As chair of Irrigation New Zealand, a natural resources engineer at irrigation consultancy Irricon Resource Solutions Services, and an irrigated farmer, Keri Johnston is an expert on the practice and policy of irrigation in New Zealand. Both the technology of irrigation and the New Zealand regulatory environment have been changing in recent years, and irrigated farmers there are under increasing pressure to comply with stricter regulations and to prove their farms’ compliance with farm environment plans.
In this interview with Irrigation Leader Editor-in-Chief Kris Polly, Keri Johnston describes what these plans entail, the challenges farmers face in complying with them, and New Zealand farmers’ message to local and national policymakers.
Kris Polly: Please tell us about your background.
Keri Johnston: I grew up on a farm in North Otago on the South Island of New Zealand. I married a farmer as well, and we are now between two farms here in South Canterbury, totaling 440 hectares. I have a bachelor of engineering in natural resources engineering, which is similar to agricultural engineering, from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. I’m also a chartered professional engineer. I specialize in engineering solutions for major water activities. Today, I am a natural resources engineer at Irricon Resource Solutions Services, a company in which I am also a 45 percent shareholder.
Kris Polly: Would you tell our readers about farm environment plans?
Keri Johnston: Farm environment plans are a tool to help farmers identify and deal with the environmental risks on their farms. For example, runoff may be an issue for some farms. The plans are broken down by management area, including irrigation management, grazing management, and cropping management, and they help farmers determine how they are going to do these things better.
Kris Polly: How long have New Zealanders been using these plans?
Keri Johnston: They came into being in a regulated sense around 2010. We were involved with a group of high-country station owners in the Mackenzie basin, an iconic area of natural value. Many of those farms go through a process we call tenure review. A lot of farms, particularly the high-country stations, were leased from the government, and tenure review was a review of those leases. It resulted in the government trying to prevent the farmers from farming on lands it considered to have significant ecological value, but in return was freeholding some of the lands it didn’t consider of significance. Of course, that meant that many of those farmers were losing area, and to make sure that they were still profitable on the area that they were retaining, many of them looked into irrigation development on that land. As this was contentious given the location, the consents required to do the development were publicly notified, meaning that the applications for consent were open to public submission. The farm environment plan was the tool developed by the Mackenze basin farmers to show that the intensification and development on the land that they would retain was going to be okay. Having a farm environment plan that was subject to audit became a condition of resource consents. They have become more embedded in regulation in more recent years. In Canterbury, where I’m based, they became part of the regional planning framework in 2012, which means that any farmer who goes through any sort of resource consent or permit process needs a farm environment plan.
Kris Polly: What are some of the things that farmers must do under the plan?
Keri Johnston: One of the big ones is the use of the Overseer model, which is a nutrient budgeting software tool. Basically, they need to look at the potential nitrogen and phosphorus losses that could occur from farming activity. They enter the physical characteristics of their farms into Overseer
along with information about how they farm—figures on irrigation; effluent; stock numbers and type; and supplement feed, whether it is made on farm or purchased. The program then tells them how much nitrogen and phosphorus are expected to leave their farms. Under our current regulations, a lot of farmers are subject to a nutrient discharge allowance, which is an Overseer number. Every year, they have to show that they have complied with it. A big part of the farm environment plan is showing this compliance and having the records in place to validate the inputs used in the Overseer model. Farmers’ recordkeeping now takes a lot more time than it did before. My grandfather would probably only have spent the morning of the 20th of the month at the office paying his bills. The 20th of the month is the day on which bills are traditionally due in New Zealand. Nowadays, it probably takes one full day a week just to complete your paperwork in order to show that you’re complying with your farm environment plan.
Kris Polly: What happens if a farmer doesn’t comply with the plan?
Keri Johnston: As part of our regulatory structure, there are certified farm environment plan auditors. They come on farm 12 months after the farm environment plan has been put in place and give a grade from A to D, with A being good and D being bad. The grade that you obtain dictates the frequency with which you are audited afterward. If you receive an A or B grade, that indicates that you are doing what you said that you would do, and you are basically allowed to carry on. If you receive a C or D grade and you are part of an irrigation scheme, the scheme would provide you a lot of support and try to bring your grade up the following year. If you’re not part of an irrigation scheme, the regional council would support you to help you get to where you need to be. It’s almost a three strikes system: They will help you up to a point, but if you don’t up your game, you may face consequences, such as not being delivered water.
Kris Polly: Tell us about your business, Irricon.
Keri Johnston: Irricon is an environmental consultancy. I head a staff of 18 who are involved in a lot of resource consent work. Most activities that we undertake here in New Zealand require some sort of permission from our regional council. We need resource consents to take water or to discharge animal effluent to land, for example. We work mostly with farmers and irrigation schemes. We are heavily involved with helping farmers comply with all the regulations that now exist.
Kris Polly: How long has your company been in existence?
Keri Johnston: We have been in existence since 2007. It started off with just three of us, and we have grown since then. We are all farmers ourselves, which I think is really important, because we are going through all this on our own properties as well.
Kris Polly: What should every New Zealand council member and member of Parliament know about irrigating farmers in New Zealand?
Keri Johnston: Irrigated farmers are actually doing a lot to improve the environmental practices on farms, despite the fact that we are under a lot of public pressure. There is a widespread impression that irrigation is the sole cause of our water quality problems. The reality is that the irrigated farmers are doing far more than any other sector to improve how they operate on the farm. That needs to be understood by the public and the government.
Kris Polly: What are some of the things that farmers have been doing?
Keri Johnston: For one thing, they have been at the forefront of farm environment plan development. Irrigation schemes have also now evolved to become environmental managers for their shareholders. The schemes are ready to support farmers to get on the right track. Irrigated farmers in New Zealand are also taking up new technology. They’ve been innovative and adaptive. Things like variable rate irrigation have been common on most irrigated farms for quite some time.
Kris Polly: Would you tell us about your role as chair of Irrigation New Zealand?
Keri Johnston: It’s a new role for me. In 2018, we adopted a new strategy to set direction of travel for Irrigation New Zealand for the next 5 years. Our strategic objectives are advocating; setting standards for irrigators and the irrigation industry, such as our Code of Practice for Irrigation Design; creating an information base about irrigation; connecting with other likeminded organizations and officials; and engaging in thought leadership. New Zealand has a general election coming up within the next 15–18 months. Advocating on behalf of our membership to government and policymakers around civil regulations on water quantity and quality issues is really important for us at the moment. Our membership has emphasized that they see that advocacy as the most important thing we can do.