If nature and books don’t agree, throw out the books! Changing our understanding of how the environment works opens up business advantages for farmers that are often ignored due to traditions.

So where can we change? There are three areas for insights about improving resilience: lift efficiencies, replace inputs, and then when things are really serious, redesign the business.

Lifting efficiencies

Communities want soils that absorb water rapidly and release it slowly. Imagine if MPI said that, or the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council did so, how would that change pasture and cropping management? I wonder in all the debates and publicity on water in Hawke’s Bay, has anyone asked whether soil stores more water than a dam?

Just like in Canterbury, debate is all about surface storage, never soil surfaces, despite soils holding more water than waterways. All primary production figures are based on rain fall, not what land absorbs. The difference between total and effective rainfall means a majority of Hawke’s Bay farms are probably overstocked. Many believe rainfall determines productivity, but if farmed soils barely absorb half of what falls, how can any property meet its potential, even with irrigation?

When Australian farmers get water cycling properly, their dams no longer fill from surface run off. They fill from bottom up through seepage about three days after rain has fallen. In New Zealand dams must be built water tight so nothing leaks into soil. This kind of regulation reflects narrow perspectives by overlooking what nature delivers for free … providing we invest in different grazing and cropping techniques.

North American cropping farmers use poly cultures not monocultures to improve soil structure, fertility, and water holding capacity without synthetic chemicals. Universities and primary industry ignores this practice because such farmers get by fine without reaching for the shelf other than seed and a single tractor pass. Some farmers have improved rainfall infiltration rates ten times their neighbours, meaning their soil can absorb 200mm/hour rainfall.

How does this influence productivity? One farmer had 300mm drop on his place in 5 ó hours during summer 2009 (annual rainfall 400mm, 1/3 is snow). Within four days tractors were working his land. There was no soil erosion. His neighbour had to wait six weeks. Guess who made more money that summer?

So there are many ways enhancing free natural services lifts efficiencies. Where else can farmers make a change? Another area is replacing inputs, like organics. How can we look beyond technology as the only tool in our toolbox?

Replacing inputs

A classic is fertiliser. Hay is probably cheapest fertiliser there is. A 300kg round has about $50 worth of minerals all tied to organic compounds meaning very little if any leaching. Compare this to soluble fertilisers, where up to 60-90% of minerals are lost from soil through leaching or vaporising. This means when farmers sell hay, they need to apply twice as much mineral because there is so much waste with soluble fertilisers.

What about weeds? If livestock graze any plant and get nutrition from it, it’s herbage not a weed. Some common weeds at right times have higher protein levels than clover or lucerne, but most research ignores this observation because their focus is a small number of highly commercial plants. Instead out come spray cans. This is another removable cost when farmers understand how diversity of pasture influences livestock health and performance.

North American councils employ local farmers to graze weeds in public spaces, roadsides, and waste areas with goats because it’s cheaper than hiring humans and often more effective. Grazing livestock don’t cause fires unlike workers mowing and slashing using steel blades. In fact grazing livestock are commonly hired by forestry companies and wildlife agencies because they reduce ferocity of wildfires. Insurance companies here have yet to click on to that.

So farmers can use different inputs to take advantage of what nature provides for free, but what happens when things get really serious? Identifying root causes of family farm problems challenges many traditions. Farmers are so stressed they cannot tell problems from symptoms, and consequently waste money. For example, many see thistles as a problem, something to be controlled, but in reality they are a symptom of management choices.

Redesigning farm businesses

Many issues in farming are not technical or financial; they are social, often linking communication and trust. When trigger points are breached, then redesigning how farmers go about their business takes precedent, requiring a change of perspective plus courage. Change happens at kitchen tables and bedrooms before seeing results on land.

Actions which improve trust lift business performance. Family and staff stress reduces when singing from same song sheet. Communicating a family’s purpose lifts accountability by encouraging everyone to be responsible for their actions. Family members understand their contribution to bigger picture rather than just pursuing their own agenda. It helps them become proactive in addressing problems before they become serious.

As communication improves, families can consider new techniques and information with an open mind. For example, planning profit is easy but requires change in mindset from how we are educated. The traditional accounting equation is: Income – Expenses = Profit. Paying everyone else first is ingrained into all business practice and causes many farm problems. Farmers need to use a different equation: Income – Profit = Expenses. Sounds simple, but it’s not easy, because it requires prioritising expenses from a different perspective to accountants.

Accountants focus on tax categories, seldom stimulating emotional equity in clients’ financial planning and execution. Imagine if a couple spent money on three things to move their business forward: fencing to control livestock, a consultant to assist with grazing plans, and a counsellor because one partner suffered from alcoholism. Look closely – which expense has greatest impact on clearing a business logjam? How would accountants categorise that expense? Managing holistically means addressing root causes.

Prioritising spending focuses time management so families act with integrity. Assume a family decides to go on a week’s holiday every year no matter what their circumstances. However, this season prices are low, costs are up. What is stopping them from taking $500 from their fertiliser account and camping at the back of farm? As an example of leadership, what does this demonstrate about a family?

Imagine possibilities for farm development, succession planning, and marketing? Redesigning business reduces stress for all parties, especially when everybody knows what to monitor, whether that be landscape function, finances, or fun. Changing communication at kitchen tables is all about how to achieve what you want to happen, while reducing any unintended consequences from choices made as a family.

So where does this leave you, the reader? Thinking that creates problems never solves them. Many farmers question high input systems because they seldom generate cash surpluses to cover real risk. To see and create advantages using nature’s free services requires a shift in perspective first and an attitude to experiment. As demonstrated here, farmers are discovering new ways of business which are practical, profitable, and grounded in common sense.

John King is a Christchurch-based agribusiness tutor, facilitator, speaker, and grazing advocate. He can be reached at john@succession.co.nz

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