Catalyst for change saluted
After inspiring farmers to share knowledge, the hugely successful Extension 350 programme is calling it a day. Donna Russell reports.
The journey is not over for the farmers who were involved in the Extension 350 business mentoring programme, which has ended after 51⁄2 years. The programme was launched in 2016 with the aim of enrolling 350 farmers from throughout Northland. Extension 350 project manager Luke Beehre said the programme ended up being so popular that about 380 farmers became involved, with 10 support clusters operating to spread the knowledge and experience gained. There were seven dairy clusters and three clusters for sheep and beef farmers. Recognition events have been held in Kerikeri, Maungaturoto and Whangārei to mark its conclusion, with farmers sharing their experience as a result of being involved. Beehre said the Extension 350 programme proved to be a catalyst for change in many cases. “The programme encourages farmers to take a holistic view of their business and life plans, to look at what their hopes and dreams are. “Consultants worked alongside them all the way through to help them understand their vision and how to achieve it,” he said. Beehre said any change in farming practices requires a large lead-in time and a lot of planning. “There is so much that is involved on the farm, with things like calving season to take into account. Effecting change takes time,” he said. The programme offered farmers a review process to help them “figure out what they want to achieve”. The review process covered three planks — environmental, profitability and farmer wellbeing. “Decisions made had to consider each aspect because they are all interrelated. It’s about finding a balance that the farmers are comfortable with.” Beehre said other farmer groups focused on the business but farmer wellbeing was important as well. “We asked them to score how they were feeling, with the involvement of their family. They might say they feel fine but their family points out they have been grumpy all week. It’s so important to have those conversations as farmers are not known for sharing how they are feeling.” Speaking at the Whangārei event held at No. 8 restaurant, Bay of Islands dairy farmer Mark Clunie said the programme had a positive effect on every aspect of his business. “E350 has been an absolutely awesome journey for us. Prior to becoming involved, we were farming on the back foot. E350 has helped us understand and do well in the things we can control and helped us cope with the things which we can’t. “Knowledge has been a key factor, and we’re able to see the dividends financially, finally,” he said. Ruawai farmer Luke Oud shared his story of success, growing his herd of 200 cows to a herd of 520. The programme helped give him the confidence to expand the business. “It’s been amazing to see how you can structure a business to make it work for you, rather than control you. “It never used to be that your wellbeing was important. The farm always had to come first. Having been through the E350 programme we feel we can take farming so far now. We’re so into it, it’s amazing,” he said. Beehre said not all the farmers were deciding to expand their business. Some were at a different stage in life and wanted to wind down but still retain their interest in farming. Waipu farmer Lachie McLean was finding the management of his dairy farm more of a struggle with age but still loved farming. It was taking six to eight hours to milk the herd each day in an older-style shed. The mentor programme helped him gain skills in animal and pasture management so that production rose 20 per cent. Some land was sold to gain enough money to build a new shed and employ 50/50 sharemilkers to lighten his workload. Beehre said the collaboration seen in E350 was unique in New Zealand. Funding partners Dairy NZ, Beef +LambNZ, Ministry for Primary Industries, Northland Regional Council and Northland Inc had worked together to achieve a common set of goals for the benefit of farmers and the region. “In addition, the premise of E350 has always been a farmer-led and farmer-focused programme, developing networks of support across the clusters. The stories shared by our farmers at the recognition events showcase how much tangible change they have been able to achieve with this support.” The Covid-19 pandemic had already provided challenges and farmers would need resilience to cope with the changing farming landscape. “The programme has had to adapt as we navigated Covid-19 and climatic challenges. However, E350‘s relevance has been further reinforced.” Despite the Extension350 programme coming to a close, Beehre said staff involved still had several months of report writing ahead to provide feedback for the funding partners. “There is still significant change coming for farmers and growers. We are working on resources to help farmers cope so that we have a successful primary industry in Northland,” Beehre said.