Having work practices closely scrutinised by colleagues is uncomfortable for many people – but Southland dairy farmer Jon Pemberton relishes the prospect.
The fourth-generation farmer is taking part in a collaborative project – the Communities of Practice or COP – combining farming knowledge with scientific analysis to find practical ways of lowering the sector's environmental footprint, particularly regarding greenhouse gas emissions and water quality.
The COP project puts four farms in the Southland/Otago region under close analysis from other farmers and scientists. The four farms have different climate, topography and landscapes and vulnerabilities related to slope, soil type and wetness. In addition, each farmer has a different approach to farming and mitigating for environmental impacts.
Regular meetings take place between the groups where suggestions and critique come from both scientists and farmers with the aim of delivering better environment outcomes while remaining financially viable.
"Being part of this project means we're out there with our pants down; we can't hide from the truth," says Pemberton. He and wife Birgit milk 380 Friesian cows on 139ha in Brydone and signed up to the project so Pemberton could get his head around impending new regulations.
"I really wanted to find out what impact we were having on the environment. I also wanted to get skilled up on what's coming our way with environmental regulations and policy, and find out what changes are achievable."
The four farms are used as a benchmark and, after discussions with farmers, the modelling tells them what the environmental and financial impacts will be, accounting for specifics such as topography, soil type, weather, feed type and geographic location, says project lead and DairyNZ senior scientist, Dawn Dalley.
"That modelling predicts how changes will impact nitrate leaching and greenhouse gases using current farm systems as a baseline.
"It is really about awareness so farmers are prepared when the limits are set; they know changes will be required and they need information to guide them on which new management practices they can use on their farms to meet the environmental standards."
Dalley says it's important farmers have data on changes to farming systems before actually making the changes – because some may not have the desired environmental outcome and could be expensive to implement: "If you look at the experience of some Horizons farmers, they invested in expensive change only to find that the new system did not deliver the environmental outcome they expected."
Having conversations with farmers and real farms to model off is crucial because there is no average farm – every farm is different.
"In northern Southland, many soils are a lot lighter and more likely for nitrogen to go down through the soil, whereas up on the Tairei they are very heavy soils; there are drainage networks and more risk of sediment loss," she says.
Pemberton believes before farmers make major changes to their systems to benefit the environment, it is important the scientific data stacks up: "We don't want to have a model come out that requires expensive system changes but, in 10 years, we realise it wasn't enough and farmers in following generations need to change again."
Pemberton says there is a lot of pressure from international customers, government and local government to be more environmentally aware. However, farming is complex and often if one thing is altered, it has a knock-on effect on something else.
"We have to think about animal welfare, the environment, financials, the weather, international markets, social licensing and then you throw in work-life balance. Making a change to one thing will impact something else. It takes up so much head space. I know I will be 60 and still learning. It keeps you engaged," he says.
Farmers shouldn't be scared to work alongside scientists to achieve better environmental outcomes, he adds.
"It's a no-brainer because, without the science, farmers don't have a leg to stand on because so much around the subject is emotive. There needs to be some very clear evidence and science to forge a pathway forward.
"Look, there will some farmers who won't like the science but they will have to accept it and change some of their practices."
He believes New Zealand farmers can be pioneers of new farming methods good for the environment – but there needs to be flexibility in the system without an absolute set of rules.
"My wife is from Europe and, if you ask them how they are going to farm, they say, 'Like grandad did'. There is no self-learning or any pioneering in that. You need to have freedom within your business to react and move to the market."