Bearing the brunt of 'wave of policies and proposals’

Herbert farmer Jo Hay says a collaborative approach to issues drives real change. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Herbert farmer Jo Hay says a collaborative approach to issues drives real change. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
A new campaign has been launched to raise awareness about what is described as crippling Government policies threatening the future of sheep and beef farms and rural communities.

Business and rural editor Sally Rae talks to North Otago farmer Jo Hay about why she supports Kiwis Backing Farmers. 

Jo Hay describes herself as "forever an optimist".

She and her husband Ross are salt-of-the-earth generational sheep and beef farmers, passionate about what they do, the industry they are involved in and the North Otago community in which they live.

But even Mrs Hay acknowledged that it was hard not to feel overwhelmed with all that was going on in the sector. And it was not that farmers were resistant to change, she stressed.

The reality was they were dealing with change all the time, whether it was the climate or the markets - "that’s just day-to-day farming" - but it was the pace of regulatory change which was too fast and causing so many to feel overwhelmed.

"At the end of the day, we all want to do the right thing but how do we not lose good people on the way?" she said.

Kiwis Backing Farmers is a campaign launched this week, supported by Beef + Lamb New Zealand and rural advocacy group 50 Shades of Green, to highlight what it described as an "overwhelming wave of policies and proposals".

At the heart of the campaign was the website, which outlined policy solutions and enabled New Zealanders to show their support for sheep and beef farmers by sending their views directly to the Government.

B+LNZ chairman Andrew Morrison said the cumulative impact of all the policy changes on sheep and beef farmers was massive and likely to drive many to consider if they had a future in the sector.

"The conversion of whole productive sheep and beef farms into carbon farms, impractical freshwater reforms, excessive methane targets and heavy-handed measures that disincentivise biodiversity protection are among the policies the red meat sector is demanding the Government fix.

"Our farmers are actively working to address climate change, improve our waterways and protect New Zealand’s biodiversity, and we’ve been making great strides in lifting our environmental performance.

"However, farmers are snowed under and exhausted. The Prime Minister recently acknowledged the Government has gone too far, too fast in some areas and agriculture is definitely one of those areas."

Mr Morrison said the Government needed to pause some of its policy programme and focus on getting the policies right before pressing on. Areas such as biodiversity and RMA reform were critical to get right for future generations.

"But they’re rushing consultation and not engaging properly with the people on the ground who are expected to implement the policies," he said.

Mrs Hay agreed, saying fundamentally it was all about people and the effect it was having on people and, in turn, the rural communities they lived in and served.

"That’s when it gets too much, just that genuine feeling of [being] overwhelm[ed]," she said.

She had spoken to farming women who said it was affecting their ability to give back to their community. At that point, it was about the collective effect it was having "on the fabric that holds communities together ... that, for me, is what that’s about", she said.

Whether that was serving on school boards or hall committees, coaching sport or donating livestock to causes - "all that really localised stuff" - but also commitments on a more regional and national level.

Recognition was needed that keeping up with all the change that was occurring was so time-consuming and so much effort was required that people were having to "start saying no" because they had to put their own businesses first.

Mrs Hay, who has started her own on-farm native plant nursery, is a director of the North Otago Irrigation Company, on the steering committee of North Otago Sustainable Land Management and a councillor on the B+LNZ Central South Island Farmer Council.

A teacher prior to the arrival of her three children - which saw her return to farm life - she also set up a local North Otago group for women in agriculture called Lip Gloss and Gumboots.

It provided a way for farming women to meet, discuss their ideas, promote agricultural events in the region and further their own development.

Alongside that, there was "all the normal stuff in a community", which included her launching Food Fairies in the Maheno and Herbert area, providing food parcels mostly to new mothers.

"It’s those little things. For me, it’s about making sure people feel they belong. When they belong, they get the bigger picture and probably feel more able to contribute. It’s just about having communities where people feel like they belong."

The way that many policies had been designed, and because they had been pushed through so fast, had resulted in a huge loss of trust between farmers on the ground and ministries trying to enact the change, she believed.

Consultation had never been what most farmers would deem to be real and the feedback they had given had not been listened to. That was evident when policies were released which were full of unintended consequences, including lacking practicality.

Mrs Hay acknowledged it was not just farming that was affected - other industries were also facing issues "with too many complexities". It was also the perfect storm in the sector with the current economic climate, inflationary pressure, rising inputs and falling markets.

"At that point, your capacity to deal with this stuff gets very, very hard," he said.

Mrs Hay was optimistic about the future of farming, saying New Zealand farmers produced high-quality product that a niche market in the world wanted, but farmers had to continually evolve.

It was all very well to say they were at the "top of their game" but "no sports team in the world would ever say that". Instead, they had to continually evolve or someone else would catch up, she said.

Just because farmers were up for change, or saw the need to change, did not mean that change could be made immediately. Low-input farmers had lower cash flows or income to make changes quickly and that needed to be recognised.

The combination of environmental or seasonal constraints, resources and cash flow meant that any change took time.

"That’s where farmers are feeling frustrated they are not getting time to do this. The window of change is very short. It’s not recognised these things take time to do," she said. One of the concerns raised by by

B+LNZ and 50 Shades of Green has been "the out-of-control conversion" of sheep and beef farms into carbon farming.

Mrs Hay was also concerned about the rate of afforestation, saying the Government needed to acknowledge it was an issue and some "setting tweaks" were required.

When it came to issues in the sector, she said the collaborative approach in the South to intensive winter grazing was a good example. It was very clear there was an issue there and industry bodies and catchment groups did a great job of working together and effecting change from the ground up. When shown a problem, farmers were very good at trying to fix it, she said.

Regulations would always be needed "for a very small minority"; the majority of people, given time and practicalities, would happily move towards that target.

They just needed to see the reason why and understand it.

If the last few weeks in the aftermath of the devastating Cyclone Gabrielle had taught anything, it was that, when given a challenge, rural communities would step up and work together for a positive outcome.

There was a real opportunity for policymakers to listen properly - "as opposed to doing it as a tick-box exercise" - talk to people on the ground and work with communities to come up with solutions.

"When we do that, we come up with real change," she said.



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