The Government has recognised the need to boost the agricultural advice sector, as well the need to broaden the potential interest in becoming a farm adviser, Phil Edmonds writes.

Last month the Government announced it would be investing more than $25 million to expand and strengthen the primary industry advisory sector. This represented the latest spend on lifting the appeal of primary sector jobs.

To date, the focus has been on boosting numbers at farm-level (Taratahi and Telford taster courses, and the Opportunity Grows Here campaigns including GoDairy). This latest dump of cash looks to be less speculative, more mission-focused and with that, on surer footing to deliver on its projected aim. It might also help illuminate a professionalised and internationally envied sector of farm environmental experts.

To those in the business of advising farmers, this intervention by the Government will be welcome, but not unexpected. Since the middle of 2021 when Ministry for Primary Industries published its approach to ‘Good Farm Planning’ in the form of a 28-page guidance document ‘Towards Integrated Farm Planning’, it has been abundantly clear the capacity of existing farm advisory firms was not going to be able to carry the load that would be required to meet farmers’ need to have a functioning farm plan established by 2025.

A year later, the Government has come to that very conclusion, as well as recognising there is also a need to broaden the potential interest in becoming a farm adviser. In April the Careers Pathway Scheme was born to achieve the goal of ensuring farmers and growers can adapt and innovate in order for the value of New Zealand primary sector exports to grow and be sustained.

The scheme has the primary aim of increasing the number and diversity of skilled farm advisers by up to 100 (the number determined by research undertaken for MPI by Landcare Research and Scarlatti) in the independent farm advisory sector.

As is conditional with government funding, there will be an emphasis on attracting more advisers from people outside the current network. Specifically, the target is more women, new graduates, Māori and career-changers. This isn’t just about promoting diversity for diversity’s sake.

It is well understood that farming has an ageing workforce and is struggling to attract a new generation of workers. But it’s less often recognised that the advisory sector is suffering from the same phenomenon. It needs new blood and new faces as well.

In terms of the nuts and bolts, the Government will help fund salary and training costs for new and early career advisers with less than three years advisory experience – $22,500 per year (for up to three years) will be available. It will also provide one-off contributions towards integrated farm planning-related training costs, which can be made to experienced advisers with more than three years’ advisory experience.

This latter category is for advisers who want to upskill to support farmers with integrated farm planning.

Independent advisory firms are encouraged to apply for funding, particularly if they want to grow their team’s diversity and can support professional development with a steady workflow.

For those still suspicious of the need for mandated farm plans, the Government’s stock answer remains focused on it being a necessary response to what the customer wants, as well as an attempt to reduce (yes, reduce) the amount of time spent by farmers on compliance. Announcing the Career Pathway Scheme, Minister for Agriculture Damien O’Connor said integrated farm planning is being adopted to “make meeting consumer, market, environmental and business needs easier and less time-consuming for farmers and growers”.

It may be convenient for the Government to point to consumers rather than its own needs as the reason for all this work is necessary. But there’s no point dwelling on ulterior motives. Recent announcements on the way forward for measuring greenhouse gas emissions onfarm (as proposed by the farming sector itself) is a reminder that the farm plan train is well in motion.

Wairarapa-based BakerAg dairy consultant Chris Lewis says farmers are engaged and broadly understand what lies ahead. In terms of existing commitment to planning, he says “There are differences throughout the community. Dairy farmers for example have had compliance requirements through their dairy companies for some years now, and so they’ve already started the journey.

“There are others who are only just coming on board. But the consensus is farm plans are not going away and best that we start at least learning about it and understanding the implications for our farms.”

With all that in mind, New Zealand Institute of Primary Industries Management (NZIPIM) chief executive Jo Finer says the 100 additional advisers the Government is effectively funding into the sector is probably shy of what the real number required is.

O’Connor made a point of noting the Government had worked with organisations including NZIPIM to determine the most effective way to develop capacity in the sector, and there is definitely support for the

funding approach. However, Finer says “The extra 100 might deal with the initial work on regulation around freshwater farm plans, but by the time you start adding in GHG, and the requirements that will come out of the He Eke Waka Noa plan and then potentially indigenous biodiversity reporting then that number is looking conservative.”

With 2025 around the corner, the need for more people who have environmental skillsets and knowledge of integrated farm planning will be invaluable. This is the clear basis for getting the scheme underway now. Lewis says consultancies in some regions – Canterbury, Southland and Waikato – have seen a significant shift already in their workloads and needed to take on people to deal with environmental needs.

“Other regions have been a bit slower in bringing on the demand for compliance reporting, including Greater Wellington and Horizons but as that increases the need for people will grow.”

On one level you could say bolstering the advisory sector with new talent is breeding bureaucracy – if you happen to struggle with the justified need.

But with a more positive lens, it could be viewed as a fresh means to open new career opportunities for those with existing farm experience. In fact, it is likely to add more appeal to starting a career in the primary sector, with some visible evidence that a transition from gumboots to loafers is a realistic proposition – based on the work experience gained wearing gumboots.

“It will be highly advantageous to have people coming into this work with onfarm experience,” Finer says. “In a lot of cases, it will require tertiary qualifications, but we want to push the onfarm knowledge necessary for the job and highlight the professionalism of those who are (and will become) advisers on integrated farm planning.”

Not only that, but these types of jobs also show that career progression from farm work can lead to overseas opportunities – something other sectors make a strong play for when promoting the benefits of entering their industries.

While the link wasn’t specifically made between the $339 million the Government said it would be pumping into ag emissions mitigation research in May and the global opportunities NZ would have to capitalise on its advisory expertise, the political reaction was reasonably unified on the benefits of us becoming the world leader on solving agricultural emissions. Jump forward to NZ churning out the world’s most sought-after farm advisers.

As in any situation where the Government chips in with cash, it’s right to ask whether the investment is worthy and will lead to net positive outcomes. For example, given the spotlight on Government spending and its beneficiaries, questions might be asked as to whether the independent advisory firms (those already identified as winners) should be investing themselves to take advantage of the work that lies ahead.

Lewis suggests however there are plenty of checks to make sure the funding achieves both its desired outcome, and the recipients of funding play their part.

“Firms are expected to take responsibility for the training, and they have to demonstrate that there’s an existing in-house programme with milestones that demonstrate the progress being made by the career pathway nominee.

“On the whole, the initiative is well measured, and it will make a difference to a range of businesses. It could make all the difference in their decisions to employ an extra person.”