Friday, December 1, 2023

PULPIT: No wonder farmers are punch-drunk

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One of farming’s great challenges is that so much of your success is dictated by factors beyond your direct control, whether that be international commodity markets, weather, processing company performance or regulation.
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Never has that been more fully on display than now. 

The Mycoplasma bovis outbreak, the squeeze from the banking sector, the financial performance of Fonterra, the Government’s response to meeting our Paris Climate Agreement obligations and now the discussion document on the Essential Freshwater package – any one of which would be significant on their own. 

It is little wonder farmers are feeling somewhat punch-drunk. It’s like the perfect storm. 

Not since the Rogernomics reforms has agriculture had to face up to disruption of this degree. 

Fortunately, unlike our fathers in the 1980s, we have very healthy product prices and generationally low interest rates to help smooth our path.

The freshwater proposals in particular have been causing significant angst as well-attended meetings all around the country attest. 

There has been a quiet revolution happening on farms throughout the country over recent years as more and more farmers recognise the need to up our collective environmental game. 

The proliferation of catchment groups and the huge fencing and riparian planting of our waterways are just some of the ways farmers have responded, for which they should be acknowledged and rightly proud.

Unfortunately, the reality is we do need to respond because there is no doubt intensification of farming practices and land use change have had an environmental impact. 

In some places we have reached or exceeded the ecological limits of sustainable farming. 

The response of regional councils has mostly been too slow and the decade-long Land and Water Forum failed to reach workable consensus. 

We are now in a position where, in some places, we need to reverse engineer our way out of this inaction.

We are quite simply at a juncture where the future of farming is in full focus. 

There is no doubt in my mind a prosperous future for farming is in targeting the high-end consumer. 

The New Zealand provenance story is an absolutely fundamental plank of that strategy and in an increasingly interconnected world that story needs to stand up to rigorous scrutiny. 

The days of simply whacking a 100% Pure sticker on produce are long gone.

We are now competing in a space with the emerging synthetic proteins and intensive feed-lotting systems. 

While productivity gains in agriculture have far exceeded the rest of the economy we have too often traded those gains away in the marketplace. 

As impressive as those gains have been, in my 30 years in farming we have essentially been running faster to stand still.

From a NZ First perspective we have been reminding farmers these proposals are, at this stage, just that, proposals in a discussion document. 

It is clear from attending meetings and talking to farmers all around the country over the last month that while farmers are overwhelmingly supportive of the overall intent there are significant concerns around the achievability of some of the targets and the practical workability or some of recommendations. 

Clearly, there is some clarification and tidying up to be done before the final version reaches Cabinet.

One of the gaps I see is in the wider economic analysis. 

While the proposals seek to secure our long-term future, that cannot come with the cost of wide economic and social dislocation in the present – that is the lesson of the 1980s. 

As a party that prides itself as being the champion of the regions, we absolutely recognise that farming is the fundamental driver of regional prosperity. 

As we have demonstrated on a number of occasions within this term of Government, whether that be on irrigation water levies, capital gains tax or successfully advocating for a farm debt mediation scheme, we have had farmers’ interests at the front of our mind.

That said, I am confident that with the help of submissions from farmers and with constructive engagement from farming leadership we can panel-beat these proposals into a workable proposition. 

We will be looking for an outcome that allows a degree of regional flexibility, is achievable and does not inflict unnecessarily onerous and expensive compliance burdens, especially on the farmers already demonstrating exceptional environmental practices.

If we can achieve that we will have gone a long way to securing the prosperity of not only this generation but the ones to come.  

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