Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Working out how to meet the moment

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Putting the consumer first might be one way to sharpen our focus as farmers, says David Eade.
David Eade says a collective decision on farming’s direction of travel is long overdue. Photo: Mudassir Ali
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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. 

Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it: the words drummed into me by a former rowing coach come to mind as I follow the reactions of farmers to the actions taken by our industry bodies during the He Waka Eke Noa consultation.  

An outcome that looked outwardly successful has backfired on industry leaders. How could something with so much deliberation, cross-sector participation and positive negotiation end with such a reaction? Was it as simple as farmers not being listened to by their industry bodies or is there something larger at play?

These questions make me think. What is it that I want as a farmer? What is it that we want collectively as farmers? And what is it that we are trying to solve? What is the role of the industry body in this?

As new entrants to farm ownership, we have a lot of capital at risk. To survive, we must utilise our land in different ways than before, be transparent Scope 3 partners for our supply chain and provide the environmental, animal welfare and food quality standards demanded by our customers. 

Collectively as a farming community we want to hear that we will be all right, we are part of the solution, we can meet our mortgage payments and provide for our families. 

Some want to hear we can continue doing what we are doing today and take pride in it. Others want assurance the progressive steps we are taking are the right ones. 

All farmers fundamentally care about the state of the environment but have different ways of expressing this view. 

Farmers’ reactions to industry bodies regarding He Waka Eke Noa could stem from the continued ambiguity and confusion the sector is facing in terms of what actions they need to take that will have meaningful impact. Are these reactions serving us in the best possible way or are we getting caught up in the emotions of our desires? How can the actions and reactions of the government, industry and farmers help drive us towards innovative solutions? 

The uncomfortable truth is that our sector plays a large part in our nation’s emissions profile. We face the difficult task of putting a self-imposed tax on the way we operate or face the wrath of the government if we don’t. Something akin to a self-imposed speeding fine. If I were to act on rhetoric coming from industry bodies, I would double down as an efficient producer of protein in the face of ambiguity and trust that we will be all right. A risky assumption to place a large amount of capital behind.

The siloed approach of industry bodies, which ties the identity of farmers to their land use, drives stubborn competition rather than collaboration. It brings to mind Michael Munger’s theory of directionalists and destinationists. Directionalists back any solution that takes us towards the final goal, whereas destinationists have an ideal outcome in mind and are less flexible, blocking anything and negatively reacting to anything that doesn’t fit their vision. 

Industry bodies need to be directionalists that are open and supportive to the many ways we can drive down emissions and still support economic activity. The competition between the industry bodies seems to breed destinationists in these leadership roles. Leadership of industry bodies that are directionalists, especially when it comes to the meaty problem of pricing agricultural emissions, might always be doomed when it comes to re-election. They would have to trade short-term votes for long-term outcomes, which does not help the ego.

I would like an industry body that works back from our customers to optimise land use rather than the current setup that siloes and ties our identity to land use. 

Our brains can only apply a small amount of energy to long-term problems such as climate change before we default back into what is in front of us. The one thing we know is that this problem is not going away. The thing we haven’t been told is how our actions can improve the situation without applying the hard lever of dropping stock count. 

Personally, it is easy to get so bogged down in our operational tasks that we lose sight of who we should really be making decisions for, our end consumer. Many of our initial business strategies for adding additional revenue streams and bolstering current ones feel a world away as we batten down the hatches to focus on short-term survival. 

The same rowing coach would also state that the final straw when controlling your reaction is to remove yourself from the situation. In this case, we, as farmers, would remove ourselves from the sector and give up on a dream. We are certainly not ready to do that. 

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