Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Change will deliver us from the wolf

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It’s hard to see change as a positive when you feel under threat, says Ben Anderson.
Fearful of the ‘wolves’ threatening their flock, farmers and growers can be less than receptive to the message of positive change, says Ben Anderson. Photo: Adriaan Greyling
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Farmers Weekly’s new column, Eating the Elephant, will be written each week by one of four millennial farmers and agri-professionals with progressive views on farming. Brought together via the Nuffield farming scholarship programme, they are parents of young children and come from a range of backgrounds, from the New Zealand Army to start-up life in San Francisco, agri-consultancy and urban communications. 

They describe themselves as having skin in the game in the form of their family farming businesses, and feel that pro-change, progressive perspectives are missing from the sector dialogue. They want to see positive changes happen further and faster, and are open to big ideas and experimentation to meet entrenched challenges.

A long time ago in a previous life I decided to give an inspirational speech. My audience was a group of tired and cold Afghanis who were helping me set up a camp for one Afghanistan’s  first democratic elections. It was late in the day, winter was fast approaching and I was in a hurry to finish the job before the snow arrived and the mountain passes closed.

Knowing that everyone loves a good motivational speech, I took my place on a nearby rock, paused for effect, and held forth. I spoke of what fine people they were, the great importance of what they were doing for their country, and that history would undoubtedly thank them later. Once I had finished, I waited expectantly for the interpreter to finish his translation and the applause to start. It didn’t. Faces grew colder, feedback was given and some of the group started to drift off. 

My interpreter translated back. “Ben – they say they don’t give a s*** about democracy. They just want to get home before they freeze and the wolves come out.” 

Fast-forward a lot of years and other embarrassing lessons in life and leadership, and it’s hard to see the challenge the New Zealand government has in translating its international and social obligations to its farming audience. 

It’s hard to be an agent of change when your audience has more pressing concerns, like rebuilding from cyclones, and keeping one’s stock and family fed. Our wolves are of a different nature but they are no less fierce and they take their toll on a daily basis. Many NZ farmers are currently hanging on by their fingertips, and their ability to take on more is limited at best. 

However, the vast majority of farmers are not naïve about the world around us. We understand our international obligations, we too want our children to swim in clean rivers, and we want NZ’s public to be proud of us.  We are also not blind to the climate changing around us.

However, it’s hard to embrace change when we so often struggle to just deal with the present. It’s no wonder we push back when change is presented as a cost with no benefit in sight. 

NZ farmers have a lot to be proud of. We care for our farms, we care for our stock, we care for our families and we care for our communities. We do this because we understand how dependent we are on each other and the environment in which we are fortunate enough to live.

But change we must. We need to change to a sector that is vibrant, profitable and environmentally sustainable. 

Some farmers may argue that there is nothing to change, but I’m willing to bet that number is small. It’s true that many of our rivers are polluted. It’s also true that we are not profitable, at least not in comparison to other industries, not in comparison to our supermarkets and not in comparison to our banks. It’s also true that our consumers are demanding more from us, as are the voting public.

Change would be a good thing and it would be about time.

But positive change won’t come by itself. It won’t come via a glossy picture and an aspirational vision statement from a public relations company. It won’t come from a bureaucrat in shiny new Red Bands, and it won’t come from an industry leader with two feet in the past. It especially won’t come from industry leadership with a vested interest in the status quo.

Change will come through farmers looking at the problem with fresh eyes. It will start with us understanding what the consumer wants, what the voter wants and what we need to flourish. It will gain momentum by farmers working together and creating the structures that serve those interests, not the interests of others. And change won’t finish, because that’s not what change does.

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