If you went to Fieldays not knowing it was an election year, you would have left certain it was.
While some New Zealanders may discount the importance of the rural vote, politicians across the board clearly thought attending the 55th annual event was well worth the effort.
“I’d say all of Wellington is here. It must be an election year,” one Synlait supplier quipped, and a tractor dealer was quick to point out “I don’t think they’ll be buying any machinery” as a set of politicians trooped past.
Most heavy machinery dealers said not a lot of money changed hands at this year’s event, though there was plenty of interest.
This year’s event took place just as a technical recession was declared, with March quarter growth slipping into negative territory.
Interest rates also keep climbing, adding to the pressure on farmers.
According to BNZ and Westpac, around 80% of their lending portfolio to the rural sector is on a floating rate.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and National party leader Chris Luxon were flanked by their respective caucus members and took every opportunity to push their agendas with the public and the media.
Both were pretty upbeat about the reception they received and there were no obvious signs of heckling.
National and Labour were not alone.
The ACT party was out in force, with by far the largest stand. New Zealand First’s Winston Peters and Green party co-leader James Shaw, as well as two other current Green MPs, were also spotted at different stands.
Top of mind was whether an agreement could be hammered out on an agricultural emissions pricing plan: something that seemed highly unlikely before the Fieldays event.
The He Waka Eke Noa (HWEN) partnership looked like it was on thin ice, in particular after National publicly said the party would push the deadline for emissions pricing to 2030 from 2025.
The alliance between the government, the primary sector and Māori was formed in 2019 to develop recommendations on an alternative pricing system for agricultural emissions.
If an alternative isn’t reached, agriculture emissions will be automatically included in the emissions trading scheme (ETS) in 2025.
According to Luxon, “Chris Hipkins and the Labour government shot it [the partnership] to pieces”. Shaw, who is also Climate Change Minister, begged to differ.
“Contrary to rumours, news of its decease is overrated,” he said.
Meanwhile, Hipkins and Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor stood firm and primary sector leaders were guardedly optimistic after a sit-down meeting.
“It was good to see the government back at the table,” Federated Farmers president Wayne Langford said.
However, while Hipkins said an agreement was close, Langford wasn’t as convinced.
“More meetings will be needed to work out just how far we can go before the election,” he said.
Langford said the key is to get a standardised measurement system that evenly measures every farm.
There are currently about 10 different systems, and according to Shaw “we need to be comparing apples with apples”.
While HWEN didn’t put out an official statement, the partners reportedly agreed to continue to engage with farmers and growers and work together to implement a farm-level split-gas system to reduce emissions.
The group also aims to deliver a standardised measurement and reporting system with an expectation this will be delivered by 2025.
Kate Acland, chair of Beef + Lamb NZ, said she was feeling more positive after the meeting with the government.
Not every sector leader, however, is optimistic.
One, who wasn’t at the meeting and didn’t want to be named, told BusinessDesk: “They should just hurry up and put us in the ETS. It’s what’s bound to happen.”
ACT is also not on board.
If it is elected, any emissions price would be tied to NZ’s five main trading partners with a caveat that if farmers in those countries are not paying, neither would NZ.
Meanwhile, not only were politicians out in droves, but the increase in the number of international delegations indicated covid-19 is now in the rear-view mirror.
Groups from Zimbabwe, Spain and Latin America, among others, were keen to look at different opportunities, particularly in agri-tech.
Ricardo Garzón, a visiting agri-tech expert from Ecuador, said his Andean nation offers enormous potential for NZ to expand its markets.
Garzón, who is also the country manager for NZ farm fencing manufacturer Gallagher, said the company’s fencing had been a game changer for small Andean farms, largely run by women.
Prior to having fences installed, farmers had to sit and watch the cows to make sure they didn’t run off.
Italy was exhibiting for the first time, with key Italian agricultural machinery manufacturing companies in attendance.
Zimbabwe’s stand featured representatives from different universities who said they were very interested in the huge array of technology on display.
Also on the international front, the European Union was back in force, with a raft of cheeses on offer.
A group of young participants was happy to receive a map of Europe, but they wrinkled their noses at a huge wheel of parmesan cheese.
Meanwhile, the UK prime minister’s trade envoy to NZ, David Mundell, highlighted the political importance of the UK-NZ free trade deal.
“The prime minister is promoting it, Damien O’Connor is promoting it. All the other ministers are promoting it,” he said.
He said he’d spoken to representatives from ACT, National and the Green party and they are all promoting the deal, along with mayors, local development agencies and businesses.
“They are all aware of it and that is one thing I will be feeding back”.
Unlike other years, Fieldays did not immediately provide attendance numbers, but several people said if they had to guess they thought there were at least 20,000 through the gates each day. People agreed attendance was better than it was late last year, but not record-breaking.
Fieldays is run by the NZ National Fieldays Society, a not-for-profit organisation. In the year to Sept 30 2022, it reported a $4 million loss, largely due to postponing the 2022 event to late last year and the ongoing disruption from covid-19.
In 2021, Fieldays earned $8.8m and had an operating expenditure of $3.3m. It was attended by nearly 133,000 people, the second largest crowd ever.