Monday, February 26, 2024

A decade in the editor’s chair

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At every farming conference in those first years the mantra was of telling a better story – ‘If only people understood our value, they’d value our work’, writes Bryan Gibson.
Farmers Weekly managing editor Bryan Gibson reflects on past decade at the helm.
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Ten years ago this week I was gearing up to send my first edition as editor of Farmers Weekly to the printers.

It seemed like a golden time for New Zealand food producers.

Fonterra would pay suppliers $8.50/kg MS that season, a record by some distance.

Lambs fetched an average $103 a head, up a touch on the previous year.

But as I’d come to realise, the commodity cycle would turn and farmer income – and confidence – would plummet the following year.

NZ farming was coming to the end of an intense period of land use change.

The formation of Fonterra and other, global, factors had led to a massive drive to dairy.

The Canterbury plains, Southland’s sheep country and the pine forests of the central North Island were all transformed into milking platforms.

That change brought massive economic value to the country but also brought environmental and social challenges.

At every farming conference I attended in those first couple of years the mantra repeated was of telling a better story. “If only people understood our value,” it was said, “then they’d value our work.”

Not surprisingly, the weather has played a major role in the fortunes of farming over the past decade.

The cycles of drought, flood, snow and wind are expected by those who work the land, but the frequency and intensity of those events have increased.

As they always do, farmers met those meteorological challenges with determination and a fierce community spirit.

They took care of one another and they overcame the worst nature could throw at them.

Reporting on these events has been some of the most inspiring work of my life.

But while a lot has changed since 2014, some things are infuriatingly the same.

We’re still waiting for the holy grail of “added value” to arrive at every farm gate.

We’re still figuring out how to tell our story better to our fellow New Zealanders and to the world.

We still get angry when a metropolitan newspaper attacks farming without understanding the issue it is attacking.

The rise of social media has only heightened this tension and what we thought would be a channel to talk directly to our stakeholders has become a battleground of echo chambers and warring factions.

On this week’s episode of the Farmers Weekly In Focus podcast, Scottish journalist and Nuffield scholar Claire Taylor says farmers in the United Kingdom face many of the same challenges as we do.

Her challenge to them is to forget about finding someone to blame and instead look at the world with clear eyes and take on the task of overcoming them.

We’re a market-driven, export-reliant industry, so why do we wait for the government to show us the way and then complain about the plan put before us?

NZ food producers are uniquely poised to lead the world in developing the sustainable farming systems the planet desperately needs.

But the past 10 years have shown us that as a sector, we’re yet to agree on how to do that.

It’s no use talking about telling our story to others when we can’t yet get that story onto paper and past the industry editors.

I hope 2024 is the year we recognise the value of what we have and the gains we can make by working together to commit to a fair, sustainable evolution.

It’s our story to tell.

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