Town and country can still learn from each other

When I was a kid, we used to spend a lot of time around my grandparents' farm.

It seems one of the lasting memories of my generation that us townie kids can remember is being packed into the car and driven into the countryside to spend our school holidays with our country cousins.

School journals of the '60s are full of such stories, with ignorant urban kids being schooled up in the hard lessons and country virtues of calf club, electric fences, eeling and lambing.

Out of the same vein of country nostalgia comes a parallel fear that the current generation of school kids is growing up out of touch with rural New Zealand.

Let's not overdo the nostalgia, however, because tensions between rural and urban New Zealand - from the bitter labour disputes of the 1920s and 1951 through to the cultural revolutions being signalled by Foreskin's Lament and the 1981 Springbok Tour - made for some fairly strained conversations between my wider family around the kitchen table during those farm visits.

There is more than just nostalgia at stake.

The previous Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Morgan Williams, argued that an ever-increasing cultural divide between urban and rural New Zealand represented a time bomb in our future political life.

Already we are experiencing political tensions around issues like tenure review, land access for recreation and water allocation.

A look at the demographic profile of New Zealand reveals why this might become such a problem.

New Zealand, for all its rural iconography and a cultural celebration of its heartland virtues, is actually one of the most urbanised countries in the world.

A particular history of town and country planning tended to protect fertile lands for commercial farming thus constricting population growth into towns and cities with relatively little lifestyle subdivision, village regeneration or holiday cottages, as has become the norm in many other First World countries.

The result is that, by some measures, New Zealand has more than 80% of its population living in non-rural areas - one of the highest levels in the Western world.

In contrast to this, rural-based industries, from farming and forestry to tourism, account for the vast majority of our export earnings.

Democracy being what it is, this widening cultural and economic gap is going to be a significant challenge for politicians both in farming and in Wellington.

No-one denies that large urban electorates now dominate political thinking in New Zealand.

The lesson from other countries is that rural politics, once cornered into minority status, can tend to become defensive and reactionary.

At best, farm lobbies claim they are misunderstood by ignorant urbanites.

Thankfully, New Zealand has a history of producing farmer politicians who have held a much broader view.

I sorely miss Sir Peter Elworthy.

In a conversation with me shortly before he died, he expounded a passionate vision for what rural and urban New Zealand could jointly produce in terms of a vital, creative and sustainable future for food.

If rural New Zealand produces nearly all the goods, then urban New Zealand also produces most of the ideas, like the new perspectives of authors and chefs, the marketers and the website designers, many of them fresh back from their OE with fresh insights into how our most valuable markets and consumers are operating.

Maybe we should just pack a whole lot of them into a car and drive back to visit their country cousins for a bit of eeling and calf club in the next school holidays? - Associate Prof Hugh Campbell

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