It’s not easy opening your livelihood up for scrutiny, but three Northland farms unlatched their gates this year to showcase Extension 350 in action, an innovative long-term ‘farmers learning from farmers’ extension programme.
The youngest "farmer" enjoying the farm field day.
The farm field days in Purua, Broadwood and Tangiteroria drew more than 150 people from the rural community interested in hearing from some of those involved with the farmer-led mentoring and extension project and about how it is helping to lift profitability, environmental sustainability, and wellbeing on Northland farms.
Extension 350 works by bringing 350 farmers into the programme over a three year period. It’s designed to help farmers share knowledge and gain access to specialist advice.
“This is the first programme of its kind in New Zealand and has the potential to create real positive economic and social change for dairy, sheep and beef farmers across our region,” said Chris Neill, DairyNZ representative on the Extension 350 steering group.
Extension 350 project manager Luke Beehre says the project is helping Northland farmers to better understand their farming business and the opportunities available to grow and improve. “When you’re focussed on the day-to-day running of your business, it can be hard to see things with fresh eyes,” he said.
‘Target farmers’, sharemilkers Graham and Kylie Beatty, hosted the third and final 2018 Extension 350 farm field day on the family farm; a typically varied property with hill country, flood-prone valleys and undulating terrain in Tangiteroria.
Graham and Kylie were among the first target farmers to sign up for Extension 350 and were included in the programme’s first dairy cluster which got underway in January 2017. Initially lower order and now 50/50 sharemilkers, their long-term goal is to buy the farm from Graham’s parents Jan and Ambie, who have as their main goal to help their children succeed.
“The farm has always been at the centre of everything we do but now it’s time to step back and do the things we want to do; having Graham and Kylie on board has helped,” Jan told those who attended the field day. “When we started on the farm 30 years ago we didn’t do paperwork but these days Graham and Kylie have to do it. We’ve been at the development stage for years, working to set our kids up and then step out of it. Since Graham’s come home it’s made all the difference.”
Kylie & Graham Beatty, farm consultant Tafi Manjala, and Jan & Ambie Beatty
Graham, Kylie, and other target farmers who spoke at their field day; Leroy Jurisich, Lachie McLean and Brent France, said being target farmers on Extension 350 wasn’t always easy. Every new target farm’s journey starts with a whole farm assessment by their dedicated team, typically a farm consultant, mentor farmer, and a dairy or beef and lamb representative depending on the type of farm. Each support team will return to their target farm for up to 20 meetings over the three-year duration of the extension programme, to review goals, analyse results, brainstorm challenges and celebrate wins. In between meetings the target farmer implements the changes on the farm, and reporting keeps them accountable and on track.
Supporting Graham, Kylie, Jan and Ambie on their Extension 350 journey is farm consultant Tafi Manjala, rural professional Corey Thorn and mentor farmers Travis Parry and Ray Webb.“It’s a really significant level of support for the target farmers,” said project manager Luke. But he adds it’s not a journey for the fainthearted. “They need to put in some hard yards and the recommendations from the dedicated support team can really challenge their thinking.”
“Collaboration is really important,” says Tafi. “We don’t always agree and the conversations can be very interesting, but at the end of the day it’s about what is best for the business.”
Graham says sometimes he gets caught up in the problems and thinks progress has stalled. However mentor farmer Travis sees things differently. “Graham and Kylie may not see it because they’re living it, but every time I come over I see their progress – they are moving ahead. I don’t think they would be where they are today without Extension 350.”
Fellow mentor farmer, Ray, says he enjoys driving through the Beatty farm gates and seeing what’s happening. “It’s important to know what the Beatty’s goals are so we have an action plan on what we can do – this is their journey; it’s important that we are all working toward their goals for their farm, not ours.”
Graham admits there were times he felt really challenged. “In the beginning it was good but later on as the reporting etc came into it that was new, plus it was a hard year. We had a low pay-out followed by a once-in-a-100-year flood. Extension 350 challenged me and our farm systems and the way we’ve done things on this farm for years.”
“In winter you come home after a really hard day. Farm visit days felt a bit like Judgment Day; you see all the things you haven’t been able to achieve or didn’t get done. We’ve had some really interesting and hard conversations with the support team at times, but at the end of the day you don’t turn that kind of support down. We are seeing improvements, and this year will be better still.”
Graham and Kylie with Jan and Ambie’s support have grown the herd and increased milk production. The new systems in place include a change to their traditional twice-a-day milking schedule for all the cows.
“We put the younger ones on the hills; they have it tougher up there but we only milk them once a day. The healthy good milking heifers we put on the flats and milk them twice a day. This frees up time, it’s better for us and it’s better for them,” says Graham.
The changes are helping to increase productivity – one of the three fundamental “planks” of the project. The second plank, “increasing environmental sustainability” is also evident across the property. Further areas of bush have been fenced off to encourage regeneration to natives, including species that are no longer common in the area. A block of pine trees that had been cleared 20 years ago to plant grass, unsuccessfully, has been re-planted with pine. Fencing the waterways will be a summer project.
Jan is particularly pleased with the on-farm environmental changes.
“It’s really cool to see the natives coming back. Before when we developing the farm Ambie saw land for growing grass, not so much growing trees, but looking to the future he has developed a plan to further allow areas to regrow - watching the regrowth and seeing the areas mature has been great. This way of thinking is progress for us,” she says.
Long-time processes and systems may be changing for Jan, Ambie and Graham, but Kylie is new to farming, moving to Tangiteroria from North Queensland with Graham when he returned to the family farm in 2016. Quietly spoken and considered, the busy mum to three young children was thrown it at the deep end of farming, learning the trade on a challenging property and becoming involved in Extension 350 where a team of ‘strangers’ scrutinises, reviews and monitors your livelihood.
Kylie says the beginning was difficult; Graham didn’t talk a lot about the farm business and worked long hours, but eventually she became more involved with their farming business. “I’m more understanding now of what he does and we have more of a team approach so we can support each other. I’m at most of the team meetings and I do a lot of the financial things so I know what’s coming in and what’s going out.”
This more unified approach, sharing the load, and being able to talk to each other about the issues are important aspects to “farmer wellbeing”; the third and final plank underpinning Extension 350 and arguably the most abstract of the three; less tangible and more difficult to implement and measure than lifting profitability and environmental sustainability. It is however a plank that is firmly entrenched in the principles of the programme. The vulnerability and alarming suicide statistics in the rural community have been widely publicised; this is a sector that traditionally tries to soldier on and battle problems alone says Luke, part of the solution lies in farmers talking to and supporting each other.
Graham, Kylie, Jan and Ambie all have a better understanding now of the business and can see where it’s heading. Profitability is increasing and costs are being better managed. Graham does a bit of contracting on the side which increases the profit. When he’s off the farm he has complete faith in AJ, the farm worker whom he credits for “making everything easier” and “just getting it done”.
Seven Extension 350 clusters out of 10 are now underway around Northland and the three farm field days highlighted that while the journey isn’t necessarily an easy one, it is worthwhile, with progress at a range of levels across the target farms involved. Back on the Beatty farm Graham and Kylie’s goal of buying the farm is within reach, and as for Jan and Ambie’s goal of stepping back to do what they’ve always wanted? The morning of the field day Jan booked tickets for her and Ambie to go to the United Kingdom for a holiday. That’s progress!