Saturday, April 20, 2024

Growing optimism in the face of adversity

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The big challenge for the new government is not going to be the unwinding of the regulations, but what it replaces them with.
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By Richard McIntyre, Federated Farmers dairy chair

Although last year was a challenging one for dairy farmers, with rising interest rates, high input costs, and a below break-even milk price, there is a real sense of optimism out there with the farmers I’m talking to that things are starting to improve. 

That may be in part due to the change of government last year and a real commitment from the new coalition to resolve most of the regulatory pressures we’ve been feeling, but other headwinds seem to be lessening too. 

Inflation is slowing, interest rates look to have peaked, and the milk price seems to be recovering well. I know a lot of farmers are really feeling the pain this season and that costs remain stubbornly high, but I’m hopeful next season is going to be a better one for all of us.

When I look back and reflect on the uncertainty of the past six years and the stress that implementation of new policy put on farming families, I can’t help but wonder what it was all for – or what was really achieved that will be enduring?

Many of those rules will now be repealed, unwound, or significantly amended because of an unwillingness from the previous government to work with the sector, take on feedback about the cost, speed, practicality and fairness, or to bring farmers on the journey. 

That’s a bitter pill to swallow for a number of reasons. Firstly, because of the needless stress and pressure farming families across the country had to live with for such a prolonged period of time. Secondly, because nobody really had an issue with the direction of travel. 

I’ve yet to meet a farmer who doesn’t want to see improved water quality, increased biodiversity, or reduced emissions – we just need to be able to see an affordable and realistic roadmap to help get us there. 

The big challenge for the new government is not going to be the unwinding of the previous government’s regulations, but rather, what it replaces them with. That’s a huge undertaking and farmers have high expectations that have been built up during the election campaign. 

The reality is that it can’t all happen overnight and we’re going to need to be patient. If we rush the process we risk running into the same change fatigue we’ve had for the past six years or ending up with new rules that only last one term of government. 

What we really need are rules that are fair, practical, affordable – but also enduring. That’s what’s going to give us certainty to make investments and restore farmer confidence. 

While it’s promising that we now have a government with a favourable view of farming, and a lot more gumboot-wearing farmers sitting inside our Parliament, we can’t simply sit back and expect them to solve our problems for us – we’re going to have to solve some of them for ourselves. 

That’s going to require a lot of reflection and some hard conversations about where we want to go as a sector, how we work together as landowners, and how we structure our farming leadership to get the best outcomes we can for rural communities.

As a member of Federated Farmers who also pays levies to both DairyNZ and Beef + Lamb NZ, I do at times feel some frustration at the levels of duplication we have across the sector – particularly when it comes to advocacy or when the messages from the various organisations don’t align.

I’m a big supporter of our levy organisations and think they play a valuable role in the farming ecosystem, but I do have some serious questions about whether they’re getting too far away from their core roles of science, research and extension. 

At a time when farmers need tools and solutions more than ever, our levy groups seem to be putting an increased focus on political advocacy and trying to be the “farmers voice”. That’s a real concern for me because that’s the role Federated Farmers has played for the past 125 years.

This article first appeared in our sister publication, Dairy Farmer.

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