A Lincoln University pilot study is backing the importance of environmental and social responsibility, as well as the bottom line, to dairy farmers.
Seeing themselves as “guardians of their land” and adopting environmentally friendly ways of farming is a key component of the farmers’ personal convictions.
The study, What really drives dairy production systems: economic rationale or social and environmental responsibility? surveyed owners, share milkers and managers, to format a questionnaire for much larger sample of interviews with farmers, due to take place in January.
Co-author, Professor of Farm Management Alison Bailey, who teaches primary industry systems in the Bachelor of Commerce (Agriculture) degree, said all the study subjects recognised social and environmental responsibilities as key areas that have to be integrated into their objectives and decision making.
However, profitability and financial performance remains the basis of their system and their first objective.
“In the context of changing internal and external pressures on agriculture it is important to determine whether the dimensions of sustainability – economic, social, environmental – can be integrated successfully at the farm level.
“Having this knowledge is critical if we are to more fully understand the social and environmental consequences of changes in agricultural management,” Professor Bailey said.
One of the farmers’ objectives was to leave the land in a better shape than when they took it on themselves so that the next generation could also benefit from it as a productive resource.
It was generally agreed amongst all respondents that, in the long term, equal importance should be given to all three areas, financial, social and environmental.
Most of them also mentioned sustainability concerns as one of their main objectives, and they wanted a system that is productive in the long term, resilient and environmentally friendly.
• The farmers interviewed were all reasonably optimistic about milk pay-out after a number of difficult years and consider their business as financially stable and secure. However, the majority also had other sources of income, for example, investment in rental properties and partners working off-farm.
• Social responsibility is seen as a key factor to success. Three main areas emerged as the areas of importance. Their own work-life balance and social interactions, responsibilities to their employees in terms of their work-life balance and integration into the rural community.
• All of the respondents saw animal health and welfare as important priorities. For some, their reason for being a farmer was their “passion for animals”, for others they saw their role in looking after their livestock as an important objective and factor in decision making, such that any changes they planned to make to the business should benefit their livestock.
• All of the respondents have also taken measures to manage their nutrient application, not only for environmental reasons but also because it represents a significant expense item. Different techniques to also increase water use efficiency are being implemented including precision and variable rate application.
• They are aware of the impact of their practices on the environment and understand the necessity for regulation, but feel better coordination between policy makers and farmers would be beneficial for reducing environmental impact further.
• They also recognise the lack of understanding between rural and urban populations and are frustrated by the criticism they face. They would like to see better communication achieved in terms of promoting what they do positively for the environment.