Thursday, November 30, 2023

AT THE GRASSROOTS | Let’s be nicer to our dairy farmers

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I have been on the receiving end of dairy farmers most of my life, well, their product that is because milk processing has been the backbone of my career.
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I also grew up in a rural town in the south of the Netherlands where the whiff of pig waste was never far away. So, it might come as no surprise I feel an affinity with farmers, the workers of the land, those people who take big risks and work all day to produce the food that feeds the planet. 

In New Zealand I have also made some good dairy farmer friends and a recent chat over a beer prompted me to write this article, especially for them.

Because folks our NZ dairy farmers are under the pump.

Looking at the media and my news feeds it doesn’t take long to see farmers are doing it tough with little political and public support in NZ. They are painted as river polluters, animal abusers and the main cause of climate change, which conveniently diverts attention from our own lifestyle contributions, like daily commutes and air travel.

The fact dairy farmers are keeping our rural communities alive and make a huge contribution to our nation’s income seems to have been forgotten. 

According to some commentators, often the non-farming kind, they’re doing it all wrong and they should do it smaller scale, organically, sustainably, with more diversity and without chemicals. I wonder if these people tell their builders and plumbers how to do their jobs as well?

Now, I agree humanity is facing some pretty big challenges and I’m in no doubt most of the suggestions and opinions are coming from a deep concern. However, talking to my farming friends, they’re feeling pretty down about it all. Just imagine getting out of bed every morning at 4am and the first thing you see on your phone is some negative feedback about your job – not a good start of the day I think.

When it comes to popular anti-farmer sentiment the farming critics use two tools that stand out to me: generalisation and extrapolation.

It takes only one picture or event to start the media ball rolling and action groups have caught on to this pretty quick. Clearly, if one farmer does it all farming must be implicated. Yeah, right. It’s so easy to do, give individuals a group label and we lose sight of the individual straight away. 

Unfortunately, it’s real people who are affected by these group allegations, says a white middle-aged man being thrown in with white middle-aged men.

You know, the thing with farming is that it’s the most transparent business in the world. While transparency is a real buzz word in the corporate scene, it is the farming sector that’s leading by example. Every time a tourist or sightseer is cruising in the countryside, it’s Instagram time.

 A dairy farmer in NZ must feel like an All Black, being exposed to the public’s critical view 24/7. Does that mean I seek to justify poor farming practice? No. However, it’s a human bias to focus on things that go wrong and forget about all the things that go right. Unfortunately, pointing the finger at all farmers on the basis of a few incidents is hard to counter because it’s difficult to convince the heart with the head.

What about extrapolation? 

Well, I am stumped by some predictions our dairy farming future is under threat because we can now make meat and milk without the cow. While bold statements about the extinction of our traditional farming in the near future make the headlines it certainly does not portray farming as a lucrative career path for the younger generation.

I’m sure synthetic meats and milks will find a place in our future diet but my personal view is they will complement rather than replace farming. On my visits to China it’s very clear their demand for real milk is growing and my best guess is that for every person turning vegan in the West there are two people turning to dairy in the East. 

As Nils Bohr said “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it is about the future.” Just think back to 1972 when the Club of Rome issued a report called Limits to Growth, predicting we would run out of resources by the year 2000. It was in all the newspapers and made my parents very nervous. 

Fortunately, in this case, the scientists were wrong or at least their timing was definitely off because the extrapolations of their computer models were based on existing technology and knowledge. Essentially, they didn’t take human adaptability, innovation and invention into account. 

So what really happened is that today’s agriculture has become much more efficient and fed a world population twice the size. What a remarkable feat.

Personally, I am convinced we will need our farmers for a long time to come and we should think very carefully how we treat and support this community. When it comes to farming there’s a saying we should all keep in mind: Don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Listening to my farmer friends I can sense their pain and frustration and if I was young I would think twice about becoming a farmer in the current climate.

So, thank you dairy farmers of NZ. I hope you will rise to the challenge and continue to feed us despite the growing headwinds of public and political opinion. You are the most resilient people I know and I hope you’re okay.

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