Bad news. It's never welcome and, when we get some about ourselves, there's an instinct to get defensive.
In 2015, a group of 16 Opotiki farmers heard an uncomfortable truth when Bay of Plenty Regional Council officer Charles Harley delivered bad news – the Waiotahe estuary had high E.coli levels and, because they farmed in the catchment, he needed their help to fix the problem.
These farmers could easily have become defensive and walked away. However, they decided things had to change and it needed to start with them and their farms.
Thanks to the decision to own the problem, many of this group have walked the path of greater learning, personal growth, and have forged new connections and relationships within their community.
"The hackles were raised in that [first] meeting. Most farmers there wanted to fix the problem but there were about six of us who wanted to get to the bottom of things and were really uncomfortable with what was happening at the estuary and its historic pipi beds," says chairman of the Waiotahe Watercare Group, Jared Watson.
Things could easily have turned pear-shaped had it not been for the attitude of the Regional Council, he says: "Prior to that meeting, there was a regulatory relationship with the council. It was them and us. We realised they just wanted to engage and collaborate and decided we had to be part of fixing things.
"Because of the council's ability to bring us together and work alongside us, we have built incredible relationships."
From the initial dose of bad news, the Waiotahe Watercare Group was created to generate momentum and a shared sense of purpose to solve the problem.
"Charles put the onus back on us farmers to come up with the solution. Because many of us come from intergenerational farming families, we realised what we do on our farms isn't about today, but impacts on our children and grandchildren," says Watson.
"It's a pretty complex problem and we have used as many resources as possible to understand how it occurs and how to fix it."
In 2018, Fonterra helped out with farm environment plans. As a result waterways were fenced off, riparian margins planted and the group brought in various outside experts to try to understand the problem – experts like Dr Debbie Care, one of the country's leading authorities on effluent management, were brought in.
Since 2017, the regional council has helped fund farmers in this catchment to fence off 53km of stream and wetland as well as plant 77,500 natives.
"Because the issue is so complex, scientists told us to be careful about our targets – and this is a reality because the E.coli levels are still too high today," says Watson.
"However, we can't be negative about not changing things quickly. It's taken 50 years to cause the problem and the reality is we haven't implemented everything we should. But, with regulation, the rules are becoming clearer and more people will have to step up. The majority are very involved and we are on the journey to make it better."
He says because of the group's willingness to engage with scientists and ask for help, they have gained immense knowledge which is helping in the day-to-day management of their farms and increasing the enjoyment of farming.
An equally enjoyable outcome has been the connections the group has made outside the farming community. As a result of the shared interest in the health of the Waiotahe estuary, the farmers decided to help The Bryans Beach Care Group – the beach adjacent to the estuary – where they get together annually with the Beach Care Group to pick up rubbish in the estuary.
"There are a lot of older people there and, while they have wisdom, we have youth and exuberance and so we go along and lend a hand. There have been wonderful benefits for the community because we work alongside and have conversations with people we would otherwise not meet.
"Through coming together and cleaning up the estuary, we have all become a little bit more enlightened," says Watson.
The group has also helped out other landowners in the catchment. The rivers flows out from Te Urewera and in recent years Māori owners expressed a desire to fence off and plant riparian margins on their land.
"They didn't have access to equipment or labour to get the project off the ground, so about 20 of us went up there. We had five tractors with rammers and we fenced off all their waterways," says Watson. "A year later, we got about 60 people turning up and in one day we planted over 3500 plants. That was really special; awesome to see the community come out in force to help out."
Watson says being part of the Waiotahe Watercare Group has had a profound effect on his outlook: "Being part of this journey has helped me stay positive. You are on a learning trajectory. I was there at the first meeting and I am more positive than ever. If you are engaged, and understand what's going on, it's easy to see a pathway.
"The 20 per cent of farmers who are not there can't see a pathway. But, if you are together with your community, it helps you manage. It has definitely helped with my mental health and enjoyment of farming."
"So many people have wanted to help our group. It has made me realise, this is for our future. It really is about kaitiaki."