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Crossing the ravine safely: how might EMS approaches help regional NRM bodies to bridge the gap between on-farm and catchment environmental outcomes?

Chris Reid1, Eloise Seymour2 and Suzanne Johnstone1

1 North East Catchment Management Authority, PO Box 66, Wodonga Victoria. Email:
Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, Albury NSW 2640


Over the last decade regional NRM bodies, such as the North East Catchment Management Authority (North East CMA) have trialled EMS as a way of achieving environmental outcomes relating to public good issues and as a way to measure on-ground progress towards catchment targets. The EMS process can provide useful data for CMAs including the results of on-farm self-assessments, action plans, target-setting and monitoring. However a number of challenges are faced when trying to make Regional Catchment Strategies and their targets relevant at a number of scales. North East CMA has trialled a web-based EMS system (eFarmer) which incorporates elements of EMS and on-farm and catchment spatial information. Farmers are able to carry out property planning, record paddock data, develop on-farm targets and develop action plans that incorporate catchment targets. The North East region was one of four regions where eFarmer was tested and evaluated. eFarmer was found to be functionally simple and provided a communication link between farmers, extension staff and catchment managers. eFarmer increased the knowledge and capacity of landholders to target high priority works on their properties; this was despite initial low levels of computer skills, low education, varying age groups and whether the participant had a farming or peri-urban background.

Key Words

Regional NRM, catchment, web-based systems.


There has been substantial investment in EMS in Australia over the last decade. Commonwealth investment alone was in the order of $8.5 million in the EMS National Pilot Program, $11.9 million in the Pathways to Industry EMS Program and $3.9 million in EMS Pathways to Sustainable Agriculture. There has also been significant investment by industries and State governments. Evaluation of these EMS programmes has drawn similar conclusions – that while EMS might be useful for increasing farmer’s awareness of environmental issues and helping them to demonstrate their environmental credentials to the community, for most industries there are currently no drivers (other than self-motivation) to sustain EMS to the full ISO14001 level (DAFF 2007). In the meantime, lower-level approaches based on risk assessment, monitoring and action planning are likely to be more effective for engaging the majority of landholders, thus achieving better environmental outcomes on private land and preparing Australian producers for future market requirements.

Catchment Management Authorities have explored the potential of EMS to achieve on-farm and catchment-scale environmental outcomes. With 45% of the land in the North East region privately managed, many of the region’s natural assets are either on private land or are affected by activities occurring on private land. The right selection of policy tools for encouraging sustainable practices on private land is therefore crucial for CMAs and landholders to share responsibility of environmental management in the region. Policy approaches which result in both private and public benefits and align with landholder values are likely to result in better outcomes at the catchment scale. The use of self-regulating approaches based on increasing farmers’ awareness of their on-farm and off-farm environmental outcomes, seems a logical approach for CMAs to take.

The recent development and trialling of the web-based EMS tool, known as eFarmer, is of particular interest to regional NRM bodies and State government environmental agencies because it allows for the capture of privately-funded environmental works on farms that could not be previously captured outside of the CMA incentives programmes. The use of eFarmer has many potential benefits for landholders, extension officers and catchment managers. This paper describes the eFarmer experience in the North East CMA region of Victoria, drawing on the evaluation of a major eFarmer trial involving landholders, extension staff and catchment managers. Finally, we conclude with a number of key learnings from the eFarmer experience.


eFarmer background

eFarmer is a web-based system that incorporates some elements of EMS and deals with on-farm and catchment spatial information (Pettit et al. 2007). Landholders are able to utilise eFarmer to carry out property planning, record paddock data, develop on-farm targets and action plans, record monitoring data and calculate nutrient loss. Catchment targets can also be included with the package. Through the use of eFarmer, landholders are able to generate maps of their property using sophisticated government data layers such as EVC, Bioregional conservation status and LANDSAT imagery (Pettit et al. 2007). Extension staff and catchment managers can also access the system to enter sub-catchment targets and review reports regarding individual landholder targets (Pettit et al. 2007). Catchment managers are then able to run reports about the data in eFarmer but are not able to access individual property details (Roberts et al. 2009).

eFarmer has potential to be a very effective catchment and farm planning tool. In the future it is envisaged that it will allow for spatially referenced information concerning incentives applications, planning permits, community activities, monitoring points and much more.

The North East region eFarmer trial

The North East region initially became involved in the eFarmer process because they wanted to develop and test a process with landholders and Landcare members that would enable them to identify, prioritise, carry out and monitor on-ground works that contributed directly to achieving a selection of the region’s catchment targets (Johnstone 2009). The North East was one of four Victorian regions where eFarmer was tested and evaluated with landholders, extension staff and catchment managers. The eFarmer pilot was carried out during 2008 and involved 19 landholders in the Lower Kiewa Catchment area of the North East region. Also, twenty seven Extension staff and catchment managers from the Department of Primary Industries (DPI), Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) and the North East CMA were also involved in the evaluation process. The landholders were initially taken through a series of group workshops to learn how to use eFarmer and then applied it to their own properties. The project was also linked to a prioritisation tool developed by the North East CMA regarding the use of strategically-targeted incentives for on-ground works (Johnstone 2009).

