Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Go woke, go broke?

Phil Weir Profile Picture
Phil Weir unpacks a certain rallying cry doing the rounds.
Reading Time: 3 minutes

In this series, the lads go woke.

When I was 12, I was lucky enough to attend the world Ayrshire Conference in Toronto with Dad and his mate Larry. Dad (much like his dad before him) loved the Ayrshire cow and attending the massive show was a step up from Matangi School’s Ag Day for me. 

Ayrshire genetics from all over the world were present and a calf from our farm, delivered via embryo transfer, was for sale. As a 12-year-old, it was my first real insight that there is a bit more to the world than the Waikato – and a lot more to farming than what I had seen from behind the farm gate. Getting to Toronto meant travelling through LA. I hadn’t seen homelessness before. As a child in a Kiwi rural community, I was unaware of who the rich and poor kids were and it was great. Hamilton at that time had one homeless fella. But that was “back in my day”.

It was on this trip staying with Larry that I was given a piece of advice. “Phil, do you want to know how to get a million dollars? Start with two million and go farming.”

Maybe Larry was a poor farmer, but as a sheep and beef farmer today, I often feel like I am slowly going broke. 

The current low commodity prices, challenging weather for many, high input costs, a readjustment in land values, political instability and what for most of us is the kicker, interest rates …

The latter are at or above original stress test levels for bank budgets. This “asset rich, cash poor” pressure makes it feel like you are going broke a whole lot quicker these days. 

Thinking of Larry 30 years ago reminds me that this is not new, but are there other, newer contributing factors afoot? 

In the past five years, farmers across NZ have invested significantly in the retirement of marginal land, the fencing of waterways and other practices to improve the environment. A stick has threatened, but through banding together in catchment groups many have realised that doing right for the environment is often doing alright by the business and feels good as a community.

And then we hear the current cry: GO WOKE, GO BROKE. 

This catchphrase has gained momentum and seems similar to previous concepts of political correctness or the nanny state. To many it is a call for government bureaucracy to stop doing dumb stuff that is holding the economy back. This desire to not make dumb bureaucratic decisions is a natural request for farmers – the ultimate pragmatists. 

In a New Zealand farming context, “woke” is often applied to those practices that represent a change from the status quo. Organics, biodiversity enhancement and the “green movement” are often targets. Most recently, doing our bit for emissions reductions has been considered by some to be “woke”. Others consider it a proactive action that means we are listening to our international customers. 

To some within farming, I may be a woke Lefty idealist who is overly interested in the environment and biodiversity. To others outside of farming, the very fact that I farm may mean I am a redneck hooked on unsustainable, extractive, climate-destroying practices of a broken food system. 

Actually, I’m just Phil Weir. I pay the bills by farming animals with the sole purpose of turning them into meat, I plant natives to enhance biodiversity and because it feels good, I eat vegetarian meals regularly and I still enjoy Waikato Draught from a can. 

The “woke” parts of my identity and farm aren’t making me go broke. The big issues are – like interest rate hikes, the changing climate, demand in the Chinese middle class and the price of fert. 

If I were to focus on the “woke” stuff, I’d be wasting time on diversions, instead of the issues that really matter to my family and farm. 

I will keep my efforts focused on the things within my control, and an ear out to the broader world for the things that could send me broke. That’s a long list, with “wokeness” a long, long way from the top. 

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