Assured future for deer farmer self-help groups

Assured future for deer farmer self-help groups

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Seven years after the first deer farming Advance Parties (APs) were set up, they have become part of the fabric of the deer industry. Their success has also been noted by other farming sectors that have set up similar groups.

Deer farmers at an Advance Party regional workshop at Quartz Hill Station, Canterbury

The first APs were a trial co-funded by Deer Industry NZ (DINZ) and the MPI Sustainable Farming Fund as part of the industry’s Passion2Profit strategy. At the end of the first year, 2014, there were eight underway, involving 89 farms. Today about one in five deer farmers belongs to one of 28 APs operating across the country.

DINZ chief executive Innes Moffat says APs are now funded through the Primary Growth Partnership between DINZ and MPI.

“When funding for this programme ends on 30 June 2023, DINZ will continue to fund APs and their close cousins, the Deer Industry Environment Groups. How we do this has yet to be decided, but as we get closer to that date we will be talking to AP members to get their views,” he says.

“In the meantime, we’re really keen to extend the benefits of belonging to an AP or an environment group to all farmers. You’ll enjoy the camaraderie of working with other deer farmers and be able to share and learn from each other.

“Our newest AP is made up mostly of farmers who have been farming deer for less than a year or two. Other groups have farmers who have been running deer for decades and still believe they have things to learn.”

The main focus of APs is to help farmers to increase the profitability of their farms, by learning from other farmers. Members commit themselves to personal and farm business development, sharing their data, methods, plans, results, problems and successes.

Unlike traditional farm discussion groups, there is a focus on farmers addressing barriers to increased profitability using the skills of the group. After an AP has been operating for two or three years, APs tend to change their focus from productivity fixes on individual farms to addressing more complex topics where outside expertise may be needed.

These topics are agreed by members. Some APs have looked at grass-grub control, weaner finishing systems, deer health plans and finances, to name a few.

“The role of AP facilitator is to facilitate communications, not to be a farm adviser. It’s a little different with our environmental groups, where the facilitator needs to both provide their expertise and to encourage farmers to share what works on their farms,” Moffat says.

In more recent years, where deer farmers have been faced with major regulatory issues, floods and droughts, the APs are increasingly valued as a support network.

“Also the AP structure enables DINZ to give members direct access to subject matter experts, our staff, marketing managers and deer farmers from other regions who may have relevant experience to share,” Moffat says.

“We follow a ‘farmer-first’ approach and aren’t prescriptive about the topics APs pursue, or about the form they take. But we do expect that actions will be taken, and results of those actions observed by the members.

“We think the AP model is especially good at allowing farmers to help each other with some of the rule changes coming our way. They provide groups with a structured way of proactively addressing some of the daunting challenges like freshwater regulation, and the improvement to deer sheds made necessary by the Regulated Control Scheme.”

Because some of the APs have been running for a few years now, they meet less often than before. A couple are meeting three or four times a year, which suits the members’ needs. They come together to work on specific topics, making the most of the day off-farm.

Moffat says other groups choose to keep meeting monthly, “which is great because they enjoy seeing the changes that have been made on properties over the previous couple of years”.

During 2020, Covid-19 led the industry to find new ways for AP members to interact.

Farm performance manager, Phil McKenzie, jokes that facilitators had to transition “from being outstanding in the field to outstanding on the small screen”. He’s hoping that some of the online interaction will continue beyond Covid, because it removes travel costs from the expense of bringing in outside expertise. It also reduces the time commitment for everyone involved.

Regional forums for AP chairs were replaced during the Stage 4 lockdown by a series of online forums organised by AP co-ordinator Pania Flint.

“Lots of people joined in and we had some great conversations once everyone got used to it. One person commented that working online made it feel like they are part of a nationwide team, not just a local AP.”

Contact Phil McKenzie, Tel 0274 997 809, email phil.mckenzie@deernz.org if you would like to discuss how to join an AP, or if you have a small group ready to go.