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Who remembers the catchphrase of the old 1980s’ television advertisement aimed at encouraging as many New Zealanders as possible to sample the delights of their own country before booking tickets overseas?
Night after night we were told ‘‘Don’t leave town till you’ve seen the country’’. In the Covid-19 era, the phrase has taken on a new, if ironic, relevance.
The concepts of town and country have historically been very strong in New Zealand. These kinds of comparing and contrasting exercises crop up frequently in university exams and are just a natural, and sometime subconscious, way for us to work out where we stand in the great race of life and which ‘‘team’’ we identify most closely with.
Unfortunately, such rivalries can go too far, leading to division based on very little factual evidence. When you think about urban and rural, town and country, it is too easy to ignore the important connections between the two and merely pin your colours to one side, justifying that choice by ignorantly blaming the other side and ultimately deepening the rural-urban divide.
And so country came to town right across New Zealand a week ago to remind urbanites and the Government of the essential role farming plays in the economy.
The Howl of a Protest was organised by Groundswell NZ, one of a handful of advocacy and support groups which have sprung up in recent years as farmers have come under increasing financial, environmental and regulatory pressure.
Shiny tractors, mud-covered tractors, barking farm dogs, farmers, agriculture-sector workers and supporters waving placards moved slowly through the towns and cities of the South and further north, making their point about how rural New Zealand was hurting, and highlighting their eroding tolerance for what they call Government interference.
Event leaders were far-sighted enough to declare beforehand they did not want the power of their protest diluted by fringe elements. That was bound to happen though, unfortunately, and happen it did, with a ragtail assortment of racists, rifle lovers, rednecks, anti-vaxxers and climate-change deniers hitching their wagons to what was otherwise a largely sensible and good-natured protest.
The question now is, what has and what will the event actually achieve? Has it brought country and town closer together, or the opposite?
It’s a fact of life that often, until people get angry enough to protest and cause some level of disruption, not a lot will change. The Howl was a good opportunity to remind the everyday townie and the country’s decision-makers that farmers might be out of sight but they should not be out of mind.
The wind-filled canyons of downtown Wellington are a million miles away from the dry grasslands of North Otago, the brown uplands of Central Otago, and the green hillsides of South Otago.
Most reasonable people understand it is not an easy time to be a farmer. On top of the traditional stresses of running a farm there are now a great many more factors to juggle, thanks to a changing climate and environmental degradation, and the need to introduce tougher regulations which will mitigate the effects of the former and reduce the latter.
On top of that, the botched response to the Mycoplasma bovis outbreak, the bullying approach and lack of empathy and sensitivity from officials, has done little to endear the Government and policy makers to farmers. No wonder mental health issues and suicide in rural communities are a huge concern.
There can be little doubt the deteriorating quality of our freshwater is largely due to the boom in intensive farming, especially dairying, in recent decades. But most farmers are doing their utmost to minimise discharges and make whatever changes are necessary.
We need to remember there are plenty of polluted waterways in urban areas too.