Who cares about farmers? NZ needs them around

Farmers are feeling under-appreciated and under siege and we truly cannot afford for them to walk off the land. Photo: Getty Images
Farmers are feeling under-appreciated and under siege and we truly cannot afford for them to walk off the land. Photo: Getty Images
Buzzwords and trendy phrases have a wave-like cycle.

When you first hear a phrase, your ears prick up, but you don't necessarily take it in. When you next hear the phrase, you start to register its meaning and context. A few more hearings and the phrase becomes embedded - perhaps you use it yourself. The end of the phrase-cycle starts when the buzzword or phrase is used so often, it loses meaning and starts to irritate.

There are some tired words and phrases that have started to irritate me recently, so I hope this means they are ending their wave, or at least I stop using them - ''ripe for disruption'' and ''social licence to farm'' are two such examples. In their defence, such phrases come about because they are pithy, topical and represent something worth exploration.

Talking about buzzwords is really my way of introducing my growing irritation at the concept of farmers requiring a ''social licence to farm''. The phrase has come about because there is a realisation in the agri-community we need to improve some of our practices and provide evidence of such changes on the back of a growing rural-urban divide (another term starting to irritate me), food scares and a requirement for transparency around food production.

Sometimes we are guilty of being slow to act, but I think we are addressing many of our challenges in relation to environmental management, animal welfare, disease management and the labour-force. In this context, it's often useful to look back to even 10 years ago and think about practices we used to do, which now seem almost archaic, and examine what we have improved.

Here are some examples: greater fencing and planting of waterways, better precision in fertiliser application and nutrient management, reduction in the use of harsh chemical sprays, better rotation of crops and selection of animals tolerant to diseases like facial eczema so animals have fewer health problems.

Such incremental changes look significant when going back a decade or more but are harder to recognise and celebrate on a daily basis. A Bill Gates quote comes to mind - ''Headlines, in a way, are what mislead you because bad news is a headline, and gradual improvement is not.'' And on that front, I have to say telling good news stories can be hard work. I cringe at the try-hard Fonterra ads designed to make us feel better about farmers; Richie McCaw turning up at someone's breakfast table looking awkward just doesn't cut the mustard for me - lovely as he is.

So what, who cares about farmers, I hear you ask? Well, here's the problem nicely articulated by a farmer in KPMG's latest agribusiness agenda: ''People outside of farming do not realise that your whole life is consumed by farming - day in, day out. After six years in the industry, I am not certain I want a farm now. With the low returns, environmental issues, weather and biosecurity risks, long hours, animal health and welfare challenges, why would you do it?''

Farmers are feeling under-appreciated and under siege and we truly cannot afford for them to walk off the land, or not go on to the land in the first place. Policy-makers, urban critics and media need to start recognising we are making progress and not hammer us with hideous images of very bad operators as representative of an entire industry (as seen on a recent Sunday programme).

Much of our country's infrastructure, wealth, survival through global financial crises and ongoing prosperity is still, quite literally, riding on the sheep's back, or cow's back or fruit tree's trunk. Criticism of any industry is important and any good industry should be looking to improve. But, we also need to start supporting our farmers again and be appreciative of what agriculture brings to us - quality of life for New Zealanders and quality nutrition for consumers all over the world - new buzz phrases right there.

-Anna Campbell is managing director of AbacusBio Ltd, a Dunedin based agri-technology company.

Comments

Rural men and women represent conservatism. We need conservatives. For example, the so called 'Right' is radical, not conservative. Queen Street farmers, and bloody big tax write offs.

There is a metropolitan/provincial divide, yet there was a Cabinet Minister in the 70's who was reluctant to meet any 'rough element': railway women, rural mechanics, long distance truckers, shearers.

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