While the Freshwater Farm Plan regulations have taken longer to come to fruition than some would have liked, when you look at where they’ve landed, I think the wait was worthwhile. I’ve been intimately involved in the regulation’s development for the last 18 months, and I’m proud of what’s been produced. They are practical, pragmatic, and importantly have been designed to be property specific.
Recent articles in the farming press have expressed concerns that Freshwater Farm Plans risk being a bureaucratic, top-down, one size fits approach that is an invasion of farmer privacy. So, how do the regulations stack up against such concerns?
The regulations require every farm operator with a property over 20 ha for pastoral and arable land uses and 5 ha for horticultural land use, to prepare a farm plan. The plans must then be certified within 18 months (are the risks and actions contained in the plan fit for purpose) and audited within a year (are the actions being undertaken). Subsequent audit timeframes relate to whether the actions have been implemented, and plans must be re-certified every 5-years to provide a periodic check that they remain fit for purpose. Plans will be rolled out over time likely on a sub-region basis. This will help to manage the inevitable ‘hump’ that always occurs for regulations of this type.
Freshwater Farm Plans are risk based. They require a farm’s risks to freshwater be identified and actions put in place to address these. This approach means each farms actions are specific to that property. A farm that has very few risks results in a simple plan with limited actions, whereas a plan for an intensively farmed property within a sensitive catchment will have multiple actions to manage risk. The approach makes sense from both a freshwater management and equity between farms perspective. It ensures the potential risks from small intensively farmed operations are managed, and that properties with limited risks are not burdened with unnecessary requirements.
Another feature of the freshwater farm plan is the adoption of a systems thinking approach to risk identification. Alongside the farming activities being undertaken, the farms landscape risks (inherent vulnerabilities) and local area which the farm impacts (catchment context) also need to be considered. This ensures risks and their related actions are context specific.
The data privacy concern is dealt with through only the identified risks and their associated actions being held by the Council. The farm plan detail remains with the farmer.
Despite the above, there are challenges ahead for the successful implementation of freshwater farm plans:
Enabling industry sustainability programmes to be formally recognised as a delivery pathway through establishing an equivalence assessment process,
Ensuring farmers have a good understanding of what’s required so they can avoid unnecessary cost from over-zealous farm plan service providers,
Upskilling rural professionals to support farmers with farm plan development and become certifiers, noting developing a workforce of competent certifiers is key to success.
Freshwater farm plans have the potential to provide a practical pathway for every farm to play its part in achieving improved freshwater management. The regulations have provided a robust and credible national framework which allows for farm specific solutions and that can be aligned with a farms business goals and other requirements. Here’s hoping the farming community gets in behind them!