Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Policymakers unaware of the vital role of rural communities

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With the complexity of the challenges facing the primary sector, some of the BLNZ remits are worth taking a moment to consider, a Maniatoto farmer says.
Pricing methane in any way leaves lower income land uses such sheep and beef vulnerable, says Emma Crutchley, but given the complexity of the challenge, ‘some of the BLNZ remits are worth taking a moment to consider’.
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Emma Crutchley, Maniatoto sheep and beef farmer

A rapid bombardment of policy from Central Government in the past five years has put huge pressure on the primary sector. Food and fibre producers feel unheard, exhausted and threatened, which leads to a widening gap between policymakers, farmers and communities (hapori). 

I disagree with those who suggest it is an entire industry resistant to change; instead, it is a top-down framework that completely misses the fundamental role that hearts and minds of rural communities play in managing our environment.  As New Zealanders, we pride ourselves on our No 8 wire ethos, our ability to solve problems and an unfailing sense that everyone should be given a fair go. Dismissing farmers’ input dismisses the fact that they are part of the solution as experts in their own field. 

The pace and scale of change creates different levels of comfort, and this is clear when opening the voting packs from Beef + Lamb NZ (BLNZ) prior to this year’s annual general meeting in March. The competition for director seats for both vacant seats and challenges for incumbent directors is a good thing, because if there is one thing our sector needs right now it’s leadership and people putting their hand up to lead. 

Secondly, there are nine remits that need to be read and considered. I encourage levy payers to consider all these remits and vote.

Farmers who are not making a profit make poor environmentalists and are less resilient in a fast-changing world. Resilience to me means our capacity to withstand challenges, looking after people, profit and planet. 

Thinking becomes more reactive and the lens shifts from long-term vision to short-term survival. When the cost of compliance increases, coupled with high interest rates and increasing input costs, the first things that go off the farm expenditure list are investments in environmental initiatives, pest control and climate change adaptation. The contribution to community initiatives drops and the focus shifts to the needs within individual businesses. 

Freshwater and biodiversity and the impacts of climate change are not tied to legal boundaries and collective solutions require community engagement and volunteer time. 

As farmers and irrigators from Central Otago, we have for years been caught in the debate that open markets/trading schemes and taxes should be used in freshwater management, that the best way to solve environmental challenges is by pushing water to the most economically efficient end use. Increasing costs drives behavior change, but not always the right way. Efficiency is a balance of outputs against the inputs we have, such as costs and land class, and this should be based on environmental, social and economic dividends, not just reacting to economic drivers. 

The response is that as cost is added, the lower value land uses are impacted first, but this doesn’t necessarily correlate with poor resource management.  Many sheep and beef farms use an area of irrigation to create resilience to uncontrollable aspects of the farming system such as drought and long winters. As input prices increase, those producers that don’t have an option to change land use need to consider what they do with that land. 

What is the choice of land use for those that do have an option? For us, the transition from border dyke irrigation to the spray system and farming operation that we have today was a 20-year journey. Having time and access to the tools, technology and a secure water supply allowed us to plan and investigate the most cost-effective and environmentally sustainable and efficient pathway to get where we needed to go. We were able to work around seasonal changes, family requirements and income to achieve a positive outcome for the business, our environment, and our rural community. 

With the complexity of these challenges, I think some of the BLNZ remits are worth taking a moment to consider. Some are specifically related to the advocacy role that BLNZ plays in representing sheep and beef farmers as part of the He Waka Eke Noa partnership. It needs no discussion that agriculture has no place in the Emissions Trading Scheme because this is a direct tax on food production. This resulted in the primary sector being given the opportunity to develop an alternative pricing mechanism in 2019 along with a deadline.  

To be clear, a zero-pricing mechanism was not an option given to primary sector partners. This discussion is driven by the government, as are the 2030 and 2050 methane targets.

As with freshwater, pricing methane in any way leaves lower income land uses such sheep and beef vulnerable. But long-term “whole of community” outcomes are most successful when authorities and stakeholder groups are known, trusted and engaged over time.  Here in Central Otago, seeking solutions around water quantity have been the most successful in communities that have leadership, and have engaged, collaborated and made compromises to reach a solution. 

While pricing emissions is not the right way, we need to balance that and consider if exiting these conversations is a constructive pathway forward for our industry.

Two of the most precious resources we have are time and people. The current challenges we face are not finite; this means leaders are leaning in making the best decisions they can, with the opportunities and information they have at that time. They do this recognising the need to adjust as society and science move, handing on to the next leader to take up that conversation. In the turmoil of change we can’t lose sight of a deeper level of thinking as we adapt to the addition of new information and science and bring this to the conversation of advocacy at the table. 

As a sheep and beef farmer, I’m a firm believer in all advocacy, but we need someone that’s in the room, and we need to acknowledge how challenging that can be. Any protest I have will be made in this year’s general election for a government that reflects positive engagement with the primary sector and rural communities for positive outcomes. 

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