While farmers continue to be warned of high debt levels and the possibility of an unfriendly government they have been told water is the biggest issue they face.
Outgoing Federated Farmers president Bruce Wills told those at the organisation's annual conference that with rural debt of just under $53 billion farmers ran the risk of being unable to repay some of it if they struck a serious weather event.
He said the Government had been largely supportive of agriculture. "Should we have a change of Government on September 20, this is unlikely to continue to be the case."
But water was the biggest issue. "How do we maintain and improve its quality in face of a growing population and expanding and changing farm businesses?"
Nutrients were finding their way into streams. "We can sort phosphorous – I'm convinced of that - this is largely about good management."
It was diffused nitrogen leaching that was the biggest challenge.
Being sustainable was good business and wasting nutrients didn't make sense, he said.
The 20-year change to dairying had pushed onto lighter soils "and in some areas we're seeing too many nutrients being lost.
"The science is telling us this and farmers have been responding for some time, fencing waterways, riparian planting, preparing nutrient plans and adopting more efficient irrigation."
However, in some sensitive areas more needed to be done, though farmers were building feed pads, herd homes and other means of controlling nutrient runoff. Using less inputs and reducing cow numbers were other options.
An example of how well farmers were responding was the winners of the Ballance Farm Environment Awards, Mark and Devon Slee.
They milked 2580 cows on a large-scale intensive dairy farm on some of Canterbury's lighter soils, "exactly the sort of farm at the sharp end of the economy-environment conundrum we are trying to solve".
They were producing 1830kg of milksolids a hectare, or 475kg a cow.
"With precision farming, smart science and exceptional management they are leaching the same nitrogen they were leaching on that property in the mid-1990s, but with 70 per cent more cows. Their immediate focus is on reducing their leaching even more."
Wills said farmers must run an efficient profitable business within sustainable environmental boundaries.
"To ensure all New Zealanders prosper we must continue to grow our largest industry. But we must also look after our environment.
"This is our challenge. I am more convinced than ever that is entirely achievable and our farmers are well on the road to making this a reality."
Wills was succeeded as president by former South Canterbury GP-turned-farmer William Rolleston. Vice-president is Anders Crofoot, a former New York investment funds analyst who bought Wairarapa's Castlepoint Station in 1998.
Ballance Agri-Nutrients chief executive Larry Bilodeau was named as Federated Farmers person of the year and the personality of year is former agricultural trade envoy and former Federated Farmers president Alistair Polson, who died last month.