Support, direction required for rural sector

Sometimes I completely fail to understand New Zealand. As a nation we trade on a clean green image yet encourage the desecration of our resources at every turn.

We espouse a No 8 wire mentality; yet I wonder how many citizens even know what No 8 wire is? We no longer support innovation, unless it is within a prescribed field and then I would debate the legitimacy of calling such developments innovation.

We do not support those who seek, within an honest day's work, to support New Zealand. We treasure our iconic land, yet sell our labour opportunities, ideas, expertise and even the land itself, offshore.

All of which brings me in a roundabout way to Shrek: how can this country idolise a merino sheep and yet have such little understanding of farming systems?

Remember the bell curve, which tells you there are always going to be some innovators, always going to be a few who drag their feet and don't want to change for anything and then there are the vast majority.

Where are the clear signals for that majority that business as usual, current agricultural practice and its associated attitude to the land upon which it is based, is not all right and is, in fact, highly destructive.

Our soil, water, animal health, even rural community health are all declining in New Zealand, but farming is still the basis upon which New Zealand trades and survives.

We know that our markets are demanding accountability; we know that they demand cognisance of climate change.

Whether you subscribe to its reality or not, the fact of the matter is that there are more people in the world, it's changing and New Zealand needs to be well positioned to survive.

We won't be unless we address our production systems and I would suggest that global experience with the currently accepted model has shown a few flaws. Any business which continually mines its assets and mistreats its staff has little future.

There are increasing numbers of farmers who are seeking alternatives, having realised they are on a treadmill driven by vested interests and that, perhaps, it is time to connect more with the land and less with the overdraft.

Some have been forced there by ill health, some encouraged by neighbours and friends, some have long-standing beliefs and others have already spotted the business opportunity.

I would suggest that, having embraced the change, none would return to previous farming methods, none are back in the stone age and most are healthier and happier as, incidentally, are their stock.

There are options, from biological farming to organics and beyond, the majority of which lead to production which is economically viable, sustainable and environmentally sensitive and would keep our farmers on the land.

Why don't we move wholeheartedly in this direction? Why do we as a nation victimise and blame our farmers for everything from pollution to erosion to induced dairy cows, while we continue to adhere to the increasingly unsound notions of agricultural management which lead farmers to these practices in the first place?

Let's take a staple out of Shrek's fleece and move New Zealand forward.

How about regarding farmers in a better light? How about providing clear direction, motivation, information and support for our valuable industry, so that we can keep it viable for generations? Any rural kid with a pet lamb will tell you, what a great mate a sheep can be.

Farmers aren't all that bad either. Perhaps we should just give them a chance.

Dr Marion Johnson is a research fellow at the Centre for the Study of Agriculture, Food and Environment.


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