By Cheyenne Stein
Photos: Johnny Houston
Like many young girls, Megan Hands dreamt of being a vet. Today she’s a farm environmental auditor at Irrigo Centre helping farmers come to grips with environmental policies.
Megan grew up on her parents’ dairy farm in Shannon and it was during the early days of the Horizons One Plan that she revised her career path.
“When I was younger there were some resource management battles going on in Opiki near our farm and my dad started to get involved with that and that’s when I started to take an interest in the resource management side of agriculture.”
After finishing school Megan headed off to Lincoln University to study environmental management and planning, which she says was a very deliberate choice.
“I looked at both Lincoln and Massey and decided that at the time, Lincoln offered a much easier pathway to study both environmental management and agriculture together. I saw a gap in the market for this expertise and a truckload of legislation on its way to be negotiated.”
‘I crammed my last year of university into one semester and went back to work. I felt quite lucky to have a dream job before I even graduated.’
During the last year of her degree Megan was offered an internship with Landpro in central Otago which then transformed into a fulltime job offer.
“I crammed my last year of university into one semester and went back to work. I felt quite lucky to have a dream job before I even graduated.”
Her resource management consultancy role saw her first day spent in a helicopter inspecting high country stations. Megan was involved in consenting effluent and irrigation systems through to dairy conversion consents and farm environment plans.
“That was around the time the new dairy conversion rules began to take effect so it was an interesting time to be involved.”
Megan then made the move back Canterbury to take up the role of catchment engagement leader for DairyNZ. She worked closely with farmers to get engagement with environmental policy and helping to answer questions about the rules and what farmers needed to do. Before long she was snapped up by her current employers, Irrigo, which meant she could spend more time on the ground with farmers onfarm and work with them in the implementation of environmental policy.
“In my day-to-day role now it’s very much handled out onfarm doing farm environment plan audits three days a week and working through management practise standards. This process requires auditing against good management standards, measuring if they are where they need to be and, if not, working out what they need to do and the consequences if they aren’t meeting the targets.”
Megan says there are certainly challenges ahead for many farmers on the environment and it will be a process to go through, but by and large farmers are doing the right thing. They are just in the new age of having to prove it to the public and regulators.
It is a process, she says, and is difficult when someone tells you that you have to change what you’ve been doing or have to justify what you have been doing.
“I know what it’s like. Our own family farm is affected by stringent rules in the One Plan but the most part I think it’s just a process and some people take longer to move through that process than others.”
The most important thing for farmers to do is engage early.
“Working in the farm environmental space can be scary. The water quality issues we are facing in some areas are complex and challenging. There are some times where farmers feel that they are hard-done-by in the plan-change process but if they engage early on as to what’s going on in the council and the rules it makes the process a lot easier.”
The national policy on fresh water management has been around for quite some time and Megan says for regions that are yet to have a plan change, they need to be prepared for that to come their way and be prepared to make some changes.
“This is probably the hardest thing for farmers. They may have to make some changes to their farm systems and prove things which ultimately means keeping records, but that’s not a bad thing. They can use those records to make good management decisions and improve their farm efficiency.”
With so much focus in this area of agriculture at the moment Megan says there is a massive shortage of people with both farm systems expertise and environmental expertise.
“We are screaming out for good people that understand both sides of the coin.”
Megan isn’t just passionate about farming and environment. Leadership plays a key role in her career aspirations and she is hoping to use all three of her passions to be an advocate for New Zealand farming.
“I have always been interested in leadership and governance. We are world leaders in farming whether we put our hands up and say we are or not. I think we certainly are and we need to tell that story a lot more effectively both internationally and within our own nation.”
Her passion for leadership and governance is what led her to go for a spot on her local Malvern community board. She was elected to the board last year and wants to do her part to ensure her community thrives and encourages other young people to get involved.
“For me I think of the Dr Suess quote a lot ‘Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot. Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.’ I think it’s really important to get involved particularly in rural communities.”
Megan comes from a family that hasn’t been afraid to get involved. Her dad was very involved in the water action group many years ago along with Federated Farmers and rugby and her mum with the dairy industry awards.
She says it’s been a great experience seeing the hard-working volunteers who work tirelessly to make sure the community has good spaces and facilities available to them, which for small rural communities is important for keeping everyone connected.
If a fulltime job and working on the community board wasn’t enough to fill her time, Megan also has had some preparing to do for the regional finals for Young Farmer of the Year. Despite being busy with work Megan says she entered to set an example for other women in her club.
“I’m constantly telling the other girls in the organisation to give it a go. There have only ever been three women in the grand finals and I think that’s a really poor representation of the industry. So I entered because I can’t tell others to get involved if I didn’t step up myself and do it.”
And it must have worked. Women outnumbered men 14 to nine at the Christchurch district finals this year with two, Megan and Ellish Norrie, qualifying for the regional finals.
“There is some research out there that says guys only need 20% confidence before they will give something a go and girls need about 80%. So I think we all need to encourage each other to give it a go. There are women in my own Young Farmers Club who have far greater ability onfarm than I do, they just need to be encouraged to give it a go.”
Megan knows she has a lot of hard work ahead of her in preparation for the regional final in early March but has plenty of farming friends to call on for some words of wisdom. Her days spent relief milking will no doubt help as well.
“I miss farming a lot, I miss the cows. My preference would be to be farming myself but I have rheumatoid arthritis so that’s not really a long-term career I can do. My body wouldn’t cope with being on the farm all day every day. Doing this means I can keep my hand in and have some cow time.”
Working around her lifestyle block is the next best thing to having a farm. Megan, with her partner Simon bought their little block last year and she says it was a compromise between the two.
“Simon’s a city lad and I’m a rural girl at heart. Rural communities offer something that is far superior to urban communities. That community spirit that’s alive and well in our rural areas is something to be immensely proud of and something I want to raise a family in.”