Evaluation procedure

The North East eFarmer pilot was evaluated using both qualitative and quantitative approaches at various stages during the trial period to assess the ‘rate of change’ and evaluate against the project’s objectives. The quantitative data included background information for participants (age, education, current levels of computer use). Baseline environmental data, targets and action plan information was also compiled before and after the trial period. Two evaluation questionnaires were developed; one set for landholders and the other set for catchment and extension staff. The questionnaires included such questions as:

  • Has the use of eFarmer increased your capacity to target priorities in NRM works on your farm?
  • Has eFarmer increased your capacity to monitor and evaluate management actions on your farm?
  • Do you believe eFarmer many increase your knowledge in property planning?

The qualitative results were collected in the form of general feedback throughout the eFarmer trial period, telling a story about the change in knowledge, skills and general experiences of the participants whilst using eFarmer.


Qualitative results

Feedback collected throughout the trial period suggested that landholders had a very positive experience in using eFarmer. A number of landholders suggested that eFarmer had production/business benefits, as well as environmental benefits, as reflected in this quote:

‘Fantastic tool. I can’t wait to use it for whole farm planning and measuring paddock areas, fertiliser and nutrient loss’; and ‘Thanks for providing us with such a practical tool’.

Even though some participants considered themselves to have low computer skills, they were able to learn to use the program;

‘I was very pleased with myself when editing my polygons, it’s amazing what one can do when one has a go’.

Importantly, eFarmer was found to increase the awareness of landholders regarding on-farm and catchment outcomes;

‘One could really change the proposed works site to achieve a greater score quite easily. Therefore you could really achieve works that are hitting the target in terms of catchment priorities’.

The package appealed to both commercial and lifestyle farmers. eFarmer was thought to have the potential to increase capture of on-ground activities. Linking on-farm and catchment targets in the eFarmer system was reported to be functionally simple and provided a communication link between farmers, extension staff and catchment managers.

Quantitative results

For the staff, 27 questionnaires were completed. A total of 19 questionnaires were completed by landholders. Analysis of the results found that through the use of eFarmer, all participants had increased their knowledge and capacity to target high priority works on their properties. It was found that participant’s ability to undertake effective property planning through the use of eFarmer increased by 43.4%. All landholder participants had rated themselves as having low-level computer skills at the start of the project, but all reported high-level computer mapping skills from using eFarmer. The background data revealed that even without prior catchment knowledge, irrelevant of age group and whether from a farming or peri-urban background, eFarmer provided participants with the knowledge and skills to target high priority works on their properties.


eFarmer was found to have a number of benefits for landholders and Landcare groups in North East Victoria. Prior to eFarmer landholders did not have access to up-to-date NRM spatial data; and they were not able to monitor the value of their management actions against the RCS. Overall, eFarmer was found to be a very effective property planning tool as well as providing benefits for catchment managers such as its potential to export shape files for submission of landholder action plans for accessing incentives (Johnstone 2009).

The North East CMA have found that eFarmer is the key to linking on-farm and catchment environmental outcomes. eFarmer increases landholder’s awareness of the catchment implications of the works carried out on their properties. While eFarmer won’t be suitable for every regional catchment target, picking out targets that can be easily scaled-up from the farm to catchment scale will be a very worthwhile approach for engaging landholders in environmental management.

Three key learnings:

  • Landholders with initial low-level computer skills have used eFarmer successfully to target environmental works on their properties.
  • eFarmer allows CMAs to capture on-farm data that might otherwise ‘fall through the net’. A lot of environmental works are carried out on farms purely from the landholders own motivation. These works are not currently captured by the CMA. The eFarmer process has increased landholder awareness of catchment impacts of their management on private land.
  • eFarmer has a number of business benefits, making it an attractive option for landholder uptake. Benefits include monitoring fertiliser inputs and outputs, calculating fencelines etc.


DAFF. (2007). Pathways to Industry Environmental Management Systems Program Final Report. Sydney: Hassal & Associates Pty Ltd.

Johnstone, S. (2009). Strategically Targeting Incentives Delivery Evaluation Report. North East Catchment Management Authority, Wodonga, Vic.

Pettit, C. J., Bishop, I. D., Cartwright, W. E., Park, G., & Kemp, O. (2007). Enhancing web based farm management software through the use of visualisation technologies. Paper presented at the MODSIM07 International Congress on Modelling and Simulation.

Roberts, A., Park, G., Melland, A. & Miller, I. (2009). Trialling a web-based spatial information management tool with landholders in Victoria, Australia. Journal of Environmental Management, submitted.

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