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Friday, 15 September 2017

Questions to ask before hiring a farm environment consultant

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The degree to which farmers are mitigating environmental impacts has become a hot topic.

As many regulations start to take effect farmers are grappling with the complexity of the work they need to get done, the new limits they need to farm to and if or how their property values are being affected as a result. With all that complexity, visibility and risk comes the opportunity for consultants to step in and help farmers with their challenges.

Farmers are used to contracting professional support, whether it be accountants or agri-consultants. But farm environmental consultants are a fairly new breed, with a lot of new specialists now pitching themselves as experts.

How to know the environmental advice you’re getting is what you need.

Here are six questions to get started.

1. Are they a Certified Nutrient Management Adviser (CNMA)?
Having this qualification shows you meet the national standards required to provide certified nutrient management advice. Advisers are required to have completed appropriate university qualifications, or suitable work experience in agriculture. They also need to have successfully completed the intermediate and advanced courses in Sustainable Nutrient Management in New Zealand Agriculture via Massey University, as well as demonstrate that their skills and knowledge meet required standards through a competency assessment.
A full list of CNMAs is available on NMACP's website

2. Will they tell you what you want to hear or what you need to hear?
Farm environmental work is important. A poor piece of technical work linked to a resource consent, can result in legally binding conditions with the council that put your farm’s value at risk. So make sure they’re giving this work the effort it deserves. Keep an eye out for someone who may be taking shortcuts that could end up costing you a lot of money in the long run. It’s worse than a false economy; it’s a false sense of security.

3. Will they stick with you and defend their work in the event of prosecution?
Farm Environmental Management is here to stay. Ongoing support is likely to be needed whether it be farming advice or compliance assessments for reporting to councils. You need to know the person working with you to meet regulatory requirements and obtain consents will also be there to help you for the years to come. Worst case scenario is you need their support in the Environment Court. If a consultant wouldn’t defend their work in a legal setting, then you aren’t getting what you’re paying for. It’s the ultimate test of their confidence in their data, analysis and recommendations.

4. Do they understand your farm?
If they are not visiting your farm and discussing your goals, then alarm bells should ring. Having access to fertiliser history, soil test results and spreading maps are all going to speed up the process. An environmental adviser's knowledge of the region and the challenges faced by neighbouring farms is also helpful.

5. How thorough is their process?
Complex modelling and scenario planning of farm systems through Overseer is no walk in the park, it can take time to do the work well. To ensure nothing is missed, all work should be reviewed by another senior ranking adviser. The reviewer should have the experience and knowledge to really understand the work and give it the critical eye it deserves.

6. Do they understand the rules?
The regulatory framework can be complex and contain a lot of specific details. Knowing the ins and outs of the latest plan change ruling and applying these to your case is part of what you’re paying for. The way rules are implemented changes all the time so if your adviser isn’t up-to-date with the variations, they may be missing a vital piece of the puzzle. Ask them how they stay in touch with what’s changing and how much contact they have with regional council officials.

The best way to tackle environmental management is to compare it to business risk management. It’s important because failing to put the right measures in place now could have long-term consequences for your farm. It always pays to do it right and as the old saying goes, ‘you get what you pay for’. If you’re compromising on quality advice, you may be compromising your farm’s sustainability.