Saturday, April 13, 2024

Sectors get candid about proposed Team Ag

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Mixture of support and concerns as Team Ag idea gets industry excited.
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By Neal Wallace, Richard Rennie and Annette Scott 

Farmers are mixed in their support for greater collaboration between rural groups to lobby on behalf of the rural sector.

Federated Farmers and lobby group Groundswell are both receptive to a multi-agency Team Ag approach to approaching the government on issues that affect the rural sector.

At the request of levy payers, Beef + Lamb NZ (BLNZ) and DairyNZ are both undertaking more lobbying of the government and agencies in addition to their existing advocacy roles.

Some farmers said this blurs the traditional advocacy and lobbying functions of these bodies.

Farmers approached by Farmers Weekly see opportunities for a Team Ag approach as rural sectors face similar issues and challenges, but they also need bodies to retain their independence.

Lessons were learnt from the failed He Waka Eke Noa (HWEN) approach to pricing agricultural greenhouse gases.

Southland deer farmer David Stevens said he was disturbed at how the pork industry is being decimated by strict animal welfare regulations, saying something similar could happen to any primary industry.

Those regulations are forcing pork farmers out of business while the market is being saturated by imported product that faces lower production standards.

Stevens said this affects rural New Zealand and requires a united rural NZ response.

“Whether it is the beekeepers and whoever, the fact you are all sitting around a table and understand the issues and offer some help and input would be beneficial.”

Every primary industry sector has similar issues, but Stevens fears they are working within silos.

Otago sheep and beef farmer Steve Nichol said a Team Ag approach can be useful, but there are also times for individual voices.

“Anywhere where we can collaborate will be beneficial but there has also got to be a need to have their own voices on matters where we need specialisation,” he said.

Southland dairy farmer Vaughan Templeton thinks a Team Ag entity maybe unrealistic, noting that Groundswell has influenced the approach of Federated Farmers.

Any collaboration must follow consultation with farmers and should include lessons learnt from HWEN, he said.

Waikato dairy farmer Richard Cookson is dubious about stitching multiple rural viewpoints together, with past failures giving him little confidence in future success.

He said HWEN was intended to demonstrate a united primary sector, only to fail with hubris and vitriol left in its wake.

“What we have not seen from these organisations individually is the ability to speak with a unified voice. 

“BLNZ threw their chairman under a bus in the last election, so if each of these organisations individually cannot provide trust in their own leadership, then how will this work?

“It will be tough and take some really courageous leadership to bring it together and that is not what we have seen.”

BLNZ was heavily criticised by levy payers for the failed HWEN proposal, which led to accusations at last year’s annual meeting of a loss of trust due to poor consultation and a lack of transparency.

It has subsequently agreed to implement the findings of an independent review that recommends rebuilding trust through more face-to-face interaction with farmers, more farmer input into policy advocacy and greater feedback.

While there could be strength in Team Ag talking to the government and regional councils, high country farmers chair Ian Anderson is also sceptical.

Anderson said unless everyone is sitting around the same table on a level playing field, it is not going to work.

“As it is Federated Farmers is reliant on subs, there is a lot of high country crossover with meat and wool, by default we pay levies to BLNZ but we do not necessarily know how they spend it.

“Then there’s Groundswell, they have a lot of good ideas, actually saying what others think, but all they are doing is standing on the sideline throwing stones.

“There’s no doubt a united sector is better than a divided one but where do you draw the line?”

Mid Canterbury cropping farmer and Foundation for Arable Research (FAR) chair Steven Bierema said the arable sector has not been engaged in any discussion regarding alignment of a single sector voice.

“We are hearing about Feds and Groundswell working together; beef  and lamb and dairy are mentioned, but the arable sector is not really a part of that and at the moment I am a bit worried.

“There is no clear vision, I’m not sure if that is sending negative messages towards government. I’m concerned in that regard,” Bierema said.

“I get how BLNZ is thinking how we could approach government, but each sector has different needs and a different approach.

“The biggest group sending the message does not necessarily mean it is the right way. All sectors need to have a say.

“In one way the tone has been set but arable is missing all the engagement. We are small, but we are essential.

“I would like to see wider sector engagement around the proposal.”

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