a real buzz and energy at our field days or forums," said Juliet Chambers, an AgFirst agribusiness and environmental consultant, who has acted as co-facilitator for the ACRE group for the last two years.
ACRE, initiated and driven by farmers for a community of stakeholders, was formed four years ago by several local farmers who saw the benefits of a cross-sector group.
"They were leaders in the area and saw a bit of a gap when it came to bringing people together," she says, "and they were quite keen to engage with urban people as well – because that hadn't happened at that stage."
Her AgFirst colleague, Erica van Reenen, organised ACRE's initial field days with members of ACRE determining their focus and outcomes. Membership grew by word of mouth as more farmers became aware of its existence. As well as learning, supporting and challenging each other, they saw that – with the wider community invited to join in – they could all work together for positive, constructive outcomes for communities and the environment.
Some of the topics ACRE explores are land, water, soils, carbon, nutrients, flora, and fauna and how they relate to the landscape and farming systems. The social and economic implications are considered as well as environmental benefits in enhancing and managing farms' natural resources, as well as those in the wider landscape.
Farmer members pay an annual subscription of $200 a year, with support also coming from DairyNZ, Beef + Lamb New Zealand, AgFirst, NZ Landcare Trust and Horizons Regional Council. Other stakeholders include the farming industry, scientists, academics, schools, Government and non-Government organisations.
Members share ACRE's vision and are typically owners/operators or key decision-makers of a farm business located in the Horizons region (Manawatu-Whanganui). Around 40 per cent of present members are dairy farmers with the remaining membership a mix of sheep and beef, forestry and cropping sectors.
The group holds four field days a year, one of which is a public field day which includes a community project. It has put in place a range of research initiatives collecting and analysing information from farmer-initiated environmental projects, community science projects and those funded by the Ministry for Primary Industries' (MPI) Sustainable Farming Fund.
ACRE is working to do more in the science and research space. One such project is intensive water quality measurement of a wetland established on a sheep and beef farm 18 months ago, where the results will be also be applicable to dairy farmers.
This will broaden understanding among food producers about the interactions between an animal production system, nutrients, water, soil and wetlands on water quality, how to identify if there is a problem and if so, how to mitigate it – what works at a practical level.
Three field days have been held so far on dairy farms with the most recent in February. It showed contrasting riparian planting on two adjacent properties close to Palmerston North's city boundary.
While one farmer had already completed planting along a stream, the neighbour downstream was just starting. Some nutrient reduction had occurred on the first farm although this was not able to be measured as the stream regularly dried up other the summer months.
"But there were more holistic benefits such as increased biodiversity and the amenity value of having more trees on farms," Chambers said.
Not only was the second farmer replicating what was happening next door, they also expressed interest in putting in a wetland to further improve water quality. There were some challenges with the consenting requirements which provoked plenty of discussion – but the example showed how interest in such projects can snowball from one farmer to others within a catchment area when they are effectively executed and communicated.