Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Dear Chris, ignore the deer-culler’s dog

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Ben Anderson asks the next prime minister for less nostalgia about farming in NZ and more fresh thinking.
Chris Hipkins and Chris Luxon go head to head in the first leaders debate last week. Ben Anderson says farming needs fresh leadership that can only come from rethinking how we farm, what we sell and how we sell it.
Reading Time: 3 minutes

I wonder if, by any chance, you have read any Barry Crump? When I was a boy growing up in the King Country his books were my well-thumbed favourites, A Good Keen Man especially. 

In one of the books, and I can’t for the life of me remember which, Barry tells a story about getting off a train after a long time in the bush, and there, sitting on the platform, tied to a pole, is a dog jealously guarding a pile of old worn-out hunting gear. Barry makes the observation that both dog and gear must have belonged to a deer culler, because only a deer-culler’s dog would think such a pile of gear could be worth protecting.

There are parallels here with farming, Chris, and that’s what I wanted to have a chat to you about. 

It is easy to be sentimental about what we do here on the land. Like the images Barry Crump’s books created in my mind, just as vivid are those from a childhood spent on isolated hill country. Mustering stock by horseback, cutting scrub, the long days docking and even the billy tea at smoko when out fencing are memories I wouldn’t change for the world.

But I also know that my father shielded me from forming the other memories. Memories of financial hardship, letting the house insurance lapse, and wondering if the bank would make this season our last. These are the memories that farmers would like to forget, but can’t, because they repeat like clockwork. 

As we’ve touched on before, our industry is not much of an economic performer, or at least not for those who actually farm.  Our all farm types average return on capital is 2.5%. If you were a fund manager providing this level of return to your clients, you wouldn’t last beyond the first performance review. And yet those that represent our industry to our government seem hellbent on maintaining the status quo. 

Chris, what I am trying to say is that farming needs some fresh leadership. It badly needs the type of transformation that can only come from completely rethinking how we farm, what we sell and how we sell it. 

I understand that politicians will often take their cues from the loud and established voices. Voices that present themselves as representatives of the whole. But for the most part these voices are from the status quo. They are experienced in the past and want to see it continue. These are voices that have relied on capital gains as the basis of their business model, have pushed productivity over value creation and seek to sell commodities instead of products. These voices have overseen environmental degradation, a loss of social licence, the consolidation of farmland and the loss of rural communities. They have driven talented young farmers to leave the industry, and even the country, because the numbers no longer stack up. And again, all for the princely average return of 2.5%.

And this is bad for you Chris, because the country misses out on all that potential GDP. Revenue that is currently captured by those countries that import our raw commodities, add value to them and, in the worst cases, sell them back to us.

We need a fresh approach, and we need fresh people to drive it. This election provides an opportunity to really kick on with agriculture and grab a bigger slice of the value chain. 

Once this election is over, let’s form a new agriculture advisory group.  But let’s not rearrange the deck chairs and fill it with the same old voices who will give both you and me the same old thing. Let’s fill it with disrupters. Let’s fill it with the very best marketers, brand developers and food technologists out there. And most importantly, let’s put people in there with a track record of creating valuable products and successfully selling them to the world.

To help with this Chris, let’s rethink our trade policy. Let’s stop focusing on creating access for commodity products and start creating access for brands. Perhaps you could consider focusing as much effort on incentives as we currently do on regulation? 

Perhaps you could promote the development of additional processing capacity in New Zealand. Perhaps you could further accelerate entrepreneurial activity in the country and help develop a whole new range of brands that take full advantage of the latent potential of our first-class food, fibre and timber outputs. 

Chris, there is so much potential for our sector out there. I get excited just thinking about it! But please let’s stop listening to the old deer-cullers’ dogs. Give them a pat and leave them to lay in the sun. It’s time to kick on.

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