Making the “A” word more approachable

Audit. It’s a word with all sorts of connotations, and none of them especially pleasant. For me, it stirs up memories of long dark nights poring over paperwork.

Steve LowndesFor Canterbury farmers today, the audit is the essential final piece of the Good Management Practice (GMP) jigsaw, and naturally, it’s not a process many farmers look forward to.

Many of you will recall the collective work done back in 2015, bringing together primary sector organisations, Crown Research Institutes and Environment Canterbury to develop the ‘industry agreed Good Management Practices’ which are now informing good environmental practice on farm.

With GMPs in place, change is no longer incremental. We’re quickly seeing exponential differences in the value to both farmers and the environment.

In the last auditing season, a total of 119 Farm Environment Plan (FEP) audits were carried out on consented individual properties in Canterbury. Of these, 39% received an A grade, while 55% were graded B – that’s 94% attaining a pass rate. This coming season, we expect that around 500 individual audits will be completed.

Irrigation Schemes have also undertaken FEP audits last season, and while the results are not yet available, we expect the performance of farms under Schemes to be similar to the trend we’re seeing for individual farms.

As I review the comments coming through with the audit results, what has struck me is that rather than seeing the audit as a job to get done, farmers are increasingly enthusiastic about the resulting benefits to their farm management systems and to the bottom line and are prioritising investments around significant capital and management changes. Auditors are particularly noticing a growing willingness to engage in discussions around nitrogen limits, record keeping and the audit process.

The audit is also an opportunity to provide support to poorly performing farms so that there is the capability to improve. The potential for negative environmental effects from such farms is significant, and so I believe it is essential that those at risk are identified.

Getting ready for the audit does take time. It involves collating records relating to all good management practices, farm diaries, photos, soil records, inspection records and nitrogen loss calculations.

Before the auditor arrives at the farm, they will have studied your records as well as your FEP so that they not only understand your unique situation but can propose improvements as well. They’ll also have reviewed your nutrient budget, any consent conditions, and any previous audit reports. Their job is to understand your farming system, and how the environmental risks are managed.

The audit visit is usually a mixture of a kitchen table discussion and a farm tour. They’ll note the Good Management Practices in place, and compile an audit report, grade, and actions for improvement. An auditor’s decisions must be based on objective evidence, triangulating the data with field observations and discussions.

Increasingly, farmers are using the audit process and report to both increase profitability and further manage the environmental risks that may impact the business, and many are now considering ‘what next’, as they look to move beyond the minimum GMP expectations. Audit recommendations
help stronger, more resilient farming businesses to grow.

By way of example, I heard recently about Le Mee Farms in Methven, the first individual commercial pig farming operation to complete the land use consent process.

Hamish Mee tells us that throughout the process, his team has become more aware of the impacts of farming on the environment and how they can improve farming practices. Ultimately, the changes he has made have reduced the amount of nutrients going into the land by around 40 per cent, with obvious cost reductions.

It’s clear that although at first glance, the steps required for land use consent and audit may appear onerous and ‘another pile of paperwork’, the results demonstrate that this is one of those areas where you can certainly get out a whole lot more than you put in.