Restoring farmer confidence was the central theme of the Rural Issues Debate held at Mystery Creek on September 14th – and the opening of the Government books just four days earlier provided plenty of ammunition for the Opposition parties to have a crack.
A live studio audience of 300 farmers, along with 35,000+ viewers online at home, got to see spokespeople from all the major political parties polling over 5% go toe-to-toe discussing the big issues impacting rural New Zealand – including the cost, complexity, and compliance that has been heaped on our farmers.
Federated Farmers President Wayne Langford had set the tone at the start of the week by stating the Government PREFU (pre-election economic and fiscal update) exposed the urgent need for policies that will grow our economy.
“New Zealand is hitting real economic headwinds and there’s no relief in sight for Kiwi families, with total debt forecast to pass $200 billion by 2025. The $11 billion deficit forecast this year is our biggest deficit on record outside of the disaster years of 2020’s Covid-19 Pandemic and 2011’s Christchurch earthquake,” Langford said.
“Farmers are feeling the squeeze too, with farm incomes falling sharply, high input costs, and increasing interest rates. There’s huge pressure in our rural communities – but the whole country is feeling it.”
Langford said to dig New Zealand out of this financial hole, there needed to be a commitment to growing the economy – “and that means more farming, not less.
“But that’s just not where the political narrative has been for the last few years. There has been absolutely no discussion about how we can sustainably grow our meat and milk production despite the huge potential.
“Instead, the focus has been on constraining our farmers further, wrapping them up in red tape, and heaping on cost, complexity, and compliance. The end result is record low farmer confidence and a slumping New Zealand economy. It’s no coincidence they have arrived at the same time.”
That was exactly what Rural Issues debate moderator Heather du Plessis-Allan hit the Agriculture Minister with in her opening question. A fired-up Damien O’Connor reminded her, in case it had passed her by, that issues of confidence and costs had a fair bit to do with covid, the Ukraine war and weather extremes.
“I went back and had a look at the confidence surveys over the years. Since we got into Government, they’ve all been negative, in spite of $9 milk payouts and an average $12 per kilogram for lamb between 2020 and 2022.
“So why would that be? It’s not a bias against what Governments do, is it?”
O’Connor said the crowd reminded him of a much bigger gathering at Christchurch in 1985 when he was a sharemilker, where they were protesting against the removal of subsidies.
“Farmers always react a little negatively to some of the things that need to be carried through. We’re doing some of those things. No-one likes change, I get that.”
O’Connor claimed that major customers of Fonterra, such as Nestle and Waitrose, were reacting to consumer pressure over climate change and animal welfare and demanding the co-operative move on scope 3 emissions and other fronts. He said the Government was trying to position farmers for the realities of the future and shouldn’t be blamed for a post-COVID demand slump from China.
Todd McClay, National, agreed there was not much governments can do about export returns. “But what his Government is responsible for is the costs imposed on farmers through rules and regulations.
“The way we fix this is to build back trust into farmers and stop trying to run farms through Wellington. You need to understand that farmers care about the land, and where we do need a rule, make it a good rule that focuses on the outcome, not a costly rule that just burdens them.”
To applause, McClay pointed out that replacing the cumbersome 800-page RMA with 1300-pages of new legislation, when the aim was to simplify consent processes, was not progress. Under National, the Natural and Built Environment Act and the ‘Ute tax’ would be gone within 100 days.
ACT’s Andrew Hoggard, a former Federated Farmers President, warmed to the same ‘cutting unnecessary red tape’ theme. Answering an accusation from O’Connor that Feds had “over-hyped” the impact of new winter grazing rules by saying 10,000 consents would be needed, yet only 350 had been applied for, Hoggard said the estimate had come from regional councils and the low number was probably because farmers “couldn’t be arsed” filling in the paperwork for something that wasn’t needed.
Farm Environment Plans had originally sounded sensible, Hoggard said, as an alternative to going through costly consent processes. “But what’s coming out is that we find the auditors and accreditors for these plans have to understand the Treaty of Waitangi, Te Mana o te Wai and Te Ao Māori. That’s just adding cost for what?!
“These farm plans are about managing critical source areas on the farm and yet we’re introducing all this cultural stuff which isn’t about the environment or helping you farm better.”
Mark Patterson, NZ First, said capturing more value behind the farm gate to avoid being caught so badly in commodity price fluctuations does require being able to tell a compelling and legitimate provenance story.
“But I think what’s happened is that we’re trying to do too much too soon. We’re chopping and changing stuff, putting [regulation] out then repealing it when it comes up against the hard logic of farmer feedback. It’s got to the point where farmers have just rolled up in a ball and are very hard to engage with.
“Let’s settle it down a bit. Farmers [will be in] a better mindset when they get a government that understands farming, that values what we do and doesn’t judge us by the lowest common denominator.”
For Eugenie Sage, the fires and floods in places such as Hawaii, Greece and Libya, and the weather bombs that have hit our provinces, were a wake-up call on the need to reduce emissions and reassess the way we farm.
“Mark is right, we need to be able to prove provenance. And so, regulation is absolutely critical to ensuring people meet standards. We finally got organic certification sorted out under Damien and our organic exports have grown by 20% between 2017 and 2020.”
Federated Farmers, New Zealand’s leading independent rural advocacy organisation, has established a news and insights partnership with AgriHQ, the country’s leading rural publisher, to give the farmers of New Zealand a more informed, united and stronger voice. Feds news and commentary appears each week in its own section of the Farmers Weekly print edition and online.