Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Farming in New Zealand

Farmers in New Zealand need to understand that the world they are farming in has changed. Back in the 1950s and 60s, New Zealand was mostly governed by the National Party. Many of the National Party’s leaders had been farming before the went into politics, so farmers had a strong voice at the table where the decisions that might affect farmers were made. The government put policies in place to protect farmers and sometimes even subsidised their activities.

Government have a monopoly on coercive power. Their business is to control things. Controlling people and businesses is what they do. During the 1950s and 60s, national governments focussed on controlling importers, unions, women and the Maori people. They left farmers relatively free from control.

Unfortunately, farmers took advantage of their protection and often engaged in practices that were not good for the land. Some insecticides contaminated the land. High-intensity farming practices needed large volumes of water for irrigation, and excess fertilisers and animal effluent was allowed back into waterways and rivers.

Farmers who should have been the first to be concerned about the health of the land and rivers were slow to take action to improve the situation. The only began to take serious action when pressure came from urban environmentalists. Some farmers still see that concern as an over-reaction.

In those days, urban people still had strong links with the farming community. City children would often spend time on an uncle’s or grandparent’s farm during their school holidays. They understood that farming was a tough occupation and respected farmers for the way they met their challenges. Now, attitudes have changed. Unban people have very little contact with farmers. Many hardly realise that their milk and meat come from living animals. The growing rural-urban gap means that city people have very little sympathy for the challenges of farming. They see farmers as people who have become rich by inheriting land from their parents.

The parallel change is that political power has shifted from rural to urban areas. Farmers are now only a small percentage of the population. The National Party has lost its position of dominance, but even when it is power, very few of its parliamentarians are farmers. It has become a party of urban business people and property investors.

This change might seem to be unfair, but most politicians understand that there is no electoral advantage in looking after the interests of farmers, even though agriculture might be important for the economy.

A third big change is that urban people now have pets. Most have at least one dog and many have several. They love their pets almost as much as they love their own children. They hate to see them suffering, and will spend considerable amounts of money relieving their pain. These changes have had two big consequences.

  • Urban people will not tolerate inhumane treatment of animals. There will be intense pressure on farmers to stop any practices that cause animals to suffer. The problem is that modern communications allow bad practices to be publicised quickly. If a farmer in Southland has his dairy cows on winter feed standing up to their bellies in mud, it is easy for a passing motorist to take a photo of them. Even though it might only be one unrepresentative farm, the picture could be round the world in a few hours. The response will be angry, and politicians will be expected to take action to relieve the animals’ suffering.

    The modern world has a very low tolerance for mistreatment of animals. Claiming as justification that this has been a particularly wet winter will not cut it. People will say that a system of farming that cannot protect animals from and excessively wet winter is not viable.

  • Even though their own treatment of the environment leaves a lot to be desired, urban people will not tolerate farming activities that harm the waterways, rivers (or atmosphere). Photos of farming activities that allow effluent or fertiliser to leach into water ways will produce intense hostility, even if it is only part of the cause of the pollution in rivers. It is probably Pharisaic, but urban people will not tolerate farming practices that are bad for the environment.

These consequences might seem to be unfair, but the reality is that political power has shifted towards the big cities, so politicians will pander to the political concerns of city-dwellers. That will not change, so farmers will need to get used to it. In fact, the opposition to agriculture is likely to get worse.

Farmers who are concerned about their government imposing regulations that control the way that they farm will have to adapt to it. Crying that it is unfair will not change the situation.

Farmers who are wise will develop an environmental plan so they can demonstrate how they are caring for the environment. Dairy cows might have to be withdrawn from some areas, or moved indoors for the winter, to prevent nitrogen leaching into the soil and waterways. Claims that agriculture is important for the nation will not fend off this challenge. Political power has moved towards the urban population and it will not shift back.

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