Saturday, December 2, 2023

LAND CHAMPION: Message goes by word and mouth

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There is something tranquil about having a yarn over a barbecued sausage. A group of Southland farmers is finding it the perfect forum to discuss the urban perception of farmers, one barbecue and one sausage at a time.
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After nine or so such events from Invercargill to Whangarei they have concluded the oft-touted urban-rural divide is a myth.

Our city neighbours appreciate the sector’s contribution more than farmers realise.

AgProud was launched by four Southland farmers in August in response to environmentalists publicising poor winter grazing practices.

One of the group’s founders Jon Pemberton says a group of farmers met for a barbecue and realised they were not alone in battling what had been a wet and cold end to a winter chronicled by farming critics.

“The barbecue made us realise we were all going through the same issues.”

Mainstream media was covering the issue and Pemberton felt it also provided a chance for farmers.

“I thought that was not a bad level of interest and the media gave an opportunity to jump in.”

A text was circulated around a few mates suggesting they meet to discuss capitalising on the interest, which resulted in 40 attending a meeting in Winton.

But views were split. 

Some were offended by the tactics used by the environmentalists and wanted a more confrontational response but others sought to engage with their urban neighbours.

Pemberton says emotions were high as the south had just endured the worst storm of the winter, which was portrayed by critics as typical of conditions in which stock are wintering in Otago and Southland.

The more moderate approach won and AgProud was born.

It seeks to engage and educate non-farming people on what happens on farms and why.

It is a simple recipe: arrange a barbecue, get some meat, bread and sauce, go to a large urban area, mix with the locals and let them ask questions about farming.

Pemberton says they deliver a simple message that farmers are human with families, they get stressed and are concerned having stock in inclement weather but will work long hours to try to make it less onerous on animals.

“We are trying to put a face back on farming.

“My position is whatever we have been doing hasn’t been working to end up this way so we need to re-engage with urban people.”

There are several core values and rules at AgProud’s core: be polite, inclusive, non-confrontational and alcohol-free while hosting the events.

After nine or so barbecues from Invercargill to Whangarei Pemberton believes farmers have more urban support than many think.

Visitors often leave thanking farmers for what they do. No one has sought confrontation.

Pemberton says it is not an excuse to stop telling farming’s story because critics can fill any void left by the primary sector.

“If an urban person understands what we do, when we get minorities making noise and accusations, those urban people who appreciate what we do will also tell our story.”

Their inaugural outing was to Invercargill and Pemberton says they were taken aback at the support they got from rural support businesses willing to offer food and staff to help, a formula that has continued throughout the country.

He also found the events don’t need a lot of structure.

“We just had a yarn. We never knew who was going to turn up.”

The other surprise was the degree of concern from visitors about the mental wellness of farmers caused by stress.

The reaction of Invercargill of visitors was repeated around the country and even at the Christchurch event that coincided with a climate change youth march on a route next to the AgProud barbecue.

Fellow founder John Douglas was at the event and approached a teenage girl asking what her concerns were.

She replied the burning of fossil fuels and excessive use of plastic. When told he was a dairy farmer she had no qualms saying she had worked on dairy farms.

“Here was a young girl concerned about climate change but not blaming it on dairy cows.

“Reality differs from perception.”

That message has been repeated.

“We found they do appreciate what we do but the media pick up any negative sentiment and run with it.”

Douglas was also heartened when offering a preschool child a carton of milk.

Asked if she knew where milk came from the child said a cow

“At that young age she was able to draw the connection between milk and a cow that lives in the country.”

AgProud has been driven by Pemberton, Douglas, Jason Herrik and Jason Checketts but Douglas says all are busy farmers who have self-funded their flights and accommodation to attend events around the country.

Part of the reason for doing that is to maintain a high level of integrity.

AgProud has branched out and helped organise mental health wellness events for farmers with motivational speaker and former police crisis negotiator Lance Burdett in Invercargill, Gore and Balclutha.

As the group looks to the future and the possibility of partnering with other farmer groups Douglas says they want to ensure the group’s foundation integrity is maintained and its core principles adhered to. 

